How the president changed life online—for better and for worseKAITLYN TIFFANYOCTOBER 30, 2020
Being online has changed Donald Trump. He was the internet’s candidate in 2016—he appears in Urban Dictionary’s definition of meme god—and his campaign leveraged the power of Facebook advertising to beat Hillary Clinton. Since then, he’s become even more obsessed with petty grievances and conspiracy theories that play well on Twitter, a platform used by just 22 percent of the American population. On several occasions, the president has employed Reddit posts to help him make points or issue threats.
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Trump has also changed the internet in obvious ways. During his first term, Americans have watched his administration relish the opportunity to destroy net neutrality—the core principle of a free and open internet. We’ve had to ask whether social-media platforms should penalize the president for threatening and glorifying violence, and whether the president might in turn just ban internet companies he doesn’t like. We’ve seen some people on the internet turn into emotionally-numb doom-scrollers, while others have joined the #Resistance, engaging in viral virtue signaling and creating a micro-economy of political merch.
But Trump’s impact on the internet is bigger than its weirdest memes or its most prolonged Twitter fights. His presidency has changed how Americans communicate with one another on the internet, heightening its tone of divisiveness and suspicion, shaping its norms and rules, and creating an expectation that each day online will be more surreal than the one before. We’ll look back at these years as an era of major upheaval in nearly everything about being online: The internet is a fundamentally different place from what it was in 2016, and using it the way many people do, the president’s influence is undeniable. Four years in, Americans are only starting to get a sense of how Trump has altered daily American life. Regardless of what happens on Election Day, we can expect four of the biggest changes to last.
Trump Made Memes Boring
During the 2016 presidential primary, the Vine artist Vic Berger was making eerie, six-second videos exposing Republican candidates as absurdities. He would zoom in on the moments in which they seemed most truly themselves: Jeb Bush was the haunted husk of a try-hard who knew words but not human facial expressions; Trump was repeating phrases and physical gestures—odd ones, like pointing at people with his thumbs. There were lots of air horns. Millions of people watched every clip, filling the comments with amazement, and The New Yorker called Berger a “political satirist for the internet election.”
Trump ruined the fun. “As Trump was rising, [the internet] got a lot darker, and I think he had a lot to do with that,” Berger told me. In 2016, he was harassed for months by the right-wing conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich, and in 2018, a member of the Proud Boys militia drove to Berger’s house to intimidate him because of a video he’d made. When we spoke this summer, Berger had just received a call from the Committee to Protect Journalists informing him that the Proud Boys were posting about him again.
Trump has implicitly encouraged behavior like this, and sometimes participated happily in the worst that meme culture has to offer. His 2016 win was fueled by memes, and now other politicians are expected to follow suit: Memes are just another form of political advertising available for purchase. When Michael Bloomberg entered the race for this year’s Democratic nomination, his campaign spent serious money to place ads on popular meme accounts, specifically citing the need to “reach people where they are and compete with President Trump’s powerful digital operation.” Berger was recently approached by the Biden campaign about making clips for them. (He declined.) In July, he sparred with the Lincoln Project, a PAC founded by anti-Trump Republicans, which seems to be inspired by the president’s macho, lowest-common-denominator style of humor and has developed a reputation for stealing videos, memes, and jokes—including one from Berger. (He reported the group for copyright violation.)
Politicians from both parties saw how much memes did for Trump in 2016, and now they’re trying to buy them. Meanwhile, the people who make the internet’s most-interesting jokes either sell out or get ripped off.
Trump Forced Social Platforms to React
The major social-media companies—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube—used to take little responsibility for the way they facilitated radicalization and harassment. In 2014 and 2015, the “Gamergate” harassment campaign was sweeping through most of them, largely unchecked. But Trump’s presidency brought new scrutiny of these platforms’ rules, not least because his own behavior raised questions about online hate more broadly.
Big changes have come one after another for social-media platforms. Facebook banished right-wing militias and QAnon conspiracists, and has attempted to weed out white nationalism. YouTube limited extremists’ ability to make money through advertising. Twitter introduced new filtering features to diminish the impact of harassment. And this summer, several sites started moderating Trump himself. If the moderation improvements and philosophical pivots don’t name Trump, they all stem from his influence.
