Tactical Virality

“Fake news” was once the tactic of insurgent outsiders; now it’s a strategy for consolidating executive power

In September 2014, following the infamous leak of celebrity iCloud photos, a website called emmayouarenext.com appeared. It displayed a cut-and-paste image of Watson wiping away tears, the phrase “Never forget, the biggest to come thus far,” and the 4chan logo, as well as a countdown clock. The site came online just days after actor and UN Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson had delivered her widely publicized “HeForShe” campaign speech, in which she encouraged men to participate in the fight for gender equality. Presumably when the clock reached zero, stolen images of Watson would be forthcoming.

Knowledge of this site started to circulate thanks to a “news” article published by FoxWeekly.com — a website that, at a glance, could pass for a legitimate news source associated with the Fox News brand. The story circulated on social platforms and was subsequently picked up by mainstream sites, including the Washington Post and the Guardian. Meanwhile, on Reddit and 4chan itself, emmayouarenext.com was largely understood to be a hoax. The countdown clock reached zero, and no nudes were released. Instead, emmayouarenext.com forwarded visitors to the home page of Rantic Media, which claimed to be social media marketing company acting on behalf of “celebrity publicists” to “bring down 4chan.” Its supposed CEO, one “Brad Cockingham,” called for Barack Obama to enforce internet censorship to stop “terrorist”’ 4chan and protect “the ladies.” This too, was reported on by the Huffington Post, the BBC, Mashable, among others, until it became clear — thanks to a redditor — that Rantic Media was not a real company but a foil for the online prankster group SocialVevo (also known as Swenzy), who had pulled similar pranks before. Ostensibly the endgame for SocialVevo was to troll while undertaking an exercise in traffic direction.

SocialVevo’s actions elucidated how — to use danah boyd’s terminology — the attention economy can be hacked. It not only manipulated narratives and audience response but created confusion around what actually occurred. It seized on controversy-ready subjects — Watson, HeForShe, feminism, 4chan, sexism, misogyny — to secure the unwitting complicity of the media, which duly generated a plethora of related opinion pieces and analyses. Yet the key event — the prankish misdirection — long went unreported, and the significance of SocialVevo’s trollish virtuosity went largely unrecognized. In the wake of the U.S. election, however, the newly attuned focus on “fake news” makes it urgent that we better understand the implications of these attention-hacking practices.

It should come as no surprise that the discussions of fake news since Trump’s election have been both marked by an understandable panic and diagnostic incoherence: The term has been in a seemingly constant state of semantic drift since it came to prominence. Early “fake news” discussions centered on clickbaity falsehoods of the “Hillary Has Parkinson’s Disease” variety that circulated on Facebook before the election. That usage is distinct from Trump’s “FAKE NEWS” tweets since his inauguration, when he has used the term to decry and attempt to delegitimize unfavorable reports about him or his administration. The shifting meaning of fake news suggests it cannot be analyzed merely as a matter of specific outcomes or even as a messaging strategy. Rather, it describes a media environment in which the provenance of information can be treated as irrelevant.

The shifting meaning of fake news describes a media environment in which the provenance of information is irrelevant

In the broadest philosophical sense, fake news has always existed: Whether information becomes canon has always been contingent on human manipulation of contexts and representations. Orators will shape their words, historians will historicize, editors will edit. If it bleeds it leads. In the context of news production, fakeness could manifest in partisan hackery, or through conspicuous omissions. Stuart Hall argued in 1973, with broadcast media in mind, that “raw historical events” are never directly presented but rather “encoded” as a transmission is produced. What makes the evening show and in what form will depend on everything from the political leaning of the station to the actions of whomever manages the assignment desk on any given morning. Each factor by degrees shapes the way the news is cast, with each agent in the process beholden to political, personal, or corporate agendas. These systemic distortions, Hall argued, could be countered in part by the agency audiences have in “decoding” broadcasts variously and interpreting the meaning in light of their own social contexts. Public responses to any given broadcast will not be homogenous.

The internet makes this agency more explicit, allowing oppositional “decodings” to circulate in participatory, distributed networks. This allowed particular stories to go viral to the degree they presented audiences opportunities to express opinions. Used tactically, such viral media could consolidate the discontent with broadcast media’s official stories and mount necessary challenges against that agenda-led discourse, increasing visibility for neglected issues and promoting informed activism (Black Lives Matter, for example). But viral media proved to have many other tactical applications as well: to misinform and mislead, as well as distract, amuse, advertise, flog, bully, and harass.

This is the media ecosystem in which “fake news” played out during the election, a fluid information economy in which circulating stories could convene like-minded audiences around intentions, not facts.

Tactics comprise a specific type of activity. In The Practice of Everyday Life sociologist Michel de Certeau distinguished between tactics and strategies. Strategies, he argued, are used by those in power as systems of control; tactics are enacted as resistance. De Certeau describes looking down on a totalized vision of New York City: The grid system is the strategy, and the individual at ground level, negotiating the grid system and taking — or making — short cuts is being tactical.

