Crowd power: How online intensity wiped out traditional politics
Democrats are wondering how to beat Trump. The only way might be to play his game.
Jeremy Heimans is a lifelong activist and the co-founder and CEO of Purpose, an organization that builds and supports social movements around the world.
Jeremy Hiemans: The game of politics for many decades has been played as one in which you’re supposed to keep your head down, you’re supposed to be bland, you’re supposed to be uncontroversial; your job is to court as many people as you can in the middle.
Donald Trump from the very beginning took a different posture, everything he did was about unleashing the agency of a small number of intense supporters.
This was going to be a campaign in which you could unleash the things that you’d been thinking—maybe your mad uncle muttering at the television—and suddenly every mad uncle muttering at the television was empowered—was sent a signal by this man that those private thoughts could now be made public.
As Donald Trump’s candidacy unfolded he built and created a symbiotic relationship with what we think of as a vast, decentralized social media army that did his bidding during the campaign.
These were mostly young white men on forums like Reddit and 4chan and they developed a kind of culture of competing with each other, vying with each other, to produce the most creative, the most sticky, the most intrusive meme or message that would penetrate social media and then seep into the mainstream media.
So every day they would do this and in response to the events of the news cycle, be it Hillary Clinton’s latest comments, be it Donald Trump’s latest policy pronouncements, they would go take that moment and elevate it.
The mainstream media were generally confident that Hillary would win the election: she was ahead in the polls fairly consistently and because she had much higher favorables.
While both candidates were unpopular, Hillary’s favorables in public opinion polls were generally about ten points higher than Donald Trump’s.
But the people doing social media sentiment analysis, firms like ForeSee, were tracking and finding something very different. Their job is to track net sentiment on social media in connection to political debates. And what they were finding throughout the campaign was that while Donald Trump’s favorables were about ten points lower than Hillary, his net favorability on social media was about ten points higher than Hillary.
One of the most striking facts we discovered when researching this book was that the day that Donald Trump had the highest net favorability on social media was his darkest day of the campaign. It was the day of the Access Hollywood tape being released. And it was because at that day his supporters, who had such intensity of commitment to him, rallied around him. They surged to his defense.
And even though it seemed in the mainstream media like this was the day that was all losing for Donald Trump, on social media that day Donald Trump actually won.
He was elected because he intuitively understood what we call New Power. And New Power is this ability to harness the energy of a connected crowd.
And while Hillary Clinton had a very traditional relationship with her crowd, Donald Trump had a relationship that reflects what we now know you need to do in order to really build depth of commitment politically.
So the NRA understands intensity in the same way that Donald Trump does.
One of its great strengths is, in addition to its old power brand (the fact that it’s a feared institution that politicians kind of quiver at the thought of), it also has an incredibly powerful New Power arm. And that arm goes beyond just its membership, it actually has been very effective at cultivating the most extreme elements of its support base.
If you listen to an NRA ad now they actually don’t really talk about guns anymore, they talk about this conspiratorial worldview, they pit liberals against people with their values. They suggest that government is on a mission to take away people’s liberties.
And what they’ve learned is that the way to keep intensity in their crowd, the way therefore at moments that really matter for it—like the Manchin-Toomey bill, if you remember when that bill came to Congress after the Newtown massacre, 90 percent of Americans supported background checks in public opinion polls, yet the 10 percent of people who opposed them won.
And the reason they did was at that moment the NRA was able to rally the intensity of its supporters to outnumber the gun control forces 8 to 1 in calls to the key senators who were the swing votes on that issue.
And the way they’ve done that is not by reining in their supporters, but actually unleashing their agency, by providing micro-grants to small, highly extreme political organizations at the grassroots level all over the country, by supporting the commerce, the culture, the politics, and the totalizing worldview of gun rights supporters. And in doing so they’ve actually been led by their extremes, but it’s their extremes that are helping them to keep the power that they have.
The question that those of us who want a world that’s different to the world that Donald Trump is building is, how do we stop him? What will it take?
It won’t be another candidate—who is marginally more “favorable” or “popular” than Donald Trump—but lacks the intensity, that capacity to immobilize new power, that Donald Trump demonstrated. It will need to be a candidate, it will need to be a movement that has real intensity behind it. These are the stakes right now.
We think of those Parkland kids, and to me, they’re the hope; because what their showing is they understand this need to generate intensity, they understand how to use New Power.
They’ve got this intuitive understanding that it’s not enough just to be right, it’s not enough just to strut out the facts, that you have to embody that message in a way that means that if you’re a kid anywhere in the world you can take that, adapt it, and make it your own.
These movements tend to be decentralized, they tend to not have strict messaging associated with them, and they tend to be structured in such a way, like the #MeToo movement, where you can take a frame, adapt it, and add your own voice.
The election of Donald J. Trump surprised many, most of all the Democrats. Jeremy Heimans, a political activist and the Founder of the online media company Purpose, explains it simply: Donald Trump won the internet, and thus won the presidency. Heimans is a political activist and the Founder of the online media company Purpose, explains it simply: Donald Trump won the internet, and thus won the presidency. It's largely the same way the NRA stays in the public eye: through dominating the conversation. Trump and the NRA, for all their foibles, are both masters at what Heimans calls "New Power" — being able to seize the moment and keep people talking — and anyone attempting to beat him needs to become a master at it, too. Jeremy's new book is the highly recommended New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World-and How to Make It Work for You.
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