Biden Memes and “Pussy Grabs Back”: Gendered Anger After the Election
Hollis Griffin / Denison University


Biden Meme Example

An example of Biden memes where Vice President Joe Biden plots the planting of booby traps for President-elect Donald Trump.

Like a lot of self-avowed lefties, I have been collecting Biden memes to cheer myself up after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election. These memes feature snippets of dialogue over pictures of Vice President Biden meeting with President Obama. In some, Biden plots to keep President-elect Trump out of the White House: hiding keys to the locks, laying booby traps. President Obama then talks Biden down as you would a friend who is getting ready to drunkenly punch someone in a bar, telling him “Stop it, Joe,” or “Joe, seriously.” In others, Biden hatches schemes to embarrass or frustrate the incoming President: changing the White House’s wifi password, calling attention to Trump’s (allegedly) tiny hands. President Obama then chides Biden like a weary parent, saying “We can’t do that Joe,” or “Joe, go sit down.” Although I find masculine bluster off-putting, I can’t help but feel affection for Vice President Biden. He’s the uncle who called you “the little shithead” when you were growing up but still snuck you beer on Thanksgiving. While I am wary of feeling too warmly about politicians, Vice President Biden is rough around the edges and appealing for that. After an election in which “shooting from the hip” meant little more than spouting misogyny, racism, and xenophobia, the Biden memes point to an adjacent form of masculine truth-telling, one rooted in an ethos of respect and integrity more than one that trades in divisiveness and shit-talking.

Memes provide good fodder for thinking about masculinity because their repetition works like gender does more generally. Gender becomes legible through its recurrence; it creates legible patterns through evermore citations that can also deviate and take new forms. [ (( Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Routledge NY: 1990). ))] The permutations of text and image found in memes operate by way of that tension between variety and sameness seen in gender: new text is laid over familiar images or similar ideas are communicated through different pictures. Part of what makes the ideas about masculinity seen in the Biden memes so refreshing is the trouble they create with neat gender categories. With its white working-class evangelical base, the Republican Party is often characterized by a no-nonsense masculinity, as though its members and leaders are the true defenders of “freedom” and “liberty.” In contrast, Democrats are often painted as being more conventionally feminine; they are constructed as being accepting, sensitive, empathic. As a politician identified with the Left, Biden provides Democrats with a masculine archetype not often attributed to them. The caricature in these memes is assertive and confident—a tough guy who will bloody his nose in the interest of inclusiveness and care for the other. The Biden memes communicate the sentiments I hear again and again from lefties about the 2016 election—anger, indignation—and demonstrate just how facile gendered explanations for political identification can be.

U.S. culture often demonstrates deep contempt for traditionally feminine values. Respect for others and sensitivity to issues of difference were frequent rallying cries among Democratic politicians in the recent elections. These appeals to voters promise to transform the persistent, masculine values at the center of U.S. politics. In the value system most prevalent in those politics, striving for coalition is weak, seeking collaboration is lame, and aiming for cooperation is condemnable. In sum, Democratic candidates made appeals to voters that were rooted in vows to transform the masculine fabric of national identity. Unfortunately, the conventionally feminine values of care and reciprocity are not as laudable as the traditionally masculine associations made with freedom and individual responsibility. Needless to say, U.S. culture values the latter far more than the former. As such, Donald Trump’s particular breed of masculinity dovetails with longstanding ideas about what constitutes Americannness. That fact made his worldview seductive because it vowed to protect a set of beliefs that many people see as both deeply American and under attack. It also provided his appeals to voters with a distinctly macho tone that he was able to ride to a victory in the Electoral College.

Another Biden meme example

Another example of Biden memes where Vice President Joe Biden remarks about another popular meme, the size of Donald Trump’s hands.

True, Biden memes issue a rejoinder to the venom of the 2016 election season by offering a different idea of masculinity than the one offered by Donald Trump, but they recapitulate gendered dynamics of power more than they rewrite them. The Biden memes are funny because they are a sword fight between old white guys about what the U.S. should be and who should get to decide. In that way, the Biden memes participate in an ongoing call and response from right to left and back again. This back and forth rarely alters the shape of the political conversation in which it participates nor the gendered symbolic that helps keep it in motion. In their play with ideas about masculinity, memes display an ambivalence that both critiques and reveres. [ (( Linor Shifman, Memes in Digital Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013): 76. ))] As seen in the Biden memes, the Vice-President is part alpha-male badass, part ill-behaved manbaby. As cultural forms, memes convey information humorously and in a timely manner; they multiply and travel because they are current and funny. The Biden memes are evidence of how gender mutates and how political energies circulate and, because of that, they are evidence of how difficult it can be to both reimagine political energies and rewrite gendered scripts. It is no accident that the memes featuring Biden are funny because they depict him wanting to start a fight. If the memes were to feature Biden wanting to discuss coalition-building or attempting to create a dialogue about care for the other, the caricature would not be terribly masculine or all that funny—or rather, not masculine or funny in a way that would resonate well in the contemporary moment.

