Analysis

2016: When a Troll-in-chief Became the Commander-in-chief

A look back at a year in which the internet produced an American president and fake news, much of it driven by people who used to exist on the digital margins.

Donald Trump on the campaign trail in Washington in 2015.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

’Tis the season for summing up 2016, which millions worldwide consider one of the worst years in decades. It’s no coincidence that John Oliver devoted an especially long farewell video to the year in “Last Week Tonight” and, right up until the last minute on Saturday, everyone was biting their nails over which other beloved celebrity the year might take from us.

For liberals, the year’s most shocking event was Donald Trump’s election victory. This after a presidential campaign that seemed to break all the rules of American politics (written and unwritten), and was also the most internet-based in history.

If the latter statement sounds hackneyed, it’s because you’ve heard it ad nauseam over the last decade: Every election has brought a spate of articles proving that same fact, typically replete with statistics about the candidates’ extensive online activity. And the first web-based campaign ads drew cries of wonder from journalists throughout the world.

But that isn’t the story of 2016. Last year’s story is about an internet that we thought had been pushed to the margins.

Facebook, Instagram, Google and a plethora of other applications have organized our world into comfortable, well-padded boxes. They make sure the design won’t strain your eyes but, above all, they conceal entire worlds via hidden algorithms. About 95 percent of the time, these worlds never even come near your field of view, to the point that you effectively forget they were there.

"Last Week Tonight" F*** You 2016 YouTube

Nowadays, the giants of Silicon Valley seem like omnipotent entities that know everything about us – including things we’d never think of by ourselves – and have the ability to monitor our every action (almost). In Israel in recent months, we’ve seen how Facebook does everything it can to police the conversation and make it more pleasant and comfortable by censoring certain words or implementing a hard-line blocking policy – even as it tries to leave responsibility for many issues to third parties.

Most of the time, we feel that the internet we experience via applications and major websites has become a relatively orderly and controlled place, one where nobody is truly anonymous or free.

But Trump’s victory proved that even Facebook, Google and Twitter have limitations and that, contrary to what many had grown accustomed to thinking, the internet doesn’t begin and end with them. Admittedly, Trump was borne aloft on waves of loathing for the U.S. government, fake news from home and abroad, and almost overt Russian support. But his victory was equally a victory of the free, unbridled internet – for better or worse.

Of course, it began with him: the troll-in-chief, who for years has used his Twitter account to attack and harass his opponents. But Trump wasn’t alone. An army of trolls rose around him, and not just on Facebook and Twitter. The very loosely organized white nationalist movement known as the alt-right, which became so identified with Trump’s campaign, arose on extreme right-wing websites like Breitbart and political groups on Reddit and sites like 4Chan and 8Chan.

Some of these trolls were people we first became aware of through their antifeminist attacks in online gaming (aka Gamergate). The young people in this group knew exactly how to exploit Facebook and Twitter for their own purposes, whether by disseminating racist messages that went viral or by smear campaigns against opponents and critics – like the female student who criticized Trump and became the subject of a hate campaign and rape threats. The voices of these supporters were also amplified by hundreds of thousands of fictitious bots, especially on Twitter, which helped disseminate their messages.

In this regard, Russia’s modus operandi also proved the ability of a relatively weak player (if you look at the technology gap) to use tools like hackers, fake news and paid battalions of trolls to influence countries that are far richer and more developed.

All these turned the U.S. presidential election into the most internet-dominated in history: Not because we’re online more than ever before (though we are), but because just when we thought we knew the web, it once again surprised us.

Groups that existed on its farthest fringes only yesterday helped to put Trump in the White House. Their troll revolution emerged from remote corners of the web and then grew by exploiting the organized, regulated social media that we still seem to think controls the world.