Guilty: I’m someone who loves investigating various kinds of networks and their effects. Let’s talk about Twitter, and specifically the way in which the #TrumpWon hashtag proliferated.
A rumor went around that the #TrumpWon hashtag began in St. Petersburg, complete with a map image supposedly showing the hashtag’s original starting point and geographical dissemination. This turned out not to be true, but it spread far and wide very quickly and there are no doubt people who still believe it. Intriguing questions emerge, such as:
1. Who would deliberately create such an image and disseminate it with intent to deceive? 2. What are the political leanings and intentions of such a person? 3. What if the hashtag didn't begin in Russia, but the accusation did?
While I don’t think Trump is a knowing stooge of the Russian government, there have been more links between his campaign, his supporters, and Putin’s propaganda machine than should make one comfortable. It is confusing but at least plausible that Russian operatives, in an effort to further muddy the waters, came up and disseminated the myth that #TrumpWon began in Russia. The recursive nature of such a scenario is amusing, at least.
But where did #TrumpWon really come from? Data scientist Gilad Lotan presented some interesting findings, which I encourage you to read. Geographically, the hashtag actually began in Baltimore and Detroit before quickly exploding as a worldwide trending topic. This rapid spread makes sense when you consider that Twitter networks are by no means geographically limited. One person, regardless of where they are, may have followers spread around and the country and all over the globe. And if that person has a large number of followers, many of whom are inclined to retweet what that person posts, that person is then considered a “hub.” Hubs are essential to Twitter networks because they can disseminate information rapidly to a vast network of followers who will then help spread it.
Lotan’s research indicates a handful of hubs in the #TrumpWon lifecycle:
* @pkfanderson -- P Flynn Anderson, [rated by Klear](http://klear.com/profile/pkfanderson) as a top 3% social media influencer. About 40% of her posts are retweets. Her posts are frequently about and supportive of Donald Trump. * @marcogutierrez -- Marco Gutierrez, whose Klear info is not as impressive but still seems to be a major influencer. His Twitter name bears the "MAGA" acronym, which stands for "make America great again," per Trump's campaign slogan. * @joethemailman -- Another top 3% influencer. As an indicator of the quality of his posts, he posts several times in a row that Donald Trump supporters are to vote on November 8th, while Hillary Clinton supporters are to vote on November 9th, and to "spread the news." This is a bit of disinformation that comes up every election season in order to dupe one set of voters or another into not voting. * @socaledgygal -- Uses the nickname AdorableDeplorableMe, which should tell you plenty about her political leanings in light of Clinton's "basket of deplorables" comments. She is a top 5% influencer and retweets about 75% of the time.
While none of these people are elected officials, journalists, or professional pundits, they clearly exert great influence over what information Trump supporters are exposed to. Their Twitter timelines are full of mockery of liberals and Clinton, praise for Trump, and as Lotan notes, bizarre counterfactual news stories.
These networks aid the formation of epistemic closures. Since who you follow is self-selected, most are inclined to only follow people they agree with, who provide information you find valuable. What information most people find valuable is that which validates their own prior beliefs. What you end up with, then, is a closed bubble of thought patterns which may or may not resemble reality.
Although not spelled out directly by Lotan, the graphs of these networks also show that white nationalists who support Trump seem to inhabit their own closed community–there is not a large amount of overlap with other Trump-supporting communities such as conservatives and evangelical Christians. This would suggest that white nationalists don’t seek to broadcast as far and wide as possible. That is clearly not the case for the influencers described above and, most likely, other similar users.
Referring to Pew’s examination of social media networks, these hub-and-spoke configurations would best be considered broadcast networks. A handful of prominent users gather information from their preferred sources, then dispatch that information outward to their tens or hundreds of thousands of followers, each of whom is likely to retweet to their own (albeit much smaller) networks.
The proliferation of the #TrumpWon hashtag likely also contributed to Trump’s strong performance in post-debate polls that ran online. Completely unscientific in nature and presented mainly so that users may indulge their vanity, online polls have virtually no purpose except as a touch of pointless interactivity on news websites. They are bad precisely because they are so easily gamed. Many such polls were brigaded by Trump supporters in the hours following the debate, indicating a form of organization dissimilar to that of Clinton supporters.
I find it interesting because, while Clinton has a broader support base overall, Trump has a highly motivated, technically knowledgeable, and dense support network. The alt-right is predominantly young white men, most of whom grew up using the Internet and who know full well the real value of online polls as well as how to produce their desired outcomes. I have my doubts that most supporters of this type truly think Trump “won” the debate. The intention instead is to give others the impression that he did, or at least produce doubt as to the true victor. It is taking the notion that perception is reality to its logical conclusion: if reality doesn’t align with your wishes, simply tell everyone that it does anyway, and if you do it enough, people might believe it.
This seems especially appropriate given that such a mentality dominates Trump’s campaign strategy. Time after time, he invents facts out of thin air, claims “many people are saying” them, that he has reams of sources that he nevertheless refuses to share, and constructs a completely false alternate reality that he constantly insists is the real deal.
It’s no surprise where he got it from. It’s how Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and Breitbart have operated for years. But now, this propaganda method has spun beyond the control of those who built their careers on it, giving us a Presidential candidate who lies right to your face no matter how often you prove him wrong.
This does not bode well for the future of American politics, regardless of the outcome of this election.