Third Biden meme example

Another example of Biden memes. Anger about the political climate is presented in humorous forms through Biden memes.

Yet, I am too depressed in the wake of the 2016 election to dismiss the Biden memes entirely. I have been trying to think of them as objects that might reveal useful ideas for leftist politics in the Trump era. In these memes, Biden’s anger is funny, yes, but it is also motivating. I think Biden memes are so popular because they involve both anger and humor. Affects become “sticky” on the internet because they travel quickly and are contagious; as forces, they gather more weight the faster they travel. [ (( See Ken Hillis, Susanna Paasonen, and Michael Petit, eds., introduction to Networked Affect (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015): 1-26. ))] Like all affects, anger and humor morph and change shape over time. So anger can become funny, at which point it bursts and then dissipates. [ (( Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003): 103. ))] When it does that, anger does not exist long beyond the moment in which it is felt. In fact, in precipitating laughter, anger cum humor encloses political energy in a feedback loop that feeds itself more than anything else. [ (( Jodi Dean, “Affect and Drive,” in Networked Affect, 89-100. ))] In contrast, anger that remains anger nags as it moves; it needles, annoys, and persists. As a result, this sort of anger retains a potency that hums on, like a sound with a shrillness that does not crest or ebb. And when anger morphs into fear, it grows in scope and magnitude, like a sound whose intensity is increasing so much that you cannot help but try to stop it. [ (( Sedgwick, Touching Feeling, 103. ))] Anger as anger and anger cum fear are phenomena that move bodies and rewrite energies over time. They are powerful forces in politics precisely because they are experienced durably and intensely.

Because anger is more motivating than humor, I keep thinking: why cede anger to masculinity? Rage about the way the world is not the sole domain of Donald Trump, nor is it the exclusive territory of the angry white men who (in part) elected him. Truly, women, racial and ethnic minorities, and LGBT people have plenty to rage about—and did so well before Donald Trump won the election. For the left, an important task is how to use anger in ways that generate new modes of organizing and activism. At this point in time, these activities must be reimagined to meet the demands of a decidedly different, newly challenging political environment. For that reason, the Biden memes are most useful when they can be seen as angry more than goofy, and not solely evidence of masculine bluster. After all, Biden himself has displayed more than a few feminist tendencies. That and, if gender is a “copy without original,” there is nothing all that masculine about anger or any feeling or activity associated with it in the first place. [ (( Butler, Gender Trouble. ))]

Pussy Grabs Back meme

The “Pussy Grabs Back” meme served as a feminist rallying cry before the November 8th election and references President-elect Trump’s history of attacking women.

While the gendering of anger is a cultural construction, it is also concrete. Like all affects, anger is corporeal and that is what makes it motivating. It is a bodily phenomenon that jolts frames and rearranges limbs. In the case of anger, people experience it as a quickened pace of the heart or a pain in the pit of the stomach. One of the angriest memes I have seen is related to the unique risks weathered by women at the hands of the particular breed of masculinity cultivated by Donald Trump. The meme features the phrase “Pussy Grabs Back” over the image of a snarling cat pouncing on its prey. As a feminist call to arms, the meme expresses anger about the President-elect’s cavalierness regarding his history of attacking women in order to rally voters ahead of the November 8th election. Although my experience of it can only be empathic, the meme showed up in my Instagram and Twitter feeds repeatedly in the days leading up to the election. The meme communicates a distinct rage embodied by women and, because it is so angry and explicitly sexed, I think it is a crucial reminder of what is at stake after the recent election. If the list of Trump’s appointees to various posts in his administration is any indication, there’s no time to giggle and titter about Joe Biden exiting the White House. I am hopeful that the “Pussy Grabs Back” meme lingers beyond the Biden memes because it pries anger loose from its conventionally gendered trappings and places it squarely in the grip of people who must remain motivated no matter how depressing things seem right now. Joe Biden is leaving office and his memes will likely fall out of circulation shortly thereafter. I suspect that the “Pussy Grabs Back” meme will stick around because it contains an energy that harasses and persists—and because it offers a crucial reminder: pussy must grab back until 2020, at the very least.

Image Credits:

1. Biden meme
2. Second Biden meme
3. Third Biden meme
4. Pussy Grabs Back

Please feel free to comment.




The Authenticity of Trump, Emotional Democracy, and the Red Pill
Víctor Navarro-Remesal and Ignacio Bergillos / Centre d’Ensenyament Superior Alberta Giménez

Red or Blue Pill from The Matrix

Neo’s choice between the red or blue pill in The Matrix has taken on new meaning in some online communities.

