How Donald Trump Changed the Internet

In the Trump years, viral conspiracy theories such as QAnon have gone mainstream, endangering lives in the process. Reality has become a slippery thing online. Like so many people today, I approach the internet with suspicion. Anything I find funny will probably be revealed to be bad. Recently, I was taken by the saga of an Instagram meme account that accidentally started a death hoax about the indie-pop singer Clairo, apologized, gave a full interview tinged with regret about spreading misinformation, then launched a Lana Del Rey death hoax on purpose. It just doesn’t seem like anything can be taken at face value.

Trump is the “poster child” of bad information, Renee Hobbs, a communication professor at the University of Rhode Island, says. “He doesn’t value experts, he doesn’t value evidence, he goes with his gut, and he demonstrates the appeal of that.” He undermines the press, fuels conspiracy theories, and lies about basic information. But Trump’s push against truth has backfired in some ways. In general, “fake news” has been “good for the conversation,” Hobbs said. The buzzword has made more people aware of the necessity of media literacy, even if a lot of them are flinging it around senselessly.

Lots of people are now on edge about disinformation. Though the era of QAnon is far from over, there have been at least a few spontaneous moments of Americans intervening in their communities and professional networks to slow its spread. More than 70 organizations that deal with human trafficking signed a joint statement earlier this month laying out the ways in which QAnon conspiracy theories “actively harm” their work. Alarmed by the propagation of QAnon theories in the yoga-and-wellness community, a group led by the yoga instructor Seane Corn took a stand on Instagram. She wanted to let people know where she stood, “so there’s no mistake,” she told me, and to give her followers “some language, where if they need to push back, they can push back.” Though the comments on her page were flooded with harassment from QAnon supporters, she said she didn’t regret the post. “I have a certain amount of trust that I’ve accrued within my community, [and] I have a responsibility,” she said.

Trump Championed the Destruction of the Internet as We Know It

“With our base across the country, it’s probably a top-three issue,” Donald Trump Jr. said during a panel at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February. He was talking about the belief that social media is biased against conservatives—a view held by about 90 percent of Republicans. (There is more evidence of the opposite.)

Senator Josh Hawley, the 38-year-old Republican from Missouri, was also part of the panel, and he chimed in enthusiastically. “For the left, it’s all about this partnership. This big government, Big Tech partnership, run by the liberals.” Trump and Hawley swapped stories for several minutes about right-wing suppression on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, and Hawley had the last big line: “We ought to be able to sue ’em,” he said as the audience cheered.

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