Written by Michael Oberman and Danett Song
Out of the ashes of the 2016 American presidential election arose a strange dichotomy: popular interest in the election was higher than ever,1 and yet only 55.7 per cent of the eligible electorate voted – continuing the long-term trend of the United States lagging behind its Western peers in voter turnout. Part of the answer lies in more Americans than ever before flocking to digital platforms like Facebook or Reddit, congregating online in likeminded political communities.
“The Donald”2 is one of the Reddit subcommunities, or subreddits, and it is particularly interesting. Created in June 2015 as a home for Reddit users who support Donald Trump, The Donald has since become a political force in itself, with more than 300,000 subscribers and a web presence at “between 30 and 50 million page views per month.”3 FiveThirtyEight called The Donald “the epicenter of Trump fervor on the internet.”4 But more than simply being a safe place for Trump supporters online, The Donald managed to activate an enthusiastic constituency independent of the Trump campaign, and in a largely decentralized manner. As FiveThirtyEight noted, the subreddit “mobilized to comb through the hacked Democratic National Committee emails published on WikiLeaks,” and did so with enough professionalism that its findings were pointed to by WikiLeaks itself.5 On a number of occasions, wrote Christine Lagorio-Chafkin in the New York Times, Trump “tweeted out memes and videos that originated on The Donald, and in July 2016 he participated in a popular Reddit ‘Ask Me Anything’ discussion, after his team communicated with the moderators.”6
Communicating Through Memes
We undertook a research project to try to gain insight into this phenomenon. To do so, we first needed to distill the larger political trends behind declining traditional political participation – for which we chose the concepts of internal and external political efficacy. These concepts date back to the 1950s, and refer to two related but distinct beliefs that individuals hold with respect to the political process. As described by Stephen C. Craig and Michael A. Maggiotto in a 1982 paper, the first, internal efficacy, is an assessment of one’s own capacities: that one is “capable of understanding politics and competent enough to participate in political acts such as voting.”7 Inversely, external efficacy refers to how responsive one believes the system to be: whether “the public influence political outcomes … government leaders and institutions.”8 Internal efficacy can be thought of as “citizen-competence,” and external efficacy as “system-responsiveness.”
Significantly, while internal efficacy has risen in the United States since the 1950s, the average external efficacy score plummeted by almost half in the same time period. Recent research finds that individuals with high internal efficacy are more likely to visit websites with political content, or use the internet to engage in political activities, and that online activities actually increase internal political efficacy. The relationship between political efficacy and internet usage is further compounded by how the internet has made political communication and activism easier than ever before. Whereas organizations used to be able to act as gatekeepers to activism by virtue of its entry costs, this is no longer the case.
This helps us understand individuals with high internal but low external efficacy – people who are highly engaged, but also deeply cynical about politics. Research has shown that such individuals will generally reject delegating decision making power to authority figures they do not trust via representative democracy, and instead try to directly influence the political process. They form the vanguard of political movements – including The Donald.
A framework for understanding users of The Donald and other movements using social media is their communicating through memes. Indeed, American political discourse is becoming dominated by the meme. A meme is any content that is propagated virally over the internet and, through its dissemination, subject to increasing “derivation and adaptation by other … meme creators.”9 Though the memes you see are frequently silly, they actually represent an effective way of propagating one’s beliefs and principles. In that respect, we can and should classify political memes as a new expression of participatory politics.
It is easy to understand why there is a tendency to write off memes as frivolous, contentless forms of communication. They rely in large part on shock value to pierce through the noise of the internet, and can be impenetrable to the outsider. Yet they often contain a strong political undercurrent. The capacity of memes to distill complex, nuanced worldviews into a single image in support of, or in opposition to, a candidate makes them a powerful messaging tool. Consider the two memes shown here: one from The Donald in support of President Trump, and one from The Mueller, a Reddit community that mimics The Donald and was created in support of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
The default format of this meme (or the top half of the image, which is static) relies on straightforwardly shocking language: both the use of fucking and the sexual connection capture the reader’s attention. At the same time, the bottom half of both memes turns the reader’s expectations on their head. What “guys” want is explicitly political: either to make America great again, or to see further charges by Special Counsel Mueller brought against the Trump campaign. The two memes convey contrary political views – one in support of Trump, one in opposition – yet they do so through an identical narrative structure.