After the dispassionate politics of the past we are living in an era in which information and communication processes have a heavy influence on the political debate. We must thus focus on the changing nature of the meaning-making processes in our societies and the ways in which the metaphors that help us explain our conception of the world are framed. Today, politicians abandon rhetorics based on facts and figures and enter a new battlefield: the conflict to catch the attention of the public through grand narratives and stories. If, as Westen defends, people tend to build their understanding of what reality is on stories that create an affective link with actual events, a keyword in the politics of this century will be storytelling. [ (( Westen, Drew. 2007. The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of a Nation. New York: Public Affairs. ))]

In a post-truth era where emotions are more important than facts, compelling narratives stand out among political strategies. Manuel Arias Maldonado puts it better: “There seems to be a general tendency towards the decline of rhetorical rationalism as a means of public persuasion, in favor of an authentic language that emphasizes emotional register, personal experience and suspicion towards the elites, that is, that a story excels an argument. We then speak of a post-factual democracy where facts count less than the feelings they produce”. Therefore, it is increasingly difficult to identify the boundaries between reality and fiction, rumours and facts, news and fake stories. [ (( Arias Maldonado, Manuel. 2016. La democracia sentimental. Política y emociones en el siglo XXI. Barcelona: Página Indómita. ))]

In this context, authenticity is regarded as a distinctive value that identifies politicians as genuine and trustworthy. But, as Enli notes, being an authentic politician is not the same as being truthful. [ (( Enli, Gunn. 2015. Mediated Authenticity. How the Media Constructs Reality. New York: Peter Lang. ))] We should instead analyze how authenticity illusions are created or how authenticity is performed. For Enli, authenticity in politics is built on the performance of a candidate who is valued as spontaneous, intimate, and consistent. In her book, she elaborates on the construction of Barack Obama as an authentic politician. Interestingly, we can compare how these three strategies have also been applied to Donald Trump. While Obama was introduced as the unlikely candidate, Trump is a traditional American one: a famous name backed up by personal wealth and genuine intentions. [ (( ibid., 117 ))] Both of them, however, have presented intimate stories from their family and life. If Naomi Klein thinks that Obama went a step further compared to previous presidents in terms of “turning the White House into a kind of reality show starring the lovable Obama clan”, Trump has gone further by taking advantage of his numerous appearances in mainstream media. Today, a star of reality television inhabits the White House. [ (( ibid., cited in Enli 2015, 114 ))]

Second, Obama and Trump have shown consistent performances because they have seemed true to themselves and to the values they defend along the way. But while “mainstream media were accused of having a ‘love affair’ with Obama during his election campaigns,” Trump insists on denouncing a continuous mistreat and unfair coverage by the press. [ (( ibid., 115 ))] Third, in both cases spontaneity is built on social media, especially on Twitter. Their participation in online platforms is designed to create a sense of improvised and unscripted communication with the users-voters. This illusion of authenticity reveals a disquieting trend in today’s emotional democracy: the rising belief that the direct address from politicians through social media (that promotes individualistic interpretations) is a transparent communication with citizens.

In its most extreme version, authenticity can override any notion of truth – especially the truth as presented by the media. If every idea depends on the existence of its opposite, authenticity demands the construction of a deceptive reality. That is the case of the so-called RedPill right, for whom Trump is a disrupter of that deception.

Red or Blue Pill

“Red pill,” when used by members of its community, refers to an “awakening” to a conspiracy of injustices brought on by “social justice warriors”, radical feminism, and political correctness.

“Being red pill”, argues a user at rooshvforum.com (a site in the so-called “manosphere”), “is seeing how the real world works. Donald Trump sees how the real world works”. But how, then, does the world work? Taken from The Matrix, [ (( Lana and Lilly Wachowski, 1999 ))] the notion of a pill that lifts a veil from reality was adopted early this decade by online groups self-described as “men right’s activists” (MRA) and “pick-up artists”, who used it to describe an “awakening” to the reality that female submission is a myth. Their view is that, as journalist Rebecca Reid has described it, “what women really want from men is a bit of good old-fashioned subjection”. [ (( Reid, Rebeca. 2015. “Welcome to the Red Pill: The angry men’s rights group that ‘knows what women want’.” The Telegraph, November 13. Accessed December 8, 2016 ))]

The concept became some kind of shibboleth for a broadly defined and disperse community, with sites such as trp.red, the subreddit TheRedPill (more than 176000 users) or the Twitter account @redpilltweets (14600 followers). In typical net society fashion, redpillers lack a hierarchy or a governing force, to the extent that the administrator of RedPillPhilosophy.com claims that “when I named it “red pill”, it had nothing to do with what other popular “red pill”-related internet groups believe in”. But the contents of that site do match the trends of other redpill spaces: reports on presumed attacks on Trump supporters or men, criticism of liberals, feminism (with headlines like “BODY SLAMMED! Female Gets Taste of Gender Equality After Shoving Boy”), or the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Journalist Jay Allen described redpillers as a conflation of “conspiracy theorists, Men’s Rights Activists, Pick-Up Artists, GamerGate, even the Neoreaction”: active online communities of mostly white males, tech-savvy, self-described as ”libertarian” and “atheists”. [ (( Allen, Jay. 2015. “A Beginners Guide to the Red Pill Right.” Boingboing, January 28. Accessed December 8, 2016 ))] Redpillers often see themselves as the victims of a “Cultural Marxism” conspiracy plotted by “social justice warriors”, radical feminism, and political correctness.

