2016: year of the tactical takedown?

Cross-posted from MIT’s Center for Civic Media blog.

The present presidential election is a spectacle, in the truest sense of the word, like few before. Just as FDR’s weekly radio addresses and JFK’s success in the first televised presidential debate watermark the adoption and cooption of a particular communication medium for political ends, so the 2016 campaign may go down in history as marking a seismic shift in the landscape of political uses of media. The candidate leading the charge, this time round, is unquestionably Donald Trump, currently the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. Yet it’s a little more difficult to identify precisely which medium or platform Trump has coopted. The most readily available answer seems to be ‘all of the above’ – although in different ways.

First, there’s social media. Facebook and Twitter are new, but not, any longer, that new, and have been adopted by politicians in all stripes in earlier cycles. Nonetheless, they have served as a venue par excellence for the unfettered, unfiltered spewings that Trump excels in (particularly Twitter, with its easy sharing functions and disproportionate usage by newsmakers). Second, the mainstream media has also been remarkably receptive to and complicit in the large share of attention Trump has received. A recent chart produced by the Economist is striking, showing that coverage given to Trump is far in excess of his rival candidates.

Trump, it therefore seems, has successfully coopted a plethora of platforms, new and old, digital and analog: we are thus living through a revolution in political communication in which the tactics are more important than the battlefield they are being deployed on. The use of the term “tactics” here is deliberate. In class this week, we were introduced to the concept of tactical media, a concept which grew out of the exploitation of “the revolution in consumer electronics and expanded forms of distribution (from public access cable to the internet)” and is what happens when these platforms “are exploited by groups and individuals who feel aggrieved by or excluded from the wider culture (The ABC of Tactical Media”). Tactical media has elsewhere been characterized as “expressions of dissent … created from readily available, relatively cheap technology and means of communication (e.g., radio, video and Internet)”, which are “used opportunistically”, and are “evolving constantly” (Renzi, The Space of Tactical Media.)

What is striking is how similar elements of Trump’s approach are to a “tactical” approach. Much has been made, for example, of Trump’s opportunistic utilization of the free media provided by his outlandish statements and stunts. His dissents, criticism and opposition – in the form of transgressions against GOP orthodoxy, and bigoted statements against various groups – have been a fundamental part of his campaign, and perhaps his appeal. And his unpredictable, shifting targets and talking points, which would of course be disastrous in an actual administration, have made it almost impossible for his campaign rivals to keep up with – a factor which also worries allies of his putative general election opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Of course, it’s imperative to point out at this juncture that nothing of the substance of what Trump says, does or believes have the remotest relation to the views of those who have typically created tactical media or employed it as an approach. Moreover, Trump’s status as a privileged-from-birth billionaire stands fundamentally at odds with the use of tactical media by and for those outside the mainstream; his rhetorical opposition to the elitist-capitalist system on which so much of his self-image relies is perfectly contradictory and vacuous; and he attacks, rather than celebrates or supports, “cultures of exile and migration”.

Yet even though Trump is so far removed from tactical media in a spiritual, ideological sense, the fact that practical elements of his approach bear a resemblance suggests that a tactical media mindset may offer one of the best hopes for countering his campaign. As it happens, examples of such a backlash have already appeared: in the #NeverTrump hashtag, for instance, but also more pointedly in the unlikely “Donald Drumpf” trend, which involves a browser hack to render Trump’s surname “Drumpf” across the web. In class, we also played around with Newsjack, a tool co-created by Sasha and Dan Schultz, which remixes the text of mainstream news sites. It’s remarkable the effect that can be had subverting the news in this way and, perhaps needless to say, my fake story was the hypothetical impeachment and removal from office, a year from now, of one President Trump.

The mainstream media, the political establishment, rival candidates – all have been stunned into submission or complicity by Trump’s continued success at the polls. Perhaps a more effective approach to defeating his candidacy starts with turning tactical tools and techniques against his campaign. The myriad examples that can be drawn from tactical media may show the way.

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