Even for sites such as Reddit, whose CEO said as recently as 2018 that racial slurs were not against its rules, public pressure and moderator frustration eventually gave way to policy reform. “Reddit has changed a lot; it’s actually been weird,” a 31-year-old Reddit moderator who goes by TheYellowRose, told me. (She asked to be identified by only her username out of concern about harassment.) It’s no secret that the site used to be a cesspool—when she joined in 2012 some forums, called “subreddits,” still had racial slurs in their name. She moderates a subreddit for Black women called r/blackladies, which was the subject of constant coordinated harassment from members of r/The_Donald—an enormous subreddit dedicated to the president and known for harassment, doxing, racism, and a whole potpourri of dysfunction.
This year, Reddit updated its content policy to specifically describe and ban hate speech for the first time and to identify behaviors—such as r/The_Donald’s organized trolling—that make the site less functional for marginalized groups. When the policy went into effect, r/The_Donald was immediately banned, a move TheYellowRose referred to as “the killing of the rat’s nest.” Since 2016, “Reddit has gotten much, much better at squashing momentum [for extremist subreddits],” Kat Lo, a researcher at UC Irvine, who studies Reddit, told me. “That has a big role in reducing manic meme energy. Things are scattered. There aren’t these big public hubs like they had with The_Donald.”
To TheYellowRose, it seems obvious that Reddit’s reckoning with the way it does business would have taken longer if Trump hadn’t been elected. “Trump kind of accelerated the progress that Reddit was making,” she told me. “It’s unfortunate that it had to be that way.” (“The past few years have coincided with changes in politics and civil discourse,” a Reddit spokesperson said in a statement. “These societal changes have affected the urgency with which we evolved our policies, but were not a primary driver.”) Trump caused a lot of problems on Reddit, but in dealing with them, the site also dealt with some issues that had preceded him.
Trump Has Made Everyone Suspicious of … Everything
Four years ago, Americans had yet to hear the phrase alternative facts. They had yet to elect a president who would talk constantly about “fake news,” and the “lamestream media” outlets that published it. They had yet to encounter a lifestyle influencer saying “Do your own research” while talking about a pandemic being a hoax. And they certainly had yet to see a president refuse to disavow a violent conspiracy community that insists the Democratic Party is engaged in child trafficking and Satanic rituals.
In the Trump years, viral conspiracy theories such as QAnon have gone mainstream, endangering lives in the process. Reality has become a slippery thing online. Like so many people today, I approach the internet with suspicion. Anything I find funny will probably be revealed to be bad. Recently, I was taken by the saga of an Instagram meme account that accidentally started a death hoax about the indie-pop singer Clairo, apologized, gave a full interview tinged with regret about spreading misinformation, then launched a Lana Del Rey death hoax on purpose. It just doesn’t seem like anything can be taken at face value.
Trump is the “poster child” of bad information, Renee Hobbs, a communication professor at the University of Rhode Island, says. “He doesn’t value experts, he doesn’t value evidence, he goes with his gut, and he demonstrates the appeal of that.” He undermines the press, fuels conspiracy theories, and lies about basic information. But Trump’s push against truth has backfired in some ways. In general, “fake news” has been “good for the conversation,” Hobbs said. The buzzword has made more people aware of the necessity of media literacy, even if a lot of them are flinging it around senselessly.
Lots of people are now on edge about disinformation. Though the era of QAnon is far from over, there have been at least a few spontaneous moments of Americans intervening in their communities and professional networks to slow its spread. More than 70 organizations that deal with human trafficking signed a joint statement earlier this month laying out the ways in which QAnon conspiracy theories “actively harm” their work. Alarmed by the propagation of QAnon theories in the yoga-and-wellness community, a group led by the yoga instructor Seane Corn took a stand on Instagram. She wanted to let people know where she stood, “so there’s no mistake,” she told me, and to give her followers “some language, where if they need to push back, they can push back.” Though the comments on her page were flooded with harassment from QAnon supporters, she said she didn’t regret the post. “I have a certain amount of trust that I’ve accrued within my community, [and] I have a responsibility,” she said.
Trump Championed the Destruction of the Internet as We Know It
“With our base across the country, it’s probably a top-three issue,” Donald Trump Jr. said during a panel at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February. He was talking about the belief that social media is biased against conservatives—a view held by about 90 percent of Republicans. (There is more evidence of the opposite.)