As a norm, redpillers support Trump: according to journalists Ben Collins and Ken Judy, “the third most popular subreddit for active users of TheRedPill” in August 2016 was r/The_Donald, “Reddit’s home for Trump supporters”. [ (( Collins, Ben and Ken Judi. 2016. “Woman-Haters and Pickup Artists Love Trump on Reddit.” The Daily Beast, August 11. Accessed December 8, 2016 ))] A year ago, a poster at TheRedPill admitted that “[it] makes me feel somewhat embarrassed to admit this, but after taking the pill, I am starting to like Donald Trump and see myself voting for him”, ending his post with “Lessons learned: Trump might embody a lot of red pill principles”.

The noun redpill became a verb, meaning to wake up someone to the realities of gender politics, to the true nature of Trump, and to his unfair treatment by the media. Two months before the elections, a user at r/Ask_The_Donald wrote a post defending his candidate titled “HOW TO: Red Pill Someone”, with a forewarning admitting that “this post obviously has a Trump bias. I am aware that not all of this is 100% truth”. At the end of it, the poster asks: “Have I red pilled you?”, and, after encouraging the readers to fact-check the sources themselves (since they “can be fake”), adds: “If you are however a now converted Trump supporter, check out /r/the_donald and this subreddit to join our culture”.

In the RedPill sphere, thus, supporting Trump is not just a matter of agreeing with his policies or even trusting facts, but of being “awakened”, a sudden clash with an “authentic” reality not unlike the one Neo experiences in The Matrix. A commenter in the same “HOW TO” post writes: “I was given the red pill, and I finally saw what the world truly looked liked. It’s astonishing, honestly”. Becoming a Trump supporter is a passional, transformative experience that reveals the previously known world to be an illusion – a deception that can never be trusted again. It is not only a matter of knowledge as justified true belief, but one of knowledge as salvation and epiphany. It is truly a post-factual, post-truth approach not only to politics, but to knowledge itself, where dogmas are presented as self-realizations and authenticity is seen under a “conspiranoid” lens, a world where the separation between ideas and emotions is virtually non-existent.

Redpillers may not be the majority of voters, but they point to an unavoidable problem: emotions cannot be left out of politics, or they may end up being redirected towards mockeries of debate and dialogue, producing realities where conspiracy theories like Pizzagate are taken seriously. Any opinion, as John Stuart Mill defended, needs to be “fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed”, or it risks being turned into “a dead dogma, not a living truth”. [ (( Robson, John M. 1963 – 91. The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. ))] Or, we may add, into conspiracy theories. There is no escaping from emotions and passions, nor should they be excluded from deliberation, but dialogue and debate should be protected by a healthy understanding of these and their role in a sentimental democracy.

Image Credits:

1. The Matrix (author’s screen grab)
2. The Matrix (author’s screen grab)
3. Pizzagate video

Please feel free to comment.




Informational Infidelity: What Happens When the “Real” News is Considered “Fake” News, Too?
Melissa Zimdars / Merrimack College

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Information infidelity further blurs the line between “fake” and “real” news.

Since the election of Donald Trump, “fake” news has turned into a widely debated topic. People are questioning whether it influenced the election, showing how some fake news articles were circulated on Facebook more than mainstream news articles, and demonstrating that the President Elect himself is prone to circulating questionable sources via twitter.

Yet after the election as numerous websites were being called out for creating outright fake news, such as 70news.wordpress.com, or criticized for circulating false, misleading, unreliable, conspiracy, or “truthy” news, such as 100percentfedup.com or Natural News, readers of those websites pushed back, arguing that mainstream news is actually the “real” “fake” news we need to be worried about (see image below). This reaction is evident in some of the push-back I received after making a resource about false, misleading, clickbait-y, and satirical ‘news’ sources, and by a man self-investigating a conspiracy theory after media outlets worked to debunk it. What can be done when media criticism and debunking just leads to accusations of either being “in cahoots” with the “lamestream media,” as was the case with my resource, or assertions that the “Pizzagate” conspiracy is a false flag staged by the mainstream media in a plot to shut down alternative media?

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Website readers argued mainstream news is the “real” “fake” news. (Click for full size image.)

These accusations against mainstream news organizations as being “fake” is likely connected to studies showing a significant portion of the population distrusts “The Media.” And while claims that mainstream news organizations are the “real” “fake” news are unwarranted, the general distrust felt by many people is justifiable. During the presidential election, news organizations were criticized for giving Donald Trump too much “free air time,” for creating a false balance or false equivalence between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and for circulating sensational headlines and stories. For example, just weeks before the election, news headlines stated that the FBI was “reopening” an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server following FBI Director James Comey’s statement to congress saying they were reviewing some emails potentially connected to the case in order to determine their (in)significance. Nowhere in Comey’s statement did it say Clinton’s case was being reopened, but that’s the message millions of people heard thanks to contemporary journalism. In my most cynical moments, cases like these do make me feel like “real” news is indeed “fake” news, too.

