There are plenty of theories about how Donald Trump pulled off his shock victory. But however he did manage to achieve one of the unlikeliest political upsets in history, one thing seems clear: social media won the day for the Donald.
The starting gun was fired when Hillary Clinton called Trump’s supporters a ‘basket of deplorables’. Clinton wasn’t talking about the egg-faced trolls of Twitter when she made this remark, but it was a moniker they happily took up. It also gave this loose outfit the confidence of mainstream recognition – enabling Trump supporters to kick-start their most important election mission: starting arguments with Democrats. They never won these rows (that wasn’t the point) but it was an exercise that helped forge a ‘them against us’ narrative among Trump fans – and fired up the Donald’s supporters right through until polling day.
Throughout all this, the Democrats couldn’t resist hitting back. When Trump voters popped up with their absurd arguments and conspiracies theories, left-wing commentators retaliated. Yet while they may have won the intellectual battles, they achieved an unintended effect: making themselves look like playground bullies. By responding so heavy-handedly, they made a campaign led by a billionaire businessman look like a counter-cultural and increasingly radical underdog.
The right-wing media also played ball. Whereas Hillary offered only dull fact-checking to knock down her opponent, Trump’s incendiary rhetoric was much more exciting for the media. What’s more, the media – and Trump himself – also couldn’t resist picking up on some of the more lurid conspiracy theories circling online. The production line here was slick: 4chan inculcated the theories; and the likes of Fox News – and Trump himself – picked them up from the new media middlemen like Breitbart and Drudge. Never before in an election campaign has a relatively small voice been magnified so loudly and effectively.
On the other side, Hillary Clinton’s unimaginative campaign did little to fire up those online. Clinton’s digital strategy was aimed at convincing those already on board not to jump ship. But this focus on millennials, women and minorities – groups who were already part of Clinton’s core demographics – offered little to those not already backing Clinton. What’s more, there was almost no centralised attempt to create a debate with Trump supporters. Instead, Clinton’s campaign saw social media as an opportunity to preach to the converted. Having all but dismissed social media as an effective campaigning tool, hammering home the party line seemed to be the sole purpose of the Clinton campaign’s online efforts. Yet their mistake here was assuming Trump’s campaign was similarly ineffective at drumming up new support online.
Trump’s was a quiet revolution, made all the quieter by the fact that many on the left had completely inoculated themselves against any right-wing presence in their feeds. Fake news stories – a phenomenon on Facebook so large that Mark Zuckerberg has been forced to defend the company’s trending algorithm – were filtered out of left-leaning timelines, so that their existence was communicated to them only via the liberal media, rather than through the intravenous barrage that Trump’s targets received.
Right and left did occasionally meet: there were certain trigger words or phrases you could use to guarantee a swarm of abuse, but there was a common perception that Trump had artificially inflated his online presence. By election day, Trump had 3.4 million more Twitter followers than Clinton. Yet reports that this number included 400,000 bots actively tweeting for Trump meant many Hillary fans dismissed Trump’s gathering momentum on social media. In doing so, they wrote off the sense of purpose that had been handed to the movement by social media.
Trump on social media never felt like a back-patting exercise, because his followers were so committed to hearing and viciously repudiating the establishment position. This is not social media as we know it, and certainly not as it has been used in the last few British elections. While Obama’s digital strategy in 2008 was brilliant and contributed significantly towards making him such a viable and exciting election candidate, it was all cooked up by the bods at campaign HQ. The Trump campaign was organic, disorganised and frightening, and it could well represent the start of a land-grab on the internet which culminates in more right-wing upsets across the world.