Donald Trump is our president-elect. Riding a wave of so-called alt-right (read: white supremacist and nativist) popularity, the reality show star and real estate mogul has landed the role of a lifetime. Trump and his supporters on the far-right have cultivated adherents by taking advantage of media echo chambers and subverting traditional news outlets (which have themselves been transformed in the age of social media). Using the web, Facebook, and (most important for Trump) Twitter, his campaign and he communicate directly to sympathetic audiences, unhampered by the “politically correct” cultural intermediaries that prevents so many of them from doing the same. The low cost of these technologies allows Trump and his far-right supporters to reach much broader audiences than they otherwise could. They also afford the ability to communicate in ways that were previously unthinkable for a presidential candidate, e.g., directly with sympathetic audiences without facing pesky fact-checkers and other intermediaries that may distort or contradict the message.
Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport laid the groundwork for understanding this new social media landscape in their book, Digitally Enabled Social Change: Activism in the Internet Age, Several ideas from the book have renewed salience in what I would describe as the new social media landscape (DM to Earl and Kimport: we need an updated edition. How about Digitally Enabled Social Change 2.0: Activism in the Social Media Age?). Internet technologies, like social media, have lowered the costs (in terms of time and money) of sharing information and organizing. This allows movements to have “supersize effects,” meaning these technologies extend activists’ reach and may mobilize larger numbers of people. Social media also have what Earl and Kimport call theory 2.0 effects, i.e., they change what activism is and does in fundamental ways.
Social media have been with us for more than a decade. Friendster (launched in 2002) and MySpace (2003) gave way to Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006). These platforms allow people to communicate and maintain connections with others, albeit in different ways. Facebook affords more intimacy for individuals, as “friend” ties must be bilateral, though pages may be open to interested parties in the broader public. The unilateral ties of Twitter allow users to broadcast messages to an audience of subscribers. In the wake of the recent US election, media pundits have made much of the social media “echo chamber,” the idea that homophily in social networks and media consumption patterns confirms biases and reinforces uniformity of thought. The proliferation of cable television stations and commoditization of television news and analysis has done much to contribute to this echo chamber phenomenon. Social media platforms exacerbate the echo chamber by allowing and encouraging people to share online content with people who already think much like they do. The new social media landscape personalizes the political in ways that Earl and Kimport only began to explain (see Bennett and Segerberg 2013). Trump, for whom all politics is personal, took advantage of this landscape to build a movement. While Clinton posted exhaustive policy papers on her website, Trump engaged in Twitter wars with all who challenged him. These battles, however petty, provoked a constant level of news media coverage that ensured an endless supply of content for his followers to comment on and share over social media.
A study by the Pew Research Center finds the contemporary media landscape politically polarized, with citizens getting their news from outlets on the left or right with little overlap. While liberals consistently get their news from a small cluster of outlets (NPR, the New York Times, CNN, and MSNBC), 47% of conservatives cite Fox News as their main news source. Liberals tend to trust a wider variety of news sources; conservatives tend to distrust a wider variety of news sources. The study also found that 66% of conservatives said that their close friends on social media shared their political views. Liberals were more likely to un-friend someone who had different political views from their own. Surprisingly, nearly half of all Internet users surveyed by Pew got their news from Facebook (this amounts to about 30% of the population), even though only 16% of users sign on for this purpose. Facebook’s algorithms reconfigure users’ newsfeeds based on their network of friends, so users with conservative friends will see news from conservative sources.
Beyond Trump’s mastery of this new social media landscape, it has helped his far-right adherents rebrand themselves as the alt-right, a much friendlier term. The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified breitbart.com as the media arm for the alt-right, noting how it was also instrumental in drumming up support from the far-right for Donald Trump’s presidential bid. Andrew Breitbart founded the website in 2005 as a news aggregator, a site that compiles links to other news sites. In its early years, the site linked to traditional media outlets like the Associated Press, Reuters, and Fox News wire services. The site had a right-wing bend from the outset, but took a sharp turn rightward when Steve Bannon took over after the founder’s death in 2012. The current site features sensationalist headlines that range from celebrity gossip and the lifestyles of sports figures to race-baiting and nativism. This juxtaposition draws in potentially sympathetic audiences and exposes them to far-right ideologies. Readers comment on stories from Breitbart and share them on Facebook and Twitter. For example, a recent story claiming that Hillary Clinton is challenging the election results in a way that undermines the democratic process received over 7,000 comments and was shared on Facebook over 12,000 times. The story itself is little more than screen captures of Twitter messages with intermittent snarky commentary. In other words, a story about social media transmitted through social media.
Bannon advised Trump throughout his campaign and was recently tapped as the president elect’s chief strategist, a move that legitimizes the ideology of the alt-right and normalizes the underlying racism and nativism it espouses. My friends and connections on Facebook and Twitter post warnings about the “mainstreaming” and “normalizing” of hate as well as things progressives can do to stop this trend. I sign the online petitions, retweet the messages, and share the strategies online. But I worry that by sharing these things with people like me that they are preaching to the converted. I fear that social media platforms have afforded opportunities to reinforce convictions while disarming the tools of debate and persuasion necessary for functioning democracy. A challenge for progressives going forward is how to design the next generation of communications technologies to help overcome or at least ameliorate the political polarization that has become a feature of the contemporary social media landscape.