Pandora’s Box

An Internet's Worth of Hatred Unleashed

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Social media has become increasingly important during political electioneering. Over time it has gone from being used as an instrument to inform, to one used to sew division and spread hate speech. Some commentators now fear that violent sentiment online will spill over into real life.

  • Facts


    • Political messaging via social media first became important during Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign when the “Yes We Can” slogan spread online.
    • During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump’s campaign staff has embarked on a deliberate campaign of misinformation and attack via social media.
    • Many critics of the political campaigns on social media have said that pre-existing norms, about what is, and what is not, acceptable to say in a public forum, have been abolished this year.
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A man hides his face behind a Pepe the Frog sign after Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump spoke at an airport campaign rally in Albuquerque
A man at a Trump rally hides behind a Pepe the Frog sign. The hashtag MAGA stands for the Trump slogan, Make America Great Again. Source: Reuters

It was during the 2008 presidential election, when Barack Obama’s campaign began using the motto, “Yes We Can,” that social media became a serious tool for politicians.

By the 2012 presidential election, hashtags on Twitter and advertisements on Facebook had become standard elements of any electoral campaign. And this year, during the contest for nomination, U.S. politician Bernie Sanders mobilized young followers primarily via social media.

During those first few years, social media was used mainly to motivate and inform potential voters. However this year, things are different: Social media has seen a rise in negative comments and posts.

Mobilizing one’s own followers and winning over the undecided remain the main goal of social media campaigns, but there is also a new element. The internet is hosting a culture war, the magnitude of which has not been seen before, about whose interpretation of social change will dominate. The struggle extends from personal spite and deliberate disinformation all the way to organized diatribes. More often than not, it degenerates into insults and harassment – one reason why two potential buyers for the platform lost interest in Twitter.

“There has been a general breakdown in civility.”

Craig Dunn, Republican party chairman, Howard County, Indiana

This year, campaign staff was willing to participate in internet mudslinging. At the beginning of the year, Mr. Sanders was criticized from his within own ranks for not distancing himself from militant adherents – the so-called “Bernie bros” – earlier, who were intimidating and harassing female supporters of Hillary Clinton. It would also be fair to say that the campaign by some of Mr. Sanders’ more malicious followers is partly responsible for the demonization of Ms. Clinton.

Donald Trump and his campaigners adopted their methods. With the term “Crooked Hillary,” he vehemently pursued the negative in the social media. “Crooked Hillary” became a meme – a widely shared, ongoing insider joke that various groups spread to signal their solidarity.

The current President, Mr. Obama has already used insider jokes to mobilize his supporters. But his memes usually aim at supporting the candidate rather than attacking the opponent. Donald Trump has changed the rules of that game with regard to political communication, including the use of memes. Instead of highlighting his own views and proposals, Mr. Trump’s electoral team adopted a strategy right from the beginning of attack, both personal and below the belt.

And so tactics usually used by advocates of hate-speech entered the campaign: The kinds of groups that encourage a feeling of unity among members by spreading disinformation, defaming opponents and intimidating anyone they dislike. These activities promote internal cohesion and external venom, writes American psychologist and former FBI agent, Jack Schafer. And when the hate speech escalates, acts of hatred can follow.

Far right-wing groups use social media in order to promote their agenda. On Twitter, neo-Nazi networks are the fastest-growing extremist associations. During this confrontational presidential campaign, so-called alt-right groups that reject classic conservatism as not radical enough, bonded with more extreme Trump supporters online, in a hot mess of spontaneous joke and memes as well as deliberately organized hate speech.

One example is the frog Pepe from Matt Furie’s comic series; for a long time, the somewhat disillusioned and sad animal was a symbol of suffering on through life for many young fans. But then the right wing started using it: Pepe as a Nazi, Pepe accompanying or embodying Mr. Trump, Pepe as the last stalwart against political correctness around gender and immigration. The Pepe experiment went “better than we could have dreamed,” said an anonymous white nationalist to the U.S.-based website, the Daily Beast.

Mr. Furie has distanced himself from the use of his cartoon character. In September, the Anti-Defamation League, a U.S.-based organization that tracks anti-Semitism, classified the meme as hate-speech because of its many racist and anti-Semitic interpretations. “Once again, racists and haters have taken a popular Internet meme and twisted it for their own purposes of spreading bigotry and harassing users,” stated Jonathan A. Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League.

Often the spread of such pernicious symbols or slogans is beyond the control of campaign staff. With regard to Pepe however, Mr. Trump himself continued to share the meme even after it had become problematic. Many considered that he basically legitimized the hate meme. Ms. Clinton’s campaign staff then felt compelled to publish an article explaining the symbol.

Personalities like technology editor Milo Yiannopoulos from the alt-right website Breitbart News, as well as Palmer Luckey founder of the technology company Oculus, helped spread the negative comments and jokes. Already in 2014, Mr. Yiannopoulus had become a figurehead of the hate-movement in the Gamergate controversy, during which harassed and threatened members of the digital gaming community, charging women and minorities with being overly politically correct.

After starting a racist campaign against African-American actress Leslie Jones, Mr. Yiannopoulus was permanently banned from Twitter. Mr. Luckey, on the other hand, represents a more reputable spectrum of the conservative right wing. But a few weeks ago, he encountered criticism when it became known that he had financed malicious campaigns in support of Mr. Trump – and indirectly supported the spread of hate-speech and anti-Semitic memes.

What is problematic is how the political tone has been lowered – because it will be very difficult to reverse that movement.

Republican politician Craig Dunn of Indiana speaks of a “general breakdown in civility.” What is more, online hate-speech intimidates minorities, distracts from the actual issues, spreads racist, sexist and anti-Semitic stereotypes and has been proven, through reciprocal incitement, to increase the proclivity toward violence in real life – that is, it has an impact outside the Internet. This is especially true for statements like Mr. Trump’s, where he said that if he is defeated, he might very well dispute the outcome. There is concern that with this election, the hate might spill over, out of the Internet and the pages of social media, and onto U.S. streets. No matter who wins this week, the election will need to be followed by a serious debate on the awful things that have been said, all in the name of political campaigning.


Yasmina Banaszczuk is a journalist for Handelsblatt. To contact the author:

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