In de Certeau’s terms, fake news is tactical, as it is a purposeful co-option of signifiers of “the news” in order to subvert the practices of profit-driven journalism and social media platforms and their click-seeking strategy lines. Tactical fake news producers in 2016 were a varied group: Some saw that fake news production would be profitable, others were ostensibly apolitical pranksters chiming in for the lulz. There were shitposters who were allegedly paid per troll by Oculus inventor Palmer Luckey to summon meme magick. A registered Democrat reportedly owned the biggest fake news empire of the lot. There were Macedonian teens, and there were ideologues. For all, clicks were king, and overwhelmingly it was pro-Trump, anti-Clinton messages that attracted the much-desired traffic.

In the days following the election, some concluded that the pro-Trump bias of fake news had duped or persuaded Americans into voting for Trump, or against Clinton — though researchers at Stanford have since refuted this theory. It may be instead that the preponderance of pro-Trump fake news reflected an underlying preference that already existed; the fake news didn’t persuade new voters but consolidated the sentiments of those already leaning toward him. The pro-Trump, anti-Clinton bias in fake news, and the increasing prominence of white nationalist discourse may have been an overlooked sign of what was to come as well as an ignored indicator of what was already present.

The fact that more fake news was pro-Trump reflected how, on public social media sites, news consumption can become performative. Along with our status updates, Twitter threads, hashtags, gifs, and photos, the news stories we share online signal our identities and affinities, assert status or social capital, or more plaintively, mark out our very presence. Aware of such practices, news producers with an eye on circulation targets (and fake-news makers as well) will publish stories and articles that serve this need — offering materials that allow consumers to communicate with one another, as business professors W. Glynn Mangold and David J. Faulds argue here — and can form part of an online assemblage-identity. Fake news creators, like SocialVevo had done earlier, had successfully rerouted the attention economy, exploiting how these underlying personal identity needs had helped render the contract between creators, distributors, and recipients of information unstable. The nature of the tactic was not a matter of warping news content as much as playing on the demand for measurable attention at every level of the informational system: This was a hijack.

Fake news creators exploited how personal identity needs had rendered the contract between creators, distributors, and recipients of information unstable

Fittingly, at first glance, tactically viral fake news resembles the Situationist practice of détournement, virtuosic prank-like acts designed to turn “expressions of the capitalist system against itself.” Arguing that immersion in mass media neutralized and trivialized dissent while engendering social alienation and civic passivity, Situationists used mass media messaging schema to foster agency, resistance, and oppositional collectivity. In practice, this meant co-opting strategies such as advertising slogans, media products, and propaganda techniques to serve their agenda, namely to reveal and thus undermine the mechanisms themselves.

As such, détournements were situated within radical leftism and were apparently aimed at disrupting conservative, capitalistic hegemonic power. The technique later influenced the punk movement, the Yes Men, AdBusters, and Greenpeace, among others. Yet there is nothing intrinsically leftist about the practical process of détournements, as tactically viral fake news demonstrates. The technique can be reduced to an ideologically flexible logic of inversion and appropriation. What is disconcerting is that pro-Trump-biased fake news, by functioning tactically rather than strategically, assumed an outsider status. It pantomimed a form of resistance.

This was quite a maneuver, and it helped confirm the “outlier” status of the Trump campaign, making it a magnet for all those dispersed people who also held views previously deemed socially and politically inadmissible, whether these were relative harmless conspiracy theories or outright racism and nativism. In the digitally afforded immediacy harnessed by the campaign, these aggregated outliers were sympathetic listeners to one another and, as a consequence, became hardened and emboldened in their views. On message boards and social media, in trolling wars, confessions, and debates, the limits of transgression were tested. The release valve was opened for Trump supporters to be defiantly “un-PC” and speak their truth to power.

Just like détournements are not the preserve of the left, tactical approaches to consolidating grassroots support have not been uniquely used by Trump. Indeed, similar approaches have previously been deployed by Democrats. In the New Republic Scott Lemieux compared Trump’s interloper campaign to the 1977 election of Jimmy Carter. And Barack Obama, during his 2008 campaign faced some of the same critiques that were leveled at Trump in 2016: He supposedly has a lack of political experience, an impoverished knowledge of foreign policy, and was an outsider dependent on social media virality. The Obama campaign’s use of memes and consumer-style targeting made effective use of his outsideryness to lend his campaign urgency and authenticity.

Virality, then, is tied not to political ideology but stems from the corporately owned communication infrastructure that permits it. That infrastructure privileges attention above everything and implicitly reshapes information to suit that purpose. When it comes to fake news, it’s not ideological applications of virality that corrupts it as a strategy; corruption stems from the incentivization intrinsic to news platforms.

George Orwell saw euphemism in political discourse as a contagion. We now face a contagion of chaos. No one has benefitted more from the climate of epistemological chaos than Donald Trump. We witnessed his exploitation of chaos on the campaign trail, when he denied past claims, spoke over people, destabilized attempts at critique, ad-libbed, spat ad hominems, as he leaned into the microphone and honked, “Wrong.”

