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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.

Italy's populist Five Star Movement (M5S) party leader Luigi Di Maio. CREDIT: GETTY
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Five Star’s “just fix it!” politics and the new age of digital populism

 In the Italian election, Five Star made radical and exciting promises – like a monthly universal basic income of around €780.

One evening in 2004, after finishing a performance of his comedy show Black Out, Beppe Grillo was approached by a tall, austere-looking man called Gianroberto Casaleggio, an IT specialist who ran a web consulting firm. He told Grillo that he could create a blog for him that would transform Italian politics. The internet, Casaleggio explained, would change everything. Political parties and newspaper editors were no longer needed. They could be “disintermediated”.

Grillo, a household name in Italy, was not particularly interested in technology but he was interested in politics. The following year the pair created the promised blog and Grillo began writing about cronyism, green issues and the power of the web to smash what he considered a corrupt, elitist and closed political system. Thousands, then millions, of frustrated Italians flocked to his site. They began using another website,, to gather offline to discuss Grillo’s latest post, and co-ordinate campaigns and rallies. It was heady stuff.

In 2007, this fledgling movement held Vaffanculo Day (which roughly translates to “fuck off day”), an event directed at the suits in charge. Grillo crowd-surfed the thousands who’d turned out in Bologna’s main square in a red dingy. Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the respected centre-left newspaper La Repubblica, wrote an editorial titled “The barbaric invasion of Beppe Grillo”.

In the age of Russian trolls and algorithmic ads, it’s easy to forget how optimistic the mood around digital politics was in the late Noughties. Occupy, the Pirate Party and Barack Obama all seemed to presage the end of tired old hierarchies. They were getting a digital upgrade: open, inclusive and more democratic. Grillo led the charge: in 2009 he declared that his band of online followers would stand in elections as the Five Star Movement. The group refused state funding, capped its MPs’ salaries at the average national wage, and pledged to publish all proposed bills online three months before approval to allow for public comment. All major policy decisions would be taken by votes on the blog, including candidate selections.

Seasoned political analysts dismissed Five Star as a bunch of bloggers and kids, led by a clown. But the movement started achieving local successes, especially in Italy’s poorer south. By 2012 there were 500 local groups and in the following year’s general election, Five Star won 25 per cent of the vote. Analysts repeatedly predicted that normal service would be resumed – but it never was.

In the Italian general election earlier this month, Five Star won 32 per cent of the vote, and 227 seats, easily making it the largest single party. (Grillo, who is 69, distanced himself from Five Star before this triumph. He remains the “guarantor”, but the new leader is 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio.) In a hung parliament, Five Star is currently in a stalemate with Italy’s right-wing alliance (the Northern League, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Brothers of Italy), which collectively secured more seats.

While Five Star has declared its commitment to direct democracy, many major decisions are taken by a small cadre, which has alienated some early supporters. Its occasional dalliances with power – the current mayor of Rome is Five Star’s Virginia Raggi – have been largely unsuccessful. Yet more than any other movement in Europe, Five Star demonstrates how digital upstarts can demolish years of cosy centrist consensus. Meet-ups are full of sparky, motivated activists – rather like the Corbynite Momentum – who combine online and offline techniques to deliver their message.

Five Star’s political ideas appear radical and exciting, especially to places blighted by economic stagnation. In the Italian election, Five Star promised a monthly universal basic income of around €780 for every adult.

Yet the movement’s rise also reveals the darker side of digital politics. Five Star is unashamedly populist and divisive, pitting the good, honest, ordinary citizen against the out-of-touch professional political class. Ever noticed how all populists, whether left or right, seem to love social media? Nigel Farage, Bernie Sanders, Marine Le Pen, Syriza and, of course, Donald Trump are all avid adopters. It’s partly because short, emotional messages, the populist stock-in-trade, spread so well online. Grillo frequently insults his opponents – he used to call the former Italian prime minister Mario Monti “Rigor Montis” – and new Five Star leader Di Maio recently called for the immediate halt of the “sea taxi service” that rescues migrants in the Mediterranean. There’s a receptive online audience for such content. And the blog is central to Five Star, just as Twitter is to Trump, because, it says, it allows it to circumnavigate the self-interested establishment, and deliver “the truth” straight to the people.

But the love affair runs deeper than clickable posts. The internet is inculcating all of us with new, unrealistic expectations. I call it “just fix it!” politics. Everything online is fast and personalised, answers are simple and immediate. The unhappy compromise and frustrating plod of politics looks increasingly inadequate by comparison, which fuels impatience and even rage.

Populists promise to cut through the tedium with swift and obvious answers, and in that sense they are tuned in to how we live as consumers. By contrast, centrist parties have struggled in the digital age because their watery, dull promises are weighed down by practical know-how and association with power. (“Boring! Traitors!”)

The rage of the jilted lover knows few bounds. This is the problem with all populist movements: what happens when things aren’t as easy as promised? A few days after Five Star’s stunning election result, dozens of young Italians turned up at job centres in Puglia, demanding their €780 monthly basic income. Should Five Star form a government, millions of Italians will turn up with them – and demand a lot more than a few hundred euros. 

Jamie Bartlett is the author of “Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World” (Windmill Books)

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game