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Control, Alt-Right, Retweet: How social media paved the way for President Trump

How and why social media giants helped Donald Trump on his way to victory.

Russell Steinberg has since deleted the tweet that arguably started it all. “I was tired of being called bad words,” he wrote on the social networking site early this morning, explaining his decision to finally remove the 72-character message – dated 7 February 2013 – from his profile.

“If you hate America so much, you should run for President and fix things,” read the tweet that Steinberg – a low-profile New York sports writer – sent to @realDonaldTrump three years ago. The then-property-mogul, now-president-elect wasted no time hitting “reply”. “Be careful!” he wrote back.

To any rational person, it is clear that Steinberg is not responsible for President Trump. Yet this hasn’t stopped hundreds of people “blowing up” his account by tweeting him – some jokingly, some seriously – about their annoyance. But although Steinberg is in no way culpable, his message – and the subsequent reaction to it – is emblematic of how social media paved Donald Trump’s way to the White House. Steinberg was just one of millions of people who had instant access to the billionaire, and who the billionaire had instant access to in return, via his social media account.

We are now so used to social media that we might underestimate the importance of this. But whereas previously, presidential candidates needed television cameras and industrial printers to spread their message, now they can do so for free, in just a few seconds. Moreover, rather than relying on rallies to gauge the opinion of their supporters, candidates can now see public sentiment – and alter their own platform to fit with it – in real time. Their supporters can attack each other in unprecedented ways, but can also literally block out the people they disagree with at the press of a button. By giving us unparalleled access to hundreds of millions of viewpoints, but then trapping us in echo chambers of people we agree with, social media at once opens the door of democracy and then slams it shut again.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on Facebook. Thousands of people have been “deleting” friends who disagree with their own politics, but it’s not the users who are at fault for the impact the social network has had on the election. This August, Facebook fired its “Trending” news team – the people who decided which news stories show up in a sidebar on each of its 1.79 billion monthly users’ profiles – after criticism that the team didn’t promote enough conservative news. As a result, the replacement algorithm Facebook put into place began surfacing fake news stories to millions of people.

Facebook – which is now the biggest source of traffic to news websites, ahead of Google – failed to tackle this problem. Days after the trending team was sacked, the site’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that his business was “a tech company, not a media company”. Because of Facebook’s failure to acknowledge its culpability, the problem reached the point where teenagers created fake pro-Trump news websites and promoted them on Facebook in order to earn “easy money” via advertising revenue. They weren’t alone in profiting. The social network’s own income is directly tied to how engaged its users are, so it’s not in its best interests to remove news stories that resonate with their readers – even if they are untrue.

In this environment, lies thrived. It is easy to dismiss this is as similar to the methods tabloid newspapers have used for centuries – printing false stories and then sneaking in a tiny retraction days later – but this ignores the sheer magnitude of the problem. Social media gives people the illusion of being more informed in a way that a cursory glance at headlines never could. A recent study found that the more inaccurate a news story, the more likely it was to go viral on Facebook, while comprehensive BuzzFeed research revealed that 38 per cent of the stories on right-wing Facebook pages were untrue. Unlike the traditional media, which is subject to regulatory bodies and cynical scrutiny from the public, there is absolutely no one stopping the spread of such lies.

On Twitter, things are much the same. Last week, Donald Trump Jr and Trump’s social media aide Dan Scavino both retweeted unsubstantiated claims that Trump survived an “assassination attempt” in Reno. Trump Jr refused to un-retweet the message (though the immediate power of such a statement cannot be undone by the delete button) and the confusion surrounding breaking news ensures tweets are often given undue weight. As of October, Google is now highlighting unreliable sources in its search results, and there is nothing to stop social media following suit. The problem – or perhaps, for Trump, the beauty – of the entire scenario is that no one wants to admit that they’ve been fooled. Like the Brexit voters lied to by a bus, it is much easier for Americans to carry on believing lies than be exposed as fools.

To date, these lies have paved the way of the radicalisation of masses of people. When we speak of social media radicalisation, it is often limited to the work of IS, but in reality millions of white Americans have spent the last year learning to hate online. The alt-right – a new political movement of individuals with racist and misogynist viewpoints, who exist primarily on the internet – have thrived under Trump’s candidacy, and remained mostly unchecked by social media giants.

This isn’t to say, of course, that social networks should arbitrarily use their powers to block and censor those who we disagree with. Most must, however, improve the way they deal with trolls, vitriol, and death threats on their sites. Twitter – the social network where 88 per cent of abusive messages happen – allegedly failed to find a buyer in Disney because of its repeated failure to tackle harassment in a meaningful way.

But what do you do when the person hurling out abuse is the presidential candidate themselves? Some suggest Twitter should have banned Trump outright, like they did with famously contrarian alt-right spokesman Milo Yiannopoulos, but in the end, Trump’s own people silenced him for us. In the final days of the Trump campaign, his aides took over his social media account.