Much has been made of the efficacy of Trump’s performance in an attention economy: On Twitter, in gifs, in speeches and sound bites, as a professional showman and a human flame war, he demanded to be noticed. His volume and unchecked aggression, his inordinate pride, unconcealed incompetence and overt sexism, all harmonize as a kind of reified white maleness that he has put to effective use.

Hillary Clinton on the other hand, as the avatar of the liberal establishment, was judged in relation to establishment politics’ lofty and hypocritical ideals, her dubious relations with Wall Street donors and her hawkish foreign policy history. Inevitably, her narrative was dominated by all the ways she could be revealed to be flawed. Fake news stories merely amplified this readymade story of how she failed to live up to liberalism’s impossible agenda.

Trump, meanwhile, doubled down on his anti-establishment position by disparaging Clinton and the Dems as well as GOP elites. He was at once the outsider, the populist, and the nationalist, capable of being seen as whatever the disparate groups of disenchanted and alienated voters wanted to see. That Trump campaigned on a murky, imprecise, emotionally driven legislative program — impracticable, contradictory, and dark in comparison to Clinton’s detail-oriented polish — did not matter. Trump flaunted his many states of compromise as proof of the strength of his indifference to establishment politics, best typified perhaps, in his claim that his tax avoidance showed both his personal brilliance and the flawed nature of the tax system. His ineptitude played as tactics, thwarting the strategy of Clinton’s conspicuous competence. He was able to make competence and integrity themselves seem suspect, criteria embraced by the establishment to muddle and corrupt the political process.

Whether this was conscious design or merely a by-product of an unstable character is unclear; either way, his actions played to a media ecosystem attuned to ultimately privilege attention over fact. The attention he garnered would become the only relevant fact about him; attention itself plays as its own form of truth.

Any politician who, like Clinton, depends on the media to tout the dignity and decorum of the establishment’s political rituals is now vulnerable, regardless of their ideology. The demand that media be viral has unsettled any symbiosis between political pomp and media tact.

Since winning the election, Trump has denounced CNN as “fake news” at a press conference while President-elect and made many references to “FAKE NEWS” in tweets since his inauguration. This is tactical virality now reified as strategy by a sitting administration defending the executive branch’s power. In his Twitter performances, incoherence has become a coherent approach, seeking to pre-emptively absolve Trump of accountability.

Attention itself plays as its own form of truth, and the demand that media be viral has unsettled any symbiosis between political pomp and media tact

This strategy makes him and his administration a difficult opponent to counter. It’s exasperating and destabilizing to try and engage with someone so fluid and farcical, who seems to require that so much energy be expended analyzing, critiquing, and fact-correcting. Such responses will remain necessary and possibly prove cathartic, but we also need to understand the new rules. Pre-election, fake news as tactical virality played a specific and distinct role in supporting Trump’s rise to power, telling us something about the broader conditions of cynicism and discontent that put him in a position to obtain it. Post-inauguration, fake news forms part of a wider strategy of epistemological destabilization. Not only does his administration show little regard for facts or coherence, they seem actively intent on showcasing their disregard. The endgame here will be to make the real more fake-seeming, and the fake more real-seeming.

Any opposition, then, has to counter confusion and frustration, and compete for attention. All the while, Trump occupies existing structures of institutional power and becomes legitimized by the office whose power he can exploit and exercise.

But the destabilization opens spaces in which far more radical forces — nationalist, fascist, and racist — may take root. Fascistic movements prosper during systemic, national crises of self-confidence. Virtually every aspect of Trump’s agenda calls for organized resistance. In spite of “fake news,” we know that Trumpism endangers individuals, communities, and ultimately threatens the world.

If we accept that destabilization is now this administration’s hegemonic strategy, then we must figure out how an opposition can tactically resist. In the face of epistemological chaos, organization will be key. At a local level, citizens must come together to both help each other and protest. We are already seeing this happen: Online an anti-Trump movement is coalescing — though as Joseph Bernstein notes, anti-anti-Trump activists are present too. Would-be foreign allies must not appease Trumpism. Businesses must systematically put ethics before capital and political alliances. Domestic politicians who oppose Trump must methodically address their complicity in his presidency.

But nationalist agendas are present elsewhere too, notably in Britain and across Europe. Next we look to France. We must understand why this political sea change is happening to defeat it everywhere. If Western democratic politics are being undermined by the inherently compromised position of mediatized liberalism, then resistance is not merely a matter of combating Trump’s strategies but addressing the systemic conditions that enabled his ascent.

From this viewpoint, fake news as détournement worked, regardless of the political agenda. It made apparent how mediatized politics may strip citizens of agency while the ostensibly democratic governmental systems that effect power remain occupied. It has made clear an incompatibility between media, business, and liberal politics. And it has revealed how a man like Trump can be democratically elected, highlighting some of the deep-rooted cultural forces that positioned him as a viable candidate.

Hannah Barton is a doctoral researcher based in London. Her academic interests include internet memes, new literacies, and cultural history. She tweets occasionally @hhannahhbarton.