In the 20 days since the inauguration, public acts of opposition to the Trump administration and its supporters have started to go viral. An online consumer movement — #DeleteUber — spread so wildly that it may have played a role in Uber’s decision to drop out of the president’s business advisory council. A video of a masked man punching white separatist leader Richard Spencer was transmogrified into thousands of memes. And most significantly, a series of protests, some violent, have been broadcast via smartphone to the social feeds of a rapt nation.
Together, these acts have been taken by media across the political spectrum as the first stirrings of a new kind of mass resistance that leverages the scale and speed of the social internet. Writing in the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo made the case that these events constitute unignorable counterprogramming to a president who has an estranged relationship with the truth:
...there are crowds on every screen and every feed. The people aren’t saying nice things about [Trump]. And there’s something worse than that, too: They’ve stolen the limelight for themselves.
It’s a powerful vision: dissenting citizens empowered by the internet, forcing the nation’s attention on themselves, demanding to be heard. But while moments like these might hearten the opposition to Donald Trump in the short term, they also provide an enormous and permanent target for an equally sophisticated internet movement that supports the American president and is well equipped to use the viral tools of the opposition against individuals.
“One of the great strengths of social networks like Twitter is that they allow communities to be visible that have been invisible,” said Aimée Morrison, a professor of new media studies at the University of Waterloo. “There’s a winning and losing that comes from greater visibility. There is political power... As a group that’s great, but individual people can become very vulnerable."
In 2017, the limelight is a strange and lingering thing. Almost as soon as they happen, viral political moments pass through the prisms of unprecedentedly partisan filter bubbles, into the obsessive digital netherworlds of internet investigation and conspiratorial media, where they're used and re-used in contexts often dramatically different from the ones from which they came. And, crucially, they leave residue — images, words, video — along the way. The video of, for example, Spencer's assault, now exists in numerous forms and lives in thousands or tens of thousands of different places online. Like any meme, it is everywhere. And now, the anti-anti-Trump internet is rabidly searching for the identity of the masked man who punched Spencer, the subject of a $5,000 “bounty” on the right-wing crowd-sourced investigations site WeSearchr.
Last week, another right-wing news site, GotNews, obtained and published the names, ages, and hometowns of 231 people arrested during Inauguration Day protests in Washington, DC. Other fringe right-wing news sites followed. And almost immediately, a network of Twitter accounts and white nationalist forums began poring over the information and linking the names to social media accounts, and in some cases outing the arrestees.
A Virginia man who was arrested at the inauguration and who asked not to be identified told BuzzFeed News that his name and information were posted to Twitter by the white nationalist writer Andrew Joyce. Though Joyce’s account was suspended, the man said someone posted a screenshot of the Tweet to Facebook page of a business he runs out of his home, along with a warning not to patronize it.
“I was afraid to go outside that night,” he said. “I went to smoke a cigarette and I thought, What if someone comes and shoots me?” The man said he has since taken down the Facebook page.
Charles Johnson, the owner of GotNews and founder of WeSearchr, told BuzzFeed News that the public had a right to know the names of the protesters.
“It's journalism bro,” he wrote in an email. “These are criminals and the public deserves to know who they are. In my opinion it's racist that the mug shots aren't being released. We always get the mug shots of black criminals. Why not hipster rioters from Brooklyn? We have several cash bounties against the antifa and are actively working with federal and local law enforcement to see them brought to justice. It won't be long now.”
The anti-anti-Trump internet hardly limits its efforts to black bloc anti-fascists and overzealous protesters. Last month, immigration activists warned that trolls were monitoring and promoting the popular #UndocumentedAndUnafraid Twitter hashtag in an effort to catalogue and report undocumented workers.
Acts of political resistance spread on social media, followed by personal retribution: This is a familiar pattern. In 2011, journalists, politicians, and technologists hailed the role that social networks played in toppling a succession of dictators in the Middle East. In the years that followed, the same people watched in despair as revanchist authoritarians scoured the very same social networks to target the activists and organizers who had used them, they thought, to gain their political freedom. The great technological lesson of the Arab Spring was that social platforms are not inherently democratic; rather, they can just as easily oppress people as express their will.
To be sure, the next anti-administration activist the pro-Trump, alt-right internet manages to get thrown in jail will be the first. But it would be a mistake to dismiss the anti-anti-Trump internet as simply conspiracy-mongers or attention-seeking opportunists. While the alt-right may not be able to turn out in great numbers to a street protest, they’ve shown themselves since the nascent days of Gamergate to be remarkably adept at fomenting information campaigns against individual and corporate targets, from Brianna Wu and Intel to Comet Ping Pong and John Podesta. (Earlier this week, the alt-right came up with its own answer to #DeleteUber: #NoNetflix, a response to the site releasing a television expansion of the 2014 campus satire Dear White People, which the Twitter user @BakedAlaska, a hero of the pro-Trump internet, said "promotes white genocide.") Meanwhile, the sheer number of new, Trump-loyal outlets trading in conspiracy and confirmation bias suggests that any and all information surfaced by the same churning engine that produced #Pizzagate will be spread further and faster than ever.
And maybe higher. Charles Johnson worked for Steve Bannon, the president’s powerful chief strategist, at Breitbart, and was reported by Forbes to be advising the Trump transition team. While there is no evidence to suggest that the Trump administration is actively monitoring social media campaigns in order to target private individuals, federal law enforcement has used social media as a tool to impose the president’s since-stayed executive order on immigration. Last week, BBC reporter Ali Hamedani announced that a customs agent seized his phone and read his tweets during his detention at Chicago’s O’Hare airport:
It’s a reminder that, for all the excitement that viral Trump resistance has produced on the left, every unit of that virality — whether it’s a face on a Periscope stream, a tweet, or a Facebook group — is a piece of information that can be seized, decontextualized, and ultimately used against the opposition. And that when it comes to social media’s ability to effect change, proximity to power and access to force matter just as much — if not more — than a majority.
Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Joseph Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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