Of course “fake news” has existed as long as “real” news, with yellow journalism, tabloids, and a long history of news and magazine hoaxes inherently connected to news as an historic reality. The difference today, perhaps, is the speed of sharing all kinds of “news,” with some evidence suggesting many of us share or retweet without actually reading what we are sharing or retweeting. [ (( Maksym, Gabrielkov, Arthi Ramachandran, Augustin Chaintreau, Arnaud Legout. “Social Clicks: What and Who Gets Red on Twitter?” ACM SIGMETRICS/IFIP Performance Conference, June 2016, Antibes Juan-les-Pins, France. ))] This immediacy is mirrored in how news itself is produced, whether fake or real. Obviously, outright fake news is quick to produce because there are no interviews, investigations, or fact-checks to do. But with dwindling real news budgets and the pressures of immediacy, many news organizations also seem to be eschewing interviews, investigations, and fact checks in favor of reliance on secondary reporting. The problem with secondary reporting in the contemporary era is that news has become like a game of telephone: facts, details, and contexts change as the information quickly migrates across the web and moves further and further away from its original source.

Like fake news, secondary reporting is not a new phenomenon, with national and local news organizations long dependent on newswires like the Associated Press and Reuters to make up for shrinking staffs and smaller budgets. Now, however, instead of writing a story based on verified information (albeit information still subject to selection and framing), journalists are pressured to write stories based on virality and sensationalism, and the speed to post to social media seems to matter more than the integrity of the story itself, especially if a news organization is struggling to turn a profit.

Comedian Jon Stewart recently referred to this in an interview as “information laundering,” or how unverified, fake, and misleading sources enter into the mainstream via second-hand reporting. Adam Klein (2012), who developed this theory, argues that information laundering is similar to how criminals launder illegal funds into financial institutions. He looks at how hate-based information spreads throughout networks and search engines until it is “washed virtually ‘clean.’” According to Klein, as this “extremist content,” designed to appear as educational, political, scientific, and spiritual, circulates it becomes legitimized in mainstream spaces of public discourse. [ (( Klein, Adam. “Slipping Racism into the Mainstream: A Theory of Information Laundering. ” Communication Theory 22, 2012, pp. 427-448. ))] Beyond the propaganda of hate-groups, information laundering is useful for thinking about how fake, hoax, conspiracy, misleading, and all other kinds of “truthy” news become disconnected from their sources, how they’re taken up by mainstream news and entertainment sites, and why they play an increasingly prominent role in our infosphere.

However, information laundering doesn’t capture the entirety of the contemporary fake news problem: real news is a problem, too. News reporting as a game of telephone, which I discussed earlier, can be thought of as “information infidelity,” or the process of inaccurately or imprecisely copying, reproducing, and/or relaying information that may already be based on questionable or unreliable sources. For example, on November 25th, The Independent wrote a story (now changed) that CNN accidentally aired thirty minutes of pornography in the Boston television market instead of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. Other news and entertainment websites picked up the story, including but not limited to Mashable, The New York Post, The Daily Mail, Esquire, Variety, Forbes, Maxim, and even Fox25 in Boston (most of these articles are also now changed). Did any of these organizations work to verify the claims of the original story before– sometimes inaccurately– reproducing and relaying the information? Or did they cross their fingers and hope The Independent did its due diligence? Furthermore, why did a Boston TV station rely on a U.K. publication for a story happening in its own backyard?

Shortly after the story spread across social media, CNN and RCN (the “hacked” cable provider in question) released statements denying the situation ever happened. So, where did the original information come from? Two tweets! (see images below). As noted above, many of the entities reporting on the situation quickly updated their stories to reflect the new Twitter-based hoax reality, but corresponding social media posts weren’t necessarily updated, too. For instance, image 3 is screenshot I took of Vulture’s social media post just before noon on November 26th. The headline reads, “Boston CNN Channel Airs Porn Instead of Anthony Bourdain,” and is accompanied by the description, “Shocking Viewers Who’d Forgotten People Watch Porn on Their TVs.” Already, we have an informational leap from a single “viewer” who tweeted to viewers plural. The social media post linked to an already updated story with a different headline, “Conflicting Reports Suggest Boston CNN Channel Probably Didn’t Air Porn Instead of Anthony Bourdain” (although the headline should probably read “CNN Didn’t Air Porn. We Were Wrong.”). Since around 40 percent of adults get their “news” from social media, and there is the potential for people to share “news” without reading it, social media headlines and descriptions carry enormous informative weight. This particular example of information infidelity, and lack of social media updates to revised stories, may not be a big deal, but it is a big deal when headlines, social media descriptions, and stories inform decisions on who should be the next president.

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Tweets such as these can spur the spread of “information infidelity.”

Another example of information infidelity can be found in news reports of my own viral teaching resource. The Los Angeles Times and New York Magazine wrote stories about my resource without contacting me for context (although both did as the story developed). They referred to it as a “fake news list” (since updated) despite the resource containing a variety of sources ranging from outright fake news to credible news sources that sometimes use clickbait-y headlines. When other news organizations picked up the story, using previous stories as their primary sources (not just the two listed above), some of them started referring to my resource as a “hit list” or a “blacklist,” which is definitely not what I created. Thus, my resource took on a life of its own as imprecise information lead to further inaccuracy as the story was copied and reproduced across numerous news and entertainment websites. On the bright side: due to information infidelity, I somehow managed in these news reports to receive a promotion to Associate Professor in my second year as an Assistant Professor.

