Peak Propaganda: How Donald Trump is exploiting the right's social media bubble

The GOP nominee has tapped into social media to propagate paranoia and unleash an army of angry Trump trolls

By Bob Cesca
Published October 9, 2016 7:30PM (EDT)
 (AP/Evan Vucci)
(AP/Evan Vucci)

The democratization of the news through social media has given us many changes for the better, as well as more than a few harrowing downsides. Among them is the fact that any fringe weirdo can find a legion of similar fringe weirdos who, collectively, provide nourishment for all of the fringe weirdo ideas conjured through overactive imaginations, fever dreams and, sadly, mental illness — diagnosed or not. Serving as a perfect illustration of what I'm talking about, The Washington Post's Stephanie McCrummen published an article over the weekend profiling a Pennsylvania woman and Trump superfan named Melanie Austin. It's quite possibly the most disturbing profile of a Donald Trump disciple since that viral video of a roid-raging "Trump Bro" screaming about burritos. Here is a portion:

She was a 52-year-old woman who had worked 20 years for the railroad, had once been a Democrat and was now a Republican, and counted herself among the growing swath of people who occupied the fringes of American politics but were increasingly becoming part of the mainstream. Like millions of others, she believed that President Obama was a Muslim. And like so many she had gotten to know online through social media, she also believed that he was likely gay, that Michelle Obama could be a man, and that the Obama children were possibly kidnapped from a family now searching for them.

Austin talks to her television whenever Trump is speaking, referring to the helmet-haired reality show celebrity -- the self-proclaimed man of the people who apparently hasn't paid taxes in forever -- as "Big Daddy." The article details how Austin can't help but to respond to Trump's obnoxious superlatives and as-seen-on-TV pitches with out-loud responses. Among many deranged, all-caps posts on Facebook, Austin once called for hanging President Obama followed by both fumigating (??) the White House and then burning it to the ground. For these status updates and others, Austin was "involuntarily hospitalized" and diagnosed as suffering from "homicidal ideation." But during a Trump rally over the Summer, while apparently hobbled by injectable meds, Austin realized that she wasn't alone. There are millions more, by her estimation, who believe the same things she believes. All of it, including the "Michelle Obama is a man" nonsense. Oh, and predictably enough for a small-government conservative who supports a party that routinely screeches about the national debt and "takers," Austin receives Social Security disability benefits.

Not surprisingly, she's accumulated 2,795 friends on Facebook, a respectable number for a user who's not a public figure.

“Melanie is taking the world by storm!” she wrote, alongside a cartoon of herself flying.

“Yippeeee!” she wrote when Trump pulled ahead in the South Carolina primary.

“Have a cup of shut up juice DemTARD!” she wrote during a Democratic forum.


The irony here is that Trump, who has built a career designed solely for his own enrichment and celebrity, doesn't care about Melanie Austin or any of his white non-college-educated fanboys beyond what they'll provide to him in the form of adulation, polls and votes on Election Day. Worse, his policies will make their lives exponentially worse practically from day one, knowing that, among other things, Trump would likely precipitate an economic crisis just by winning on Nov. 8, not to mention the thousands of impulsive Trump actions that we can't even predict.

They don't care. We have to rid ourselves of the brown president, they say, and annihilate his woman successor. We have to burn the White House to the ground and start over. Such is the nature of the liberal, foreign toxins that are falsely perceived to exist within the circulatory system of the republic. Trump is their flame-thrower, and from the ashes will be a return to white dominance and a civilized society.

Trump's status in presidential politics can be almost entirely traced back to the dark side-effects of social media as a vehicle for legitimizing fake stories and baseless rumor-mongering. Whether it's millennial users or baby-boomer retirees, social media has allowed mainstream Americans, as well as citizens on the margins of the discourse, to congeal inside micro-bubbles where conspiracy theories and exploitative, fabricated rumors are perceived as reality and therefore shared virally, simply due to popular consensus within those bubbles. If so many people agree, then it must be true that Michelle Obama is a "transvestite," as Austin put it, or that Trump will provide "caring leadership" despite his lifetime of nefarious behavior and his menu of horrendously infantile blurtings.

