Learning the Politics of “Digital Dissensus”


From the Golden Globes stage in December, at the height of the #MeToo moment, Oprah Winfrey delivered a speech that sounded downright presidential: “A new day is on the horizon,” she said. Soon after, #Oprah2020 began trending on social media platforms.

Oprah has since dashed fans’ hopes that she might actually run for president, telling InStyle’s Laura Brown that she didn’t “have the DNA for it.” That said, if she were to run, she would bring a skill set and capacity for our contemporary media landscape rivaled by few. Where Trump has a real estate empire, she has a media megalopolis. Her companies produce the Oprah Winfrey Network and groundbreaking films like Selma and Beloved. Her name is attached to prepared foods, scarves, dresses, and even a video game. She, too, is a celebrity billionaire who appeals to a broad swath of Americans and the global elite. She has a powerful on-screen and on-stage presence that awakens fans and connects with existing movements.

Reality television star and global brand Donald Trump rose to power amidst major shifts in our media landscape. During Barack Obama’s tenure, both the iPhone and the Apple Watch were invented, Google released the Android operating software, the Kardashians released Kim-oji, and Eli Pariser wrote his oft-cited book The Filter Bubble. At the same time, traditional journalism was taking a hit: Employment at newspapers dropped precipitously, digital-only outlets began their rise, largely based on ad revenue, and right-wing outlets like Breitbart gained further influence. What we’ve seen over the past decade is a fusing of television, social media, products, and events in a media landscape that is more rich, diverse, hectic, and divided than ever before.

Every U.S. president uses new communications technologies to support their agenda, and some presidents come to power during particularly transformative shifts in these technologies. Their ability to master these new tools gave them a significant advantage over their competition. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for instance, innovated with his Fireside Chats radio program, offering a quiet, calming voice whispered into American homes during the ravages of the Great Depression and World War II. Ronald Reagan, an actual movie star, capitalized on his acting instincts and telegenic presence to build trust with the American populace in developing the “permanent campaign” in concert with the demands of television. Years before, John F. Kennedy famously outperformed Nixon during the Presidential debates, thanks to his more telegenic appearance—radio listeners thought Nixon had won, but radio was on the decline. We can go back further, to recall how Abraham Lincoln embraced the speed and omnipresence of the telegraph to project himself into multiple battlefields from Washington, D.C.

We are in this moment now with digital technology and the presidency, a path led by Barack Obama and taken to another level by Trump. As techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has written, in a world where information is abundant, it is not information that is scarce but attention. With only so many hours in the day and countless media calling out to us—banners, social feeds, email, games, GIFs, emoji, memes—any communicator must contend with a barrage of options that draw people in. Gone are the days when a president could simply push an agenda, whether by speech or press release, to a few outlets, and be fairly certain that it would shape national discourse. Instead, a president must pull attention, attracting interest in a saturated media environment rife with echo chambers and divided attention.

By many measures, Trump appears to be deeply unpopular, a position which would normally suggest that he is failing as a communicator. With an approval rating hovering around 40-45 percent and a disapproval rating at about 55 percent, Trump is the least popular modern president at this point in his tenure. But once we break down the numbers, we see this is likely reflective of the country’s polarization: Among Republicans, Trump’s approval rating nears 90 percent.

In other words, the president is very popular with his base, and few others. But this is the important point: In a highly fractured polity, he may have the largest plurality of the American public behind him. But what’s most striking is his ability to maintain an outsize influence in our media environment despite his historic disapproval. What Trump shows is that in a landscape of widespread dissensus, political leaders can thrive by being the center of attention—even if they are also unpopular. In fact, his ability to polarize people’s opinions about him may be core to how he operates as a communicator.

