November 19, 2019

Democrats Versus Trump's Twitter

“A long time ago, on a different internet — where Photoshopped images of “God Emperor” Donald Trump riding atop a velociraptor were just a faint glimmer in a young meme lord’s eye — the Republicans were in trouble. Barack Obama’s 2008 win over John McCain was heralded as a digital over an analog. In 2012, Mitt Romney’s technological secret weapon to track voters in real time crashed on Election Day. A 2012 profile of Mr. Obama’s digital team in The Atlantic exclaimed that the “nerds shook up an ossifying Democratic tech structure.” By 2014, the conventional wisdom was that progressives had lapped the Republican Party in the tech space. I heard rumors swirling that some of the Republican National Committee staff were scouring Silicon Valley churches for tech-company hoodies, looking for programmers to hire.

Two years later, the narrative flipped completely. Donald Trump’s 2016 victory was quickly cast as a digital triumph. The campaign successfully harnessed its candidate’s divisive, populist rhetoric to plaster Facebook with ads. The ads worked, in large part because of their incendiary messages. Mr. Trump’s grass-roots support online came from a legion of posters, message board communities and Twitter pundits who flooded the internet with memes, toxic trolling and hyperpartisan pages glorifying the candidate and vilifying his opponents. Democrats were flummoxed.

The Trump wing of the Republican Party appeared to have a structural advantage in online politics — and there was no clear lane in sight for a wonky, hopeful, progressive message. And for the past three years, as Donald Trump has governed by Twitter, Democrats have watched and winced. An unspoken question hangs over the looming presidential election: On an internet built to favor controversy, can Democrats (or anyone less controversial than Mr. Trump) win online in 2020?”

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