On Monday night, the pro-Trump media set its sights on a new political enemy: young adult survivors of gun violence.
The attack on outspoken survivors of the Parkland school shooting began with an article on the pro-Trump blog Gateway Pundit — known for trafficking in conspiracy theories like that of the unsolved murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich — that suggested David Hogg, a 17-year-old student, had “been coached on anti-Trump lines” by his father, a former FBI agent, for television appearances in which he calls for stricter gun laws. On Tuesday morning, Lucian Wintrich, the author of the initial Gateway Pundit story, tweeted that the Parkland students were “milking the deaths of their peers for their careers.”
Pro-Trump media sites like Infowars, Big League Politics, and TruePundit quickly picked up the talking points, adding their own spin. They dug up old photos of Hogg on a tour of CNN’s studios in Atlanta years ago, as well as a clip of Hogg being interviewed on a California local news broadcast last year for reasons completely unrelated to gun violence — offering each as proof of Hogg’s anti-Trump agenda. By Tuesday afternoon, posts ricocheted across the internet, accusing Hogg of being a paid crisis actor who pretends to be a victim during national tragedies in order to exploit them for political gain. On Facebook alone, Hogg “crisis actor” posts racked up hundreds of thousands of shares in just a few hours; similarly, YouTube’s top trending video accused Hogg of being an actor.
Outside the fever swamps, the attacks against the Parkland students have been largely regarded as the logical conclusion of a media apparatus with a knee-jerk reaction toward conspiracy theories to counter factual reporting and spin political narratives. But for those who’ve paid close attention to the pro-Trump media’s tactics, the attacks on the Parkland students feel different — and not just because of their toxicity. By antagonizing underage survivors of a national tragedy, the pro-Trump media abandoned its usual play for the moral high ground and made an uncharacteristic miscalculation: It chose a popular, deeply sympathetic, nonpolarizing political enemy. More specifically, it chose a political enemy effectively born onto the internet and innately capable of waging an information war.
Unlike the pro-Trump media’s usual enemies, the Parkland students innately understand how to use this broken system to their advantage.
Dating back to the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election, the pro-Trump media has proven it’s remarkably savvy at crafting captivating narratives for its followers. These narratives follow a similar pattern in that they identify and attack a polarizing enemy — often a legacy institution or brand that’s particularly vulnerable to digital propaganda, like Hillary Clinton, the Washington establishment, or the mainstream media. Leveraging the power of their followers across social platforms, the pro-Trump media’s best practitioners attempt to own the story and stay one step ahead of their enemy. By the time the enemy has scrambled to address the outrage or debunk false information, the pro-Trump media has moved on to the next microscandal.
In the case of Hillary Clinton, the pro-Trump media chose a target saddled with decades of political baggage. When Clinton’s stolen emails were leaked, it waged an incessant online campaign designed not only to discredit her, but to dominate news cycles by enticing mainstream outlets to cover it. In the case of #HillarysHealth and #Pizzagate, it invented defamatory conspiracy theories, forcing the candidate into an unwinnable choice: stoop to address the fever swamp’s claims or let them fester and gather steam. And the Clinton camp, in keeping with establishment politicking, struggled to counter the online invective and misinformation.
Much the same happened with Congressman Devin Nunes’ memo just last month. Over the course of two weeks, Nunes’ memo was weaponized by the pro-Trump media and its online viral outrage machine, which forced reluctant Democrat lawmakers to obsess about, respond to, and speculate over a largely political document. When the memo was finally released and largely dismissed, Nunes and the pro-Trump media deflected all criticism — they’d already moved on. There were different, more incendiary memos on the way.
Similarly, factions of the mainstream media have proven time and again that they are unprepared for the pro-Trump media’s information war. Whether it’s Scott Pelley falling into a trap while interviewing pro-Trump personality Mike Cernovich, former New York Times public editor Liz Spayd taking the bait while being trolled on Twitter, or Megyn Kelly and NBC allowing Alex Jones to gin up outrage and scoop her on her own interview, the mainstream media has repeatedly failed to grasp the pro-Trump media’s new rules. It’s never quite understood that its online arm isn’t just an opposition force — it’s a parallel institution that insists on its own reality.
In the case of the Parkland students, however, the mold doesn’t fit. A look at the Twitter feeds of students like David Hogg shows that they are a remarkable foil for the pro-Trump media’s trolling tactics. Like the pro-Trump media, they, too, are an insurgent political force that’s native to the internet. And while they use legacy platforms like cable news to build awareness of their names and of their causes, much of the real work happens online.
They use platforms like Twitter to call out and put pressure on politicians. They address prominent critics like Bill O’Reilly not with bland, carefully written statements, but by dunking on them, and they respond to misinformation in real-time with their own viral, emoji-laden posts. Rather than take the bait on the crisis actor narrative, they opted to have fun with the conspiracy theories by mocking them. “I’m thankful that there are people out there finding my doppelgangers for me. I’ve always wanted to have a party with a room full of people who look like me,” Emma Gonzalez, a Parkland student, told BuzzFeed News. By dismissing the conspiracies for what they are — a tired, rather boring page in the Infowars playbook — Gonzalez and her classmates have stripped them of their power. Before the pro-Trump media can finish its line of attack, the students, unfazed, have moved on, staying one step ahead of their political enemies and owning the story.
The pro-Trump media will no doubt continue its onslaught. And because the online ecosystems that undergird all of these interactions are deeply broken, the assault against David Hogg and his classmates will likely continue to spread across platforms like YouTube and Facebook and Twitter. But unlike the pro-Trump media’s usual enemies, the Parkland students innately understand how to use this broken system to their advantage. They know intuitively what the pro-Trump media has known (and used to its benefit) for years now: The way to win an information war is not to shy away from conflict online, but to lean into it.