Who Controls the Agenda? Narratives, Frames, and the Power of a Tweet

Part of Trump’s effectiveness is his ability to shape media discourse. His tweets, which regularly make headlines, provide a useful case study. Cognitive scientist and political communications theorist George Lakoff has characterized Trump’s tweets under four basic categories:

Lakoff popularized the notion of framing in the early 2000s—the idea that how we say things can be more important than what we say—with his book Don’t Think of an Elephant! His new advice in the context of Trump’s tweets was a response to the president’s suggestion that Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower, a claim that would later be debunked by the Department of Justice. “The wiretap tweet was not crazy or manic,” Lakoff noted, “—it was strategic. And when the press treats tweets as ‘breaking news’ it just plays out the Trump strategy.” The strategy, in other words, is a way to control the conversation.

Indeed, a few months ago, Axios visualized data from Google News Lab that showed Google search spikes since the inauguration. The spikes reflect the frenzied, staccato pace of this moment in history, from one splashy headline to the next, like the firing of James Comey and Sally Yates and the announcement of the transgender ban in the military. With a few exceptions—the Mueller investigation, immigration, war with North Korea—attention on any one issue rarely lasts more than a few days, if that.

Some of the spikes are particularly noteworthy, like “beautiful chocolate cake” and “covfefe”—strange, meme-worthy utterances that sparked articles, t-shirts, talk show conversations, mugs and even protest signs. Were we to grab the data today, we might also expect #TakeAKnee and “shithole” in the list of searches, and if the data were to extend into election season, “the wall,” “bad hombres,” and of course, “nasty woman” would almost certainly be there, too. Perhaps more than any president before him, Trump’s very way of speaking—not just his tweets—sparks conversation at a national and even international level, across all forms of media. This can be as simple as a typo like “covfefe,” or as complex as openly taunting the leader of North Korea.

Google search trends are not the sum total of attention, but they are a useful indicator. We have seen Trump’s power to pull in attention wielded time and again, and as Lakoff argues, it is more than attention: Trump is frequently able to reshape and amplify narratives, not just by pre-emptively framing an issue, but by reframing an existing one. Take, for example, #TakeAKnee. Recently, Trump called out NFL players who kneeled during the national anthem: “If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect, ..our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!” The original action by Colin Kaepernick was not about the National Anthem per se but the oppression of “black people and people of color.” But a number of media outlets, including nonpartisan ones, ran with the framing that Trump amplified.

In Lakoff’s example, the matter of wiretapping had no evidence behind it, making it a straightforward example of distraction from a more serious issue. What happens when we are dealing with two very real issues? Attention is limited, but suffering is not. The same weekend that #TakeAKnee took hold of the nation, a Category 5 hurricane ravaged Puerto Rico, completely destroying its electric grid. Some people declared the travesty Trump’s Katrina, implying it might hurt his popularity in the same way that George Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina hurt his. But this declaration assumed enough of the American populace was paying attention or cared. Was Trump’s calling out of #TakeAKnee a diversion? Was it a deflection? It had elements of both, but to ask if #TakeAKnee was distracting us from the hurricane hitting Puerto Rico is to suggest that one issue might be more important than another. Both black lives and brown lives are important and newsworthy.

It was not until weeks after the hurricane, when Trump began talking about and then visited the U.S. Territory, that media outlets began covering the story themselves. Trump’s disparaging comments, telling Puerto Ricans they “want everything for them,” framed his actions as fair and those of Puerto Rico as incompetent. Months later, some estimate that more than a thousand are dead as a direct result of the storm and its aftermath, power across the island has yet to be restored, and our national attention has moved on. What journalists, organizers, and others should worry about is the pattern: Trump is consistently able to set the national media agenda with a few words, and the press and public follow along. Whether they support his statements or vehemently disagree, the media are not taking the reins but being driven, and Trump’s ability to manipulate the news cycle creates perverse dilemmas, where we must decide which of many real and important issues are worth our attention before the next new shocking event or catchphrase emerges.