As has become all too clear, even reputable news organizations and media entities now report on google docs, tweets, and blogs without necessarily digging into their credibility, and then other news organizations and media entities report on those stories which were based on google docs, tweets, and blogs (assuming the original stories to be accurate). This kind of information infidelity, and other practices plaguing contemporary news and “news” media, feeds not only public distrust of mainstream news organizations, and of information generally, but also gives support to accusations that the “real” news is actually “fake” news, too.

Right now, journalists are blaming fake, false, and otherwise misleading “news” sources for the political misinformation circulating during the election, while think pieces ponder whether we now live in a post-Truth world, but just as the emergence of Donald Trump can be explained by practices within the GOP, fake news can be explained, at least partially, by these practices within contemporary journalism. So, while we think about fake news, actual news organizations need to start proving to all of us that we wouldn’t be better off by replacing them with a 24-hour Taylor Swift Channel.

Image Credits:
1. Information infidelity further blurs the line between “fake” and “real” news.
2. Website readers argued mainstream news is the “real” “fake” news.
3. An example of “information infidelity” spurred by a few stray tweets.

Please feel free to comment.




Laughter in the Age of Trump
Maggie Hennefeld / University of Minnesota

olivertrump

“It is frankly hard to believe there ever was a time when people thought a Trump candidacy would be funny, but there was such a time.”
–-John Oliver, Last Week Tonight, 11/7/2016.

In response to news reports that the reality TV star Donald Trump is considering a run for the White House: “Do it! Do it! Look at me! Do it!”
–John Oliver, The Daily Show, 6/10/2013. ((VideoFads, “Careful What You Wish For (John Oliver in 2013 on The Daily Show),” Filmed [2013], YouTube video, 00:28, Posted [October 2013]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U10yKDDvIdc.))


John Oliver’s satirical mea culpa on the eve of the 2016 elections has raised many urgent questions about laughter and its effects on American electoral politics. To what extent are comedy and laughter responsible for enabling Trump’s rise amid a pathologically entertaining political media landscape? From the incisive satire of programs like Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, to the sensationalist ridicule fueling Internet “fake news” click-bait and 24-hour cable news talking heads, cultural economies of laughter have become inextricably entangled with the very civic processes that will soon install a self-caricaturing clown and ludicrously unabashed huckster profiteer into the Oval Office.

trump1 trump2

There is nothing wrong with using humor to lighten our burden—it’s going to be a long four years (at least). But now we need it to do more than that: we need to find a way to harness the edge of satire to repoliticize civic discourse in American society. For example, did you hear the one about the Western liberal democracy that democratically elected an unqualified, predatory, authoritarian demagogue and then potentially offered him unimpeded free reign over its eroded institutions and slanted checks and balances?

While liberal democracies enshrine the rights and freedoms of individual citizens, social democracies emphasize the power of collective institutions to protect the people from the ravenous excesses of individualist capitalism—to uphold the public services and civil liberties that we have come to associate with the social safety net. We know that these basic rights and programs are in massive jeopardy, and we do not kid ourselves by denying that this process has been underway for quite a long time. American culture in recent years has suffered from rampant depoliticization. Party politics have become spectator sports, exemplified by the “Super Bowl-sized ratings” ((Tom Huddleston, Jr., “Trump-Clinton Debate Could Get Super Bowl-Sized Ratings,” Fortune, September 25, 2016. http://fortune.com/2016/09/25/trump-clinton-debate-ratings/.)) of the 2016 Presidential Debates.

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Why then, given our national addiction to political spectacle, did so many of us experience the outcome of the election as visceral shock—beyond the rational surprise due to bad polling data or to cultural incomprehension? There is no doubt that the news industry’s sprawling laughter machine helped pave the way for this feeling of collective liberal trauma. Trump’s election was less implausible than vividly unimaginable and unthinkable. This is the function of disavowal: when I say “I know, but all the same…” what I really mean is that I cannot imagine living with the burden of this thing that I profess to know. Laughter is a flourishing mechanism of disavowal. Our shock at the results of the election came not from a lack of belief, but from an excess of disbelief—a disavowal of something plausible but deeply unwanted that took shape through a media landscape fueled by incessant laughter and compulsive mockery.

Comedy, however spiteful, has always possessed a special power to reveal that the emperor has no clothes. Satire defeats fear with laughter. As Jon Stewart put it in a 2010 MSNBC interview with Rachel Maddow—about the destructive impact of news entertainment on journalistic standards—what “satire does best…is articulate an intangible feeling that people are having, bring it into focus, say you’re not alone. It’s a real feeling. It’s maybe even a positive feeling, a hopeful feeling.” ((Will Femia, “The Maddow/Stewart Interview, Uncut,” MSNBC, November 12, 2010. http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/the-maddowstewart-interview-uncut.)) Unlike the smug laughter of cynical disavowal, the stinging laughter of pointed satire can actively participate in transforming our perception of reality. Since reality is a construct—equal parts unknown trauma and Celebrity Apprentice—it is therefore ripe for the molding, and ours for the seizing.