Senator Josh Hawley, the 38-year-old Republican from Missouri, was also part of the panel, and he chimed in enthusiastically. “For the left, it’s all about this partnership. This big government, Big Tech partnership, run by the liberals.” Trump and Hawley swapped stories for several minutes about right-wing suppression on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, and Hawley had the last big line: “We ought to be able to sue ’em,” he said as the audience cheered.
Hawley’s legislative solution for anti-conservative bias involves crippling the internet’s foundational law, a passage of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 called Section 230. Basically, the law says that websites are not considered the “speakers” of content that is published on them: So if I slander you on Twitter, you can sue me, but you can’t sue Twitter. The intention was to encourage moderation, guaranteeing that a website that edits out hate speech and other abuse is not legally expected to exert editorial control over every single post. Hawley has proposed at least three bills that would diminish Section 230 nearly to the point of repeal, including one that would put the Federal Trade Commission in charge of determining whether a platform is sufficiently politically “neutral” to receive Section 230 protections. (Hawley’s office was not able to arrange an interview, and did not respond to a request for a statement.)
Four years ago, the words Section 230 would have been meaningless to nearly all Americans, but Trump and his allies have made it a pet cause. “REVOKE 230!” Trump tweeted in May, shortly after signing an executive order “on preventing online censorship.” “REPEAL SECTION 230!!!” he tweeted in October. Trump has chosen the way he would like Big Tech’s power to be checked based on personal interest, and doesn’t seem to understand that the repeal he’s calling for would actually chill speech—including his own. If Twitter were legally liable for everything he said, he’d likely be unable to keep an account. Other social sites, particularly blogging platforms and forums like Reddit, could have a hard time operating at all.
There are valid reasons to consider reforming Section 230—Joe Biden has also called for its repeal, though for different reasons, and other lawmakers have made a range of suggestions—but gutting it would do nothing to make platforms “neutral,” and regardless that goal doesn’t make sense in and of itself. “The whole idea of political neutrality as an achievable goal is illogical. It’s not possible,” says Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University who often writes about Section 230. “The bill didn’t require Republican and Democratic content to be treated equally, which would itself be stupid. It required all political parties to be treated equally. So the American Nazi Party would be treated equally to the Republican Party.”
Still, Hawley has become a star of the Republican techlash. This month alone, Hawley’s office has issued six press releases about anti-conservative bias on social media. By all available evidence, Hawley is set to continue that work even if Trump is voted out of office: “His name is frequently floated as a potential lead architect of Trumpism after Trump,” my colleague Emma Green wrote last year. He’s not going anywhere, and neither is the fight over Section 230.
There was a manic energy on Reddit and 4chan in the run-up to the last election, as memelords celebrated their success in elevating a troll like them all the way to the White House. Nobody will have to watch the events of next week play out in hateful memes on r/The_Donald. Facebook—whose role in the last election was the subject of debate for months afterward—will ban political ads indefinitely following this one, and has made a point of paying attention to disinformation this time around. (In 2016, CEO Mark Zuckerberg notoriously said that the idea that disinformation on Facebook influenced the election was “crazy.”)
But even though online life has changed for the better in at least a few tangible ways, it still feels bad—and Trump has made sure of that. We know how to describe a deluge of disinformation, but generally we can’t personally stamp it out. We can recognize the absurdity of the president tweeting over and over, in all caps, from a hospital, but we can’t do anything but gesture at it with a weak “???” We expect to see politicians making gross jokes about one another now, which are usually not even funny.
We’ll continue to live this way whether Trump wins or loses. And we’ll live with his policy priorities as well. Regardless of the election’s outcome, Section 230 will be on the chopping block. By extension, this means we’re at risk of losing the freedom to say something rude on Twitter without getting banned to protect the site from litigation. And to participate in comments sections. And to collaborate freely with others. Trump may have inadvertently made the internet a little better, and there is a chance that he could still make it a lot worse.
For anybody who spends a significant amount of their time online—which, after the pandemic hit, has become many more of us—these are not abstractions. The whole idea of the internet was that it would be open and free and egalitarian, but we’ve spent four years watching one man exert influence over just about every aspect of it. Even if Trump’s presidency could soon be over, his influence on the way we experience the internet is far from it.
KAITLYN TIFFANY is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers technology.Connect