We can see similar patterns in the fact that hundreds of top jobs in federal government remain vacant, the federal judiciary is being reshaped, the census is being altered in a way that will may hurt immigrants and minorities, and hate crimes continue to rise along with hate groups. These stories—and I’ve not even begun listing international ones—do get coverage, but they do not dominate headlines and conversations in the same way. In his first 100 days, according to a Shorenstein Center study, Trump received three times more coverage than usual for a president. The study found that the vast majority of that coverage was negative, but it also came at the cost of Democratic and anti-Trump voices, who accounted for about 9 percent of sound bites about him (the rest were largely Republicans). “Never have journalists fixated on a single newsmaker for as long as they have on Trump,” the study authors noted.

The One You Love to Hate: Political Fandom and Anti-Fandom

Lakoff addresses Trump’s tweets, but his framework can be applied to the larger story. More than just his Twitter account, Trump is a global brand, and he has a global fanbase. This points at something else that unites both Trump and Oprah: They know how to speak to their respective fandoms. Trump in particular knows how to activate his opposition, too, in ways that motivate his base. It’s this ability to speak across echo chambers that furthers his ability to drive the national conversation.

“People have been talking about the celebritisation of politics and personality politics for a long time—probably as long as I have been alive,” Penny Andrews, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Leeds, noted in an email exchange. Andrews studies politics and fandoms in the context of the United Kingdom and the United States.

They continued:

For me, fandom is a really useful way of looking at the way people respond to politicians and political parties in a contemporary context—not just because politicians are celebrities of sorts, but because the old ways of understanding politics have broken down. We had the post-war consensus, then the (neo)liberal consensus, and now we are somewhere else entirely—what I call a digital dissensus, quick to jump to outrage and fragmented into echo chambers. People don’t necessarily vote based on their class, their employment or other traditional factors. A lot of people don’t vote at all.

From The Walking Dead to Star Wars, the most successful contemporary media create worlds of experiences and conversations, embracing their own fandoms with multiple fan-focused experiences that encourage fans to create their own. This reflects a larger trend in contemporary entertainment identified by scholar Henry Jenkins, who defines fandoms as “the social structures and cultural practices created by the most passionately engaged consumers of mass media properties.” It is distinct from merely being a fan, or an enthusiast, who is happy to consume but not create or participate in the broader culture. Fandom exists vis-à-vis a mass media entity, even while it is crowd-created.

And as anyone who’s been a fan of a good show knows, the anti-fandom can be just as powerful. For brands, it almost doesn’t matter: Whether you love the brand or love to hate it, you’re still talking about it and not its competitor. This is key to understanding how political leaders can drive an agenda in an environment of digital dissensus. From customized Facebook and Twitter feeds to niche blogs to broadcast television shows that speak to only certain sections of the populace to AM radio, our dissensus extends across different media. In this environment, generating outrage can be an end in itself, because even the anti-fandom centers power toward its object of attention.

“We see both fandom and anti-fandom of politicians past and present,” Andrews noted, “and it’s a lot easier to send a tweet than to write a formal letter…. It doesn’t really matter if [Trump] polarises people, that’s part of his brand. His catchphrases are like pop singles—people might mock them and hate them, but they cut through to the people he’s really talking to. He’s not trying to build a broad coalition, he’s got a passionate fanbase.” Indeed, it helps to remember Trump’s historically low approval ratings in context, namely, that he is still enormously popular with his base, more popular amongst Republicans than the party itself. This translates into considerable influence. His verbal attacks on the NFL, for example, shifted Republican support away from the league, an institution which has historically not been seen as controversial. A recent Gallup poll suggested that Trump may have influenced a “sharp increase” in support amongst Republicans for military action against North Korea.

An even more difficult, but necessary, question to ask is how and why Trump’s catchphrases, whether they be in tweets, off-the-cuff remarks like “shithole countries,” or in speeches, continue to draw in media. As scholar Chris Wells pointed out, the president’s ability to get coverage—according to mediaQuant, he earned nearly $5 billion worth of media value by the close of the election—is highly adaptive to the advertising model that dominates journalism: “Outlets want to get attention because they’re selling ads. But what leads them to lavish that much attention on one person? We’re just doing it because it gets us money. You haven’t applied any ethical standards to it, which is the issue.” In a dissensus environment, it is perhaps not despite polarization and his low approval rating that Trump succeeds as a communicator but because of it, with his open embrace of polarizing language and actions. He feeds the monetary beast of rage-clicking and love-clicking alike.

