Beware of Trump and the haters on social media

As 2015 drew to a close, Mr Donald Trump was on top of all major candidate polls for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination by a large margin. Both the CNN and Fox news networks showed him ahead with 39 per cent. But what shocked many around the world and America was how he got there - by saying the most outrageous things.

He claimed that Mexico was sending its "rapists", "drug dealers" and criminals to America. His call for a "total and complete" ban on Muslims entering the United States until the authorities "can figure out" the community's attitudes to America shocked even the leaders in the Republican Party. Mr Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the Houseand a Republican Party leader, distanced the party fromMr Trump's comment by saying it is "not who we are as a party".

So what emboldened Mr Trump to make the kind of statements which may be seen more insocial media but not heard ina stump speech? Is there a new worrisome campaign culture emerging in the US?

Use of anti-immigrant, anti-minority rhetoric and their choice as preferred poll platform is not unique to Mr Trump.

European countries, too, have seen a rise in popularity of extreme right-wing parties in recent elections. But these parties and their leaders have been holding these positions for decades. In the case of Ms Marine Le Pen of France, her father, too, led the right-wing National Front.


Supporters of US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump waiting to see him after a campaign rally at the University of Iowa in Iowa City last week. According to some political pundits, the reason for the property tycoon's surging popularity is that his supporters like the outrageous statements that he makes. PHOTO: REUTERS

But what is different aboutMr Trump is that, until recently, he was not known to hold these extreme views. He did business with Mexico. He licensed his name to the developers of hotels and resorts there. He did have legal battles, too, in that country.

He did business with the Middle East, too. There are a number of businesses and products that carry (or carried till recently) his name in the Middle East. The Financial Times reported that he earned millions by licensing his brand to real estate developments in the Middle East. Lifestyle, a major department store chain, carriedthe Trump Home decor range(now discontinued).

Many political pundits have analysed why Mr Trump's popularity is surging despite making statements that were hitherto considered suicidal for an American presidential candidate.

Most have been around the demographics of his supporters and audiences, which the experts say like these statements. While not disputing that, there is probably more to it.

Successful American political leaders and their advisers over the generations have been extremely savvy in spotting emerging social and media trends. They have learnt, adapted and successfully experimented with both the upcoming medium and the messages that work best on it, well before their rivals or the rest of the world caught up.

It is well known howJohn F. Kennedy understood and mastered the power of television and beat Richard Nixon in the White House race.

Fast forward to President Barack Obama's use of social media as well as big data in his two successful presidential election campaigns to target the demographics, narrow-cast (or tailor) the message to the psychographic level, raise funds from the masses, and bring them out to vote. Now that has become the new normal in the elections not only in the US but even in countries like India.

Over the years, one of the disturbing trends noticed in social media is that people appear increasingly comfortable posting insulting, offensive, hateful, profane, anti-minority and anti-immigrant messages as well as bullying and trolling others.

In her book, Hate Crimes In Cyberspace, Danielle Keats Citron, a Professor of Law, discusses how anonymity, group mobilisation and polarisation on the Internet create an enabling environment and empower the perpetrators to carry out acts which would be criminal in the real world.

In their paper, Living In An Age Of Online Incivility: Examining The Conditional Indirect Effects Of Online Discussion On Political Flaming, authors Jay D. Hmielowski, Myiah J. Hutchens and Vincent J. Cicchirillo from the University of Arizona and University of Texas have argued that "online political discussion socialises individuals to seeflaming as an acceptable behaviour. This increase in perceived acceptability in turn increases intention to flame".

There is cause for concern if the Trump campaign is interpreting the observed social media trend as acceptance or approval of incivility.

Are the comparatively unregulated practices prevalent in the digital Wild West finding their way into broader society via mainstream media that grants coverage of reality television-style performance delivered by a very public figure?

The use of social media in political persuasion, campaigning and fund-raising pioneered and perfected by US politicians is already becoming the norm in Asia.

Will the practice of bringing online incivility to the biggest democratic spectacle of this year also find its way to the rest ofthe world?

While regulating incivility is perhaps a path we best avoid, there can be little doubt we need an effective civic response to hate speech and vitriol.

  • S. N. Venkat is Senior AssociateDirector, Office of Postgraduate Professional Programme, Singapore Management University (SMU), and Dr Michael Netzley is Academic Director of SMU Executive Development.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 31, 2016, with the headline 'Beware of Trump and the haters on social media'. Print Edition | Subscribe