Generally speaking, social media isn't necessarily about exposure to a variety of ideas, it's about running away from intimidating variety to embrace a technological safe space where we're only sporadically confronted by contravening facts. Social media allows us to nest in our own bullshit and deludes us into believing our own lies. This is especially so with political Facebook and Twitter. We can unfriend political opponents while welcoming, liking, retweeting and sharing political allies, regardless of whether those allies are posting truthful information. Inside our individual bubbles, consensus rather than objectivity or expert analysis defines reality. Trump is cynically exploiting his people and their collective bubbles in order to augment his popularity. It's kind of genius, in a propagandized kind of way.

Simply put: Trump's candidacy is the ultimate Facebook page, and social media is the trough from which Trump feeds.

As the centerpiece of his campaign, Trump has routinely enabled and encouraged "homicidal ideation" — the violence and white-power "Pepe the Frog" memes circulating in the Facebook feeds of people like Melanie Austin. Trump reflects the easily tapped worst instincts of his voters back upon them, letting them know with a wink and spastic gesture that it's okay because a presidential candidate is yelling in all-caps, too. He's also savvy enough to recognize that Americans are consumers who are easily deceived and that social media manifests realism from artificiality, just by sheer repetition. His strategy from the beginning has been to confirm the ignorance and conspiracy theories of a certain faction of self-deluded social media dwellers, making it okay to shout "nigger" and "cunt" in mixed company. It's like someone coming along and saying it's okay to smoke a pack of cigarettes a day. Because, after all, why not? How are we supposed to believe cancer warnings from the same government that allowed a Kenyan national to become president? Once there's enough reasonable doubt cast into the discourse by memes and fake news, any form of awfulness can be wedged into the gaps.

What he's not telling his most loyal fanboys, though, is that they'll be the first in line when it comes to waging Trump's ego wars, should fate give us a Trump presidency. The real victims in Trump's kneejerk responses to "gestures at our people" will be the "poorly educated" suckers he claims to "love" -- the white non-college-educated men. Trump's base. Of course, they'd have to be brave enough to actually enlist, but once they do, they'll be the ones returning without limbs or in Trump-branded coffins; with suicidal PTSD after helping to retaliate against Iran or any other nation that dares to insult Trump's stupid hair or his diminutive fingers. By the way, Trump informed us this week that PTSD is the consequence of weakness, not strength. This from a man who avoided the draft because of a mysteriously nonexistent bone spur in his foot.

Likewise, when the world economy becomes apocalyptically destabilized under Trump's erratic, self-proclaimed "unpredictable" presidency, the first to be consumed in the initial shock-front will be the most vulnerable: Melanie Austin and other "deplorables" who, despite a universe of information available on her computer, doesn't trust or bother with wonky CBO analyses or professional economic vetting of Trump's plan. Her self-constructed bubble won't allow it. This is all about an echo chamber of rage, white entitlement and a candidate who's tapped into the exploitation of both. For Austin and others, they'll be the most blindsided by Trump's regime, and yet within the bubbles they've cultivated they'll never accept Trump as being responsible for it.

There's no known solution to this problem, but there are temporary remedies, the first of which involves making sure Trump doesn't win. If he wins, so does Melanie Austin, so does Alex Jones, so does Roger Stone and all of their hideous ideas. However, a humiliating Trump defeat will effectively re-marginalize those who deal in falsehoods, incompetence, viral theories and the bubble politics of self-destruction. They'll never go away, but at least they won't be calling the shots with the world's largest nuclear arsenal, no matter how loudly they yell at their televisions and no matter how many conspiracy theories they post on their walls.

Bob Cesca

Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon. He's also the host of "The Bob Cesca Show" podcast, and a weekly guest on both the "Stephanie Miller Show" and "Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang." Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Contribute through LaterPay to support Bob's Salon articles -- all money donated goes directly to the writer.