It’s therefore critical that we remember that Trump, as a brand, has mastered how attention operates in our particular political climate. He wears his red MAGA hat while golfing; he holds televised rallies; and he (or his team) posts regular updates to Instagram. His campaign team digs through social media for meme fodder. They use targeted Facebook ads, utilizing the platform’s sophisticated social graph. During the campaign, he appeared on talk shows and Saturday Night Live, and to this day, he still talks about the importance of ratings. He has authored books that have been translated into numerous languages, and his name adorns the skylines of cities. He is the first American president to appear in video games, like “Make America Great Again: The Trump Presidency,” which allows you to play him building a wall and fighting off ISIS with a handgun. It has 1,409 reviews on Steam, and overall is rated Very Positive. Expand our purview further, and we see user fora like on Reddit. We find Donald Trump memes, GIFs, viral videos, parody Twitter accounts, plus fabricated news sites and bot networks, some state-sponsored, some motivated by financial incentives. All of these things enrage detractors and galvanize supporters, and the barrage is constant.

There can be a cost here greater than the $5 billion in earned media and the consequent loss of attention to other candidates: the collapse of democracy. Scholars Steven Livitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have pointed out that increased polarization frequently precedes the breakdown of democratic institutions. Our country’s polarization did not begin with Trump, but it is also at its highest levels since the Civil War. There’s a wrinkle here: their research shows that older democracies do tend to be more resilient, but the dangers of a slide to authoritarianism are real.

Meaningful national discourse is faltering. Trump’s grip on headlines and trending topics prevents solid national narratives from forming that are not of his origination, while we react to outrage after outrage. Author and journalist Masha Gessen put the risks succinctly: “We’re seeing civil society fatigue with the different iterations of the travel ban, which is basically the exact same travel ban all over again, and that’s what I’m really worried about. Gradually, the fatigue is starting to stick.” Crucially, in a reactionary news cycle it can become more difficult to talk about the systemic changes necessary in society and across politics for meaningful change when we are so focused on one man and his words and actions.

Navigating a Digital Dissensus

Is democracy being changed forever by the technologies we turn to each day? To claim that fandom dynamics and new media are destroying democracy is to ignore all the other ways that democracy is already being challenged: widening economic disparities, the return of openly violent white supremacy, the ravages of the prison industrial complex and War on Drugs, rising levels of opiate addiction and obesity, big money-driven campaigns, gerrymandering and the destruction of the Voting Rights Act. Ascribing our echo chambers to social media alone ignores the lived realities of race-based segregation and class stratification, divisions that do not go away with social media but become more obvious because more people have an ability to amplify their voices and organize.

That said, communications strategy plays a major role in whose voices and perspectives dominate the conversation. We should recognize that what any viable political candidate or journalist needs to bring to the table is something Trump brings, too: a brand perceived as authentic, a large fan base, and mastery of a complex, fragmented media ecosystem driven by attention and emotion.

As we look to 2018 and beyond, there are things news media, political leaders and the general public can start doing differently with regards to their outreach and engagement. These suggestions are not at all comprehensive but hopefully a start:

1. It’s vital to proactively take control of the narrative, rather than reacting to Trump’s words and actions.

Lakoff notes that the media’s current tendency to respond to Trump’s tweets is part of the problem. People in media have control here, he argues:

Imagine if we took a different approach to Trump’s social media antics. Imagine if we put them in a small, quiet corner of the newspaper. Imagine if they were only a minor throwaway item at the end of the newscast. Imagine greeting them with calm clarity, not instant outrage.

Imagine keeping a steely focus on what actually matters: the dismantling of our government; Republicans robbing the middle class and poor to pay off the rich; Robert Mueller’s criminal investigation into the Trump Organization’s betrayal of America.

