On July 15 it became clear how the Internet had, and had not, reshaped U.S. politics. Donald J. Trump’s racist “go back” tweet to the so-called “Squad” (U.S. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib) was the subject of a Congressional condemnation and endless commentary. Trump was unmoved because “many people agree with me.” It was no longer necessary to specify “many white people.”
Meanwhile, on the same day the United States attorney in Brooklyn, Richard P. Donoghue, announced that there would be no charges against the police officer who had killed Eric Garner in 2014. Garner’s repeated phrase “I can’t breathe” became a powerful slogan for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Five years ago, it seemed that photos and videos posted online, like that taken by Ramsey Orta of Garner’s death, might change not only policing but politics. Black Lives Matter began as a hashtag, and Twitter was its key medium, building off the rise of Black Twitter since 2012. So visible was the impact that Twitter had #BlackLivesMatter painted on the wall at its headquarters in 2014.
But the mass incarceration system has since proved resilient to the kind of disruption the Internet brings. Garner’s daughter Emerald disbelievingly exclaimed last week: “Y’all watched him kill my father.” In court, seeing is not believing.
Following a pattern first established by the Rodney King case in 1989, prosecutors analyzed the film of Garner’s killing “step by step.” They found that at no stage was excessive force used. With only a few exceptions, police continue to evade criminal penalties for violent actions, despite the new visual evidence shared to millions.
Politics and Internet
Politics has been much more receptive to Internet disruption, creating a shift on- and offline. During the George W. Bush presidency, an official was famously quoted: “we’re an empire now and when we act, we create our own reality.” Unfortunately, actually existing reality has a habit of pushing back. Bush might claim “mission accomplished” in Iraq, but the conditions on the ground contradicted him.
Trump has no such concerns. He brings the operating style of reality television to what are still sometimes called “new media” – and he creates a new reality. It’s a reality where all that matters is winning the 24-hour news cycle. Trump brings his tough-guy persona from reality TV competition to the Internet. He wins by simply getting up at 5 am and throwing things out to his 60 million followers on Twitter.
It is amazing how the Fake News Media became “crazed” over the chant “send her back” by a packed Arena (a record) crowd in the Great State of North Carolina, but is totally calm & accepting of the most vile and disgusting statements made by the three Radical Left Congresswomen…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 19, 2019
It doesn’t always work, but when it does, as in the current case of “send her back,” he doubles down on it. Within a day of his first “go back” tweet, his stormtrooper Kellyanne Conway was demanding of an NBC journalist, who happens to be Jewish, “what’s your ethnicity?” At a rally the next day in North Carolina, Trump’s supporters quickly turned his words into a chant: “send her back.” Trump’s tweet has quickly shaped a new political reality, in which “go back where you belong” (or versions of it) seems likely to dominate his 2020 campaign.
The slogan has political heft. It is well suited to the 280-character nature of Twitter – and stadium chants. More troublingly, it resonates with older definitions of “the people” as white and with past and present hostility to immigrants. The aphorisms of Twitter tap into cultural memory, like an association game used by a therapist. “Send them back” is not a subtle version of this exercise, but it is a very visible one.
Twitter’s Political Prominence
If we used the standard market benchmarks, it is in some ways surprising that Twitter has such political prominence. Just 29th in technology companies as ranked by market capitalization, it attracts only 11 percent of Internet users on platforms, compared to market leader Facebook’s 30 percent. In fact, it’s “monetizable daily active users” are only 29 million in the United States of the over 300 million with Internet access.
The point is that Twitter is not neutral. In a 2017 study, alt-right and racist posts on sites like 4Chan and Reddit were found to have “a surprisingly large influence on Twitter.” That’s really only surprising if you assume that the well-funded effort from the Tea Party era to dominate the medium from the right could not succeed.
Twitter and other such platforms once seemed to offer a way to bypass the traditional gatekeepers of print and broadcast media to reach “the people.” That optimism seems far away in the troll-driven age of the “influencer.” Trump and other such influencers not only have enormous numbers of followers, but their posts also get tens of thousands of retweets and comments. When an elected official has such reach, they are able to shape their own notion of “the people.”
Political commentator Astra Taylor has a new book out called Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone. What’s happened on the Internet is proving her right. It might have been naive to think that millions could exchange ideas in some civility, but I’m really missing the good old days of 2008 right now.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.