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What, then, is the place of laughter in an era of Trump—a notoriously thin-skinned authoritarian personality who litigiously cannot take a joke: who’s threatened to sue comedians including Bill Maher and Rosie O’Donnell for defamation of character? From his allegations of false reporting against The Onion, to his absurd Twitters wars as President-elect with the writers of Saturday Night Live and the cast of Hamilton, Trump literalizes the powers of satire. He cannot take a joke precisely because he is a joke.

But rather than purify our culture of the ubiquity of jokes (from “fake news,” to late-night satire, to cynical infotainment), let’s be rigorous about how we understand these jokes. It is a truism that humor is serious business: now it is more serious than ever. The Reichstag Fire of 2017 might very well come in the form of a preposterous Tweet or a reality television stunt.

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Beyond paying scrupulous attention to the politics of comedy, how else can we take back the edge of satire? As Samantha Bee once lampooned the G.O.P. obstructionism against diaper subsidies for poor working-class mothers, “Like it or not, there are a lot of poor babies. And it sounds like all you’ve [G.O.P. congressmen] got for them is the same useless advice you’re giving their mothers: Keep your legs crossed.” ((Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, “Poor Babies Don’t Deserve Diapers | Full Frontal with Samantha Bee | TBS,” Filmed [April 2016], YouTube video, 05:48, Posted [April 2016]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jNZwZA06oNs.)) Sometimes a pithy joke is the most expedient language for articulating the complex realities of systemic injustice—and for exposing the crude and self-serving political games that perpetuate such inequalities.

The Trump era heralds a new frontier in the dialectic between subversive humor and authoritarian oppression. Despite Trump’s threats to “open up those libel laws,” satire will remain protected as free speech by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (at least for now). In contrast, the official censorship and forceful monitoring of oppositional laughter is a hallmark of totalitarianism. Serbian grassroots humorist, Srdja Popovic, whose Otpor (i.e. “resistance”) movement helped spur the downfall of the brutal dictator Slobodan Milosevic, described his tactical use of illicit laughter to defeat terror and to incite popular resistance. He wrote in 2015: “Everyone agrees that funny trumps fearsome.” ((Srdja Popovic, Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015).)) Popovic made use of a “smiling barrel,” a rusted tin barrel with Milosevic’s head painted across the front, which he allowed passersby in Belgrade to beat senseless for only 1 dinar per whack.

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Having survived a very different system of institutionalized oppression, Ralph Ellison recounts the American legacy of the “laughing barrel”: both a physical barrel into which Black people unleashed their abjected laughs, and a repository for the history of African-American humor under slavery and Jim Crow. The “laughing barrel” was often placed at the center of the town square in the rural South, and offered one such space for laughing against racial tyranny and systemic injustice. As Ellison writes in “An Extravagance of Laughter,” “For by allowing us to laugh at that which is normally unlaughable, comedy…calms the clammy trembling that ensues when we pierce the veil of conventions that guard us from the basic absurdity of the human condition.” ((Ralph Ellison, The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison: Revised and Updated, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Random House, 1994): 618.))

We need laughter now more than ever, but we need it to do more work than ever. Laughter pokes holes in the stilted orthodoxies, unquestioned dogmas, and overly earnest convictions that can permeate any ideological position—no matter how justified, authentic, or moral its claims. For example, since the election, there has been a troubling tendency to separate cultural issues from economic realities. This was the bait and switch that enabled a corporatist tycoon like Trump to appropriate the very real class anger of the 99% by pinning it on divisive cultural issues of identity, lifestyle and geography. He effectively stirred up the old bigotries to protect the excesses of ruthless capital.

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While “class politics” have inexplicably become shorthand for centering the rural or exurban white working-class, allusions to “identity politics” have been rampantly depoliticized. What exactly are the politics of identity politics? The problem is not with identity as such, but with its gradual depoliticization through the neoliberal language of diversity, multiculturalism, and personal responsibility (on the affirmative side) and of exclusion, intolerance, and injury (on the negative side). The urgent rhetoric of identity enfranchisement has effectively lost its grip on the political: the basis of social oppression and cultural discrimination in the erosion of civic rights and the unbridled escalation of class inequality.