Imagine if we took back OUR power from this disgraceful man. Imagine if WE decided what was important, rather than dancing to Trump’s tune. Imagine if a tweet were just a tweet (or evidence in a criminal case), rather than the dictator of our reality.

Lakoff’s recommendations are difficult to implement in a country where media is fragmented and diffuse, where a message pushed out in one channel might never reach another group. Recent work from the Berkman Klein Center suggests that polarization continues, with different, asymmetric patterns on the left and the right. Any narrative strategy built for one media ecosystem may have little effect in another. Looking globally, Trump’s words and actions resonate far outside their context, and nations around the world, including Kim Jong Un’s diplomatic team, study and react to these tweets and messages, so we cannot ever fully minimize them. But the gist is right: controlling the national media agenda should not be in the domain of the president alone. And as the Berkman Klein researchers found, even before he was president, Trump set the agenda during the elections whether media were talking about Hillary or him. We cede tremendous power to him this way.

2. Taking control of the narrative looks different now—attention and perception of authenticity are critical, and we need to understand what contributes to this.

“I think we are going to see more and more leaders who don’t come from traditional backgrounds,” noted Penny Andrews, speaking to both the American and British contexts. Andrews continued:

In one sense that’s good, because the old style of leadership required a particular set of circumstances that shut out minorities, or really what are now majorities, from taking part. But straight away we’re hearing Oprah for 2020! The Rock for Vice President! Why can’t (insert name of celebrity here) be Prime Minister?

Anyone who wants to cut through the dissensus noise now needs to either come from such wealth and privilege that they can hire people who get why Trump-style communications are successful, or be a particular kind of communicator who people also view as authentic. Authenticity, for all his gold and orange plastic fakery, is something people really see in Trump.

And this is where a momentary burst of interest in Oprah Winfrey as a candidate gives us a hint as to what a better response might look like. If Oprah were to run, she would present a formidable media challenge to Trump (not to mention the symbolism of being a black woman billionaire). It takes a comprehensive media strategy—not just tweets, but an entire ecosystem of media, products, social media and events—to steer the conversation once more. Both Trump and Oprah have spent decades building the trust and capacity to do this at a national and international level.

JFK and Reagan did not usher in an era of movie star presidents with charming good looks, but their adeptness with the new media of their day changed the relationship of politicians and television, ensuring successors took the medium and its full affordances seriously. We should expect the same of those who follow Trump and how they engage with their constituents. Indeed, we can see how a politician’s communications strategy can resonate without devolving into Trumpian id, with leaders on the left like Bernie Sanders, Ted Lieu, Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand showing alternative models of using media that spark engagement and perceptions of authenticity. And while it’s stunning to see Trump’s mastery of Twitter, Obama’s following, at 99.7 million, still towers above Trump’s 47.3 million (as of press time). The question now is how political leaders can achieve the kind of media power that Trump and Oprah have access to, and whether this can sustain long term political change in our current context. Unless we want to smell what The Rock is cooking up in policy circles (and maybe that’s not necessarily a bad thing), it’s vital that political leaders and media makers study what works and what doesn’t now.

3. Contemporary communications is not just about facts—it’s also about the feels, and this is a key driver of attention… and ads.

Since Brexit and the U.S. election, much of the Western world has been turning toward the problems of misinformation and disinformation, and Trump himself has utilized the word “fake news” as a political accusation. As media scholar Whitney Phillips has written, “fake news” places more emphasis on truth and falsehood than motivations and sharing. In a recent Council of Europe report, researchers and theorists Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakshan argued forcefully that “We need to fight rumours and conspiracy with engaging and powerful narratives that leverage the same techniques as dis-information,” such as “provoking an emotional response, repetition, a strong visual aspect and a powerful narrative.”