Even if we accept memes and similar forms of digital communication as a developing frontier in movement-based politics, we still lack a proper explanation as to why individuals view this activism as meaningful. Because of Reddit’s inherent anonymity, we know little to nothing about those who constitute The Donald and similar communities. Using an anonymous online survey, we sought to learn about this community in the summer of 2018.
The research project was based on two datasets: a control, consisting of demographics and political efficacy from the American National Election Studies (ANES); and the 438 active users of The Donald who were willing to answer a 16-question survey.
There is always a substantial limitation to a project like this. Any anonymous online survey is going to have high levels of “response bias”: only those passionate about the subject are going to be interested in filling out a survey. Additionally, distrust of traditional institutions like the media could have biased their responses, while also keeping the numbers low. In fact, several people expressed exactly that kind of suspicion of the research project either in public comments or in private messages.
Because of that distrust, the moderators of The Donald set limits on the demographic questions to prevent the possibility of respondents having their personal identities “doxxed” – having the identity behind the anonymous profile revealed, often with the intent of seeking to punish the individual for views expressed digitally. Nevertheless, the survey yielded significant insight into these users, and specifically their cynicism writ large about American government.
Motivated by Cynicism?
Unsurprisingly, The Donald users were found to have vastly higher internal efficacy scores than supporters of President Trump among the general public. This makes sense: high internal political efficacy explains why users of The Donald are attracted to digital activism. But there was no link between internal efficacy and whether they thought The Donald had a real impact on the 2016 election. In other words, their high internal efficacy (on average) did not appear to be the main driver of their online activism.
More interesting was our finding that while users of The Donald see themselves as more politically competent than does the general public, the reverse is true when it comes to their external efficacy. This reflects a strong cynicism toward government on the part of the users, even when controlling for their levels of education. Normally, the literature shows that a higher level of education correlates with greater external efficacy, since more educated individuals tend to have higher social standing and thus greater access to decision-makers. Yet, unexpectedly, respondents from The Donald with higher education were more likely to express scepticism of government.
Moreover, respondents with a low external efficacy score tended to identify themselves as independent, rather than Republican; this resulted in slightly more total self-identified independents (220) in the survey than self-identified Republicans (197). This suggests that some Trump supporters cannot be counted on to support his party because they so distrust institutions like political parties.
Similarly, respondents from The Donald demonstrated attitudes toward the media well in line with what we would expect from a politically competent group that shares the President’s scepticism of the mainstream media. Thus, when asked for an example of “Fake News,” over 52 per cent of respondents provided CNN as at least one of their responses to this open-ended question. Out of the 438 respondents, only 56 (12.79 per cent) did not provide an example of fake news. Users with low external efficacy tended to be those who gave examples of fake news and, in particular, cited the Trump-Russia collusion narrative as an example of a lie propagated by the media.
Low external efficacy was also a significant predictor when it came to how The Donald users consumed their news. While many respondents articulated a reliance on more establishment or mainstream news sources, others opted for pro-Trump or alternative sources, including social media sites like 4Chan or YouTube, the conspiratorial website InfoWars, the pro-Trump aggregator Rantingly and the conservative legal blog Legal Insurrection.
Not Just The Donald
Obviously there are limits to what we can conclude from this small study of a huge phenomenon, but what we have seen gives rise to a tentative conclusion. While individuals who use this online community have a high self-assessment of their own political capabilities, it is not their underlying beliefs that turn them into frequent users of The Donald. Rather, it is their low external efficacy that is the strongest predictor of usage. Using The Donald allowed them to bypass traditional activities gatekept by the political parties they so distrust – including the Republican Party. In the past, supporters of a presidential candidate would be expected to identify with and be active in that candidate’s political party. But then, activists did not have the choices that the internet offers today.
We should not view The Donald users as anomalous. External efficacy predicted whether users thought The Donald was meaningful, whether they spent most of their time on the platform and whether they relied on nontraditional media sources. We suspect the same is true on the ideological left. Hardcore online supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders, somewhat pejoratively labeled “Bernie bros,” also appear to be sceptical of mainstream political institutions like the Democratic Party and instead engage in such decentralized, online activism.
This development is especially worrisome since external efficacy is clearly and significantly declining in the United States, and across the Western world. We are seeing a rise in populist, insurgent political movements, so we can expect a proliferation of online communities like The Donald – and of political leaders whose actions motivate and activate them.