But what if they hadn’t? Might Trump have tweeted something so offensive or comical that he lost the election? It’s unlikely. Though Clinton and Obama both mocked the idea of a man who gets enraged on Twitter getting his hands on nuclear weapons, little that Trump has said seems to have deterred his supporters. In fact, when people mocked Trump by retweeting and sharing his absurd messages, they only gave him greater visibility. People love Donald Trump because he “speaks his mind”; they love him even more because he tweets it.

It all ended how it always ends: with a Snapchat filter. On 8 November, Trump’s team paid somewhere between $450,000 and $700,000 for a sponsored geofilter on the app, which overlaid a little cartoon Trump on the bottom of users’ pictures. Many millenials took to social media to mock the filter – parodying it with an orange – and it is unlikely the app affected the election's outcome in any way. Nonetheless, the decision was the icing on the cake of a campaign fought and won on social media.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Is it OK to punch a Nazi?

There are moral and practical reasons why using force to stop a far-right march is justified.

It says a great deal about Donald Trump that for the second time under his Presidency we are having to ask the question: is it OK to punch a Nazi?

More specifically, after the events in Charlottesville last weekend, we must ask: is it OK to turn up to a legal march, by permit-possessing white supremacists, and physically stop that march from taking place through the use of force if necessary?

The US president has been widely criticised for indicating that he thought the assortment of anti-semites, KKK members and self-professed Nazis were no worse than the anti-fascist counter demonstrators. So for him, the answer is presumably no, it’s not OK to punch a Nazi in this situation.

For others such as Melanie Phillips in the Times, or Telegraph writer Martin Daubney, the left have seemingly become the real fascists.

The argument goes that both sides are extremists and thus both must be condemned equally for violence (skipping over the fact that one of the counter-protesters was killed by a member of the far right, who drove his car into a crowd).

This argument – by focusing on the ideologies of the two groups – distracts from the more relevant issue of why both sides were in Charlottesville in the first place.

The Nazis and white supremacists were marching there because they hate minorities and want them to be oppressed, deported or worse. That is not just a democratic expression of opinion. Its intent is to suppress the ability of others to live their lives and express themselves, and to encourage violence and intimidation.

The counter-protesters were there to oppose and disrupt that march in defence of those minorities. Yes, some may have held extreme left-wing views, but they were in Charlottesville to stop the far-right trying to impose its ideology on others, not impose their own.

So far, the two sides are not equally culpable.

Beyond the ethical debate, there is also the fundamental question of whether it is simply counterproductive to use physical force against a far-right march.

The protesters could, of course, have all just held their banners and chanted back. They could also have laid down in front of the march and dared the “Unite the Right” march to walk over or around them.

Instead the anti-fascists kicked, maced and punched back. That was what allowed Trump to even think of making his attempt to blame both sides at Charlottesville.

On a pragmatic level, there is plenty of evidence from history to suggest that non-violent protest has had a greater impact. From Gandhi in to the fall of the Berlin Wall, non-violence has often been the most effective tool of political movements fighting oppression, achieving political goals and forcing change.

But the success of those protests was largely built on their ability to embarrass the governments they were arrayed against. For democratic states in particular, non-violent protest can be effective because the government risks its legitimacy if it is seen violently attacking people peacefully expressing a democratic opinion.

Unfortunately, it’s a hell of a lot more difficult to embarrass a Nazi. They don't have legitimacy to lose. In fact they gain legitimacy by marching unopposed, as if their swastikas and burning crosses were just another example of political free expression.

By contrast, the far right do find being physically attacked embarrassing. Their movement is based on the glorification of victory, of white supremacy, of masculine and racial superiority, and scenes of white supremacists looking anything but superior undermines their claims.

And when it comes to Nazis marching on the streets, the lessons from history show that physically opposing them has worked. The most famous example is the Battle of Cable Street in London, in which a march by thousands of Hitler-era Nazis was stopped parading through East End by a coalition of its Jewish Community, dockworkers, other assorted locals, trade unionists and Communists.

There was also the Battle of Lewisham in the late 70s when anti-fascist protesters took on the National Front. Both these battles, and that’s what they were, helped neuter burgeoning movements of fascist, racist far right thugs who hated minorities.

None of this is to say that punching a Nazi is always either right, or indeed a good idea. The last time this debate came up was during Trump’s inauguration when "Alt Right" leader Richard Spencer was punched while giving a TV interview. Despite the many, many entertaining memes made from the footage, what casual viewers saw was a reasonable-looking man being hit unawares. He could claim to be a victim.

Charlottesville was different. When 1,000 Nazis come marching through a town trying to impose their vision of the world on it and everywhere else, they don't have any claim to be victims.