Our neglect of these very human aspects of our interconnected, digitized world can be traced back to one of our earliest metaphors for the internet: an information superhighway. People do go online for information, but they also frequently surf an affirmation superhighway, an internet awash with feels. Political leaders and media outlets are no longer competing just with each other; they are competing with the side of the internet many have ignored and diminished—the world of memes, cat GIFs, emoji, selfies, writing in all caps, the world that inspires people to make fanzines and dress up as their favorite characters. Trump retweets GIFs for a strategic reason, and studying fandom dynamics in politics will be key to understanding how and why this is effective. We can no longer afford to ignore and diminish the tools of culture, humor, and entertainment when they are being wielded by the most powerful man in the world.

The danger of overly embracing the emotional side of communications is the fact that, as media outlets become increasingly dependent on ads, they also need to drive attention to their content. As Dave Karpf wrote for Civicist, a lot of this can be ascribed to the particular metrics that media use to measure impact. Mother Jones’s Monika Baueurlein and Clara Jeffrey have pointed out, “A growing part of this profession, our profession, is also coming to depend on fear, anger, and hate.” A media ecosystem responding to the feels is an ecosystem that creates revenue for both news outlets and technology platforms. It’s critical that we find a balance.

4. Building trust takes time and effort in an environment of dissensus, and it’s so much more than Twitter. Fandom dynamics can point us toward solutions.

It’s very easy to focus on Trump’s Twitter account. More difficult is trying to understand his entire presence in American society, both in its sheer breadth and longevity, and how he’s managed to command media despite low approval ratings from everyone but his base. Words that many see as signs of Trump’s racism, Islamophobia, and anti-immigrant xenophobia only work because there are enough people who want to hear them. But white nationalism is not the only American story, and it doesn’t have to be the dominant one. With the Overton Window widening, the U.S. is now shifting toward what is effectively a country of multiple third parties under the umbrella of a traditional two party party system. This has the potential to be a positive thing—the two party system limits imaginations, and some of the new coalitions aim to center historically marginalized people—but an important first step to addressing this new landscape is to acknowledge that the country continues to polarize and fragment and then to understand what is driving that and how to respond.

The question we have before us is whether to double down on a singular base while provoking a reaction from the rest or to determine what the new mechanisms for building a base might look like. To the former, Trump and his administration have done this brilliantly, and we now know what that looks like. We will need a more active imagination to accomplish the latter. Navigating this world will take more than a savvy Twitter strategy, and it will require looking beyond the traditional categories of alliances and affiliations in American politics and toward the kinds of systemic, material changes that society needs. It will also take new forms of communications and trust-building with fandoms that celebrities, for all their faults, have mastered in ways that political leaders, advocates and media are still catching up to. It will take learning from international communities who have struggled with similar challenges. And it cannot come at the cost of those who suffer most in this environment: women, racial and ethnic minorities, queer and transgender people, undocumented immigrants, religious minorities, people with disabilities and others.

In her recent interview with InStyle, Oprah commented on the potential of social media: “I’ve heard a lot of Twitter chatter where people have said, ‘Where are you? You should be speaking up on these things!’ But it makes no sense to speak when you cannot be heard. One hundred and forty characters—that is not how you want to make your mark in the world.” From her vantage point at the head of her global empire, she would know—Twitter is just one channel in a much broader world of media. Oprah does not have the traditional qualifications of a politician, and it wasn’t that long ago when we might have said the same of Trump. We would do well to learn from both of them in how they’ve built trust and the perception of authenticity over the years, shaping world narratives and conversations and building fandoms. It looks different from before, but it is not magic: It is built, tweet by tweet, show by show, product by product, event by event, appearance by appearance, partnership by partnership, GIF by GIF, outfit by outfit, all in dialogue and in concert with those eager to engage.

Written with thanks to Alexandra Boutopoulou, Paul Reilly, Jennifer 8. Lee, Penny Andrews, Ray Drainville, Anne Burns, Farida Vis, Hannah Guy and my editors at Civicist, Jessica McKenzie and Micah Sifry. This essay builds upon a talk I gave at the University of Sheffield’s Information School.