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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.

By Amelia Tait

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.

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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.

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