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A bad joke come true, a jester-turned-sovereign, and now a clown without laughter, Donald Trump has also revealed a remarkable lack of facility with the language play necessary for wit and humor. Think of his volley of botched one-liners at the Al Smith dinner, which include “Here [Hillary] is tonight pretending not to hate Catholics”; “Hillary has believed that it takes a village…[especially] in places like Haiti where she has taken a number of them”; and “Hillary is so corrupt she got kicked off the Watergate commission.” (Womp womp womp.) As SNL vet and now Senator Al Franken (D-MN) has noted, “Donald Trump never laughs.” ((Mark Leibovich, “Al Franken Faces Donald Trump and the Next Four Years,” New York Times, Dec. 13, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/13/magazine/al-franken-faces-donald-trump-and-the-next-four-years.html?_r=0.)) Lack of laughter notwithstanding, Trump does having a remarkable propensity for discrediting his political enemies as “laughable,” “a laughing stock” and “ridiculous,” on topics ranging from the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, to Russian election interference, to the status of critical news journalism.

Against Trump’s authoritarian laugh-less laughter, there now remain two possibilities for our counter-laughter: the cynical disavowal that displaces reality (until it comes back to smite us) and the transformative satire that changes the rules of reality. Humor thrives in the realm of ambiguity, multiple meaning, and radical improvisation. Whatever revolution we wage on the ground, in the classroom, through our social media networks, and towards the voting booths, it cannot—it must not—exclude the critical analysis and imaginative practice of comedy.

Image Credits
1. The Daily Beast
2. The Washington Post
3. The English Blog
4. Orlando Sentinel
5. TVLine
6. CNN
7. Vice
8. World Future Fund
9. So Let’s Talk About
10. Slate
11. Black Then
12. Author’s screenshot
13. Author’s screenshot
14. Occupy Democrats
15. Forward




Of Bhakts, Deplorables and More: Posthuman Communities Performing Political Partisanship in the Age of Social Media
Sushant Kishore / BITS Pilani

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The 2014 General elections in India and the 2016 Presidential elections in the USA shared a list of attributes, from two-terms of incumbent liberal governments to the rise of the extreme right to power. Both elections laid bare the complex virtual/real helix that constitutes the digital sensorium that is the contemporary world. Large numbers of netizens were called upon in both constituencies to join ranks with the candidates. In the case of India these groups appropriately called themselves, “Modi’s army”. Neither internet, nor politics has been the same since the 2014 elections. The internet emerged as a political tool where false truths, rumors, sentimentality and sensationalism could explode with a click and eclipse all opposition and politics became more internet marketing than polity. Campaign rhetoric and name-calling became hashtags and hashtags became social media communities.

Theoretically, at the intersection of the digital, the political and the performative, this column attempts to explore the changing terrains of politics with respect to the digital media and the performatives of communitas and political partisanship in the context of the 2014 General Election in India and the 2016 Presidential Election in the United States. The objects of interest are the posthuman social media communities that extensively participated, through multiple social media platforms, blogs, micro-blogs, etc., in the aforementioned election campaigns and continue to shower uncritical and absolute loyalty on the candidates for the highest administrative post in the two largest democracies of the world: India and United Sates of America.

The Digital-Political

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Graph of Internet Penetration

Articulating, the mid-20th Century techno-human condition, Marshall McLuhan wrote –

During the mechanical age we had extended our bodies in space. Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both time and space as far as our planet is concerned. (( McLuhan, M. (1964). “Introduction.” In M. McLuhan, Understanding Media : The Extension of Man. London: The MIT Press. ))

This was in the 1960s when the electronic medium had started gaining traction in the west, the television and radio had become common household furnishing. The computer had just reached its adolescence and internet was yet to be conceived. In the contingent milieu McLuhan foresaw what the future of technology had in store for humans. With the internet boom, the McLuhanian the digital sensorium expands to envelope all aspects of quotidian life. The internet is growing exponentially and covers over forty-six per cent of the world population. If technology was the extension of the central nervous system in 1960s, the internet embodies the prosthetization of consciousness itself (another Mcluhanian prophecy). A consciousness that is rhizomorphic – networked and hyperlinked with infinite others, virtual and built/stored on inconspicuous corporate servers yet personal and quantifiable with a cornucopia of information – facts, fictions, news, rumors, data, memory – easily retrievable through keyword searches. (( Lyman, Peter and Hal R. Varian, “How Much Information”, 2003. Retrieved from http://www.sims.berkeley.edu/how-much-info-2003 on 07 December 9, 2016 )) These attributes that make the silicon consciousness remarkably seductive and widely accessible to all, also evoke an impression of democratic rapture where a user has the luxury of disembodied presence and disembodied unreasoned voice. Any individual can set up a blog or a website at minimal cost and with minimal skills and social media removes even these hurdles. Social media allows and encourages (with Twitter’s 140 words microblogs) instant, knee-jerk reactions to be posted to the world without any inhibition and/or fear of intellectual confrontation. The episode of the first presidential debate best illustrates what I mean by the “luxury of disembodied presence.” Donald Trump confessed he refrained from bringing up Bill-Lewinsky because he saw Chelsea Clinton in the audience but he could uninhibitedly do so, about Hillary and several other women, on Twitter.

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Trump’s Uninhibited Online Sexism

Very often the social media does indeed give “legions of imbeciles the right to speak, when they once only spoke at a bar after a wine, without harming the community.” (( Il Messaggero. (2015, June 12). Umberto Eco attacca i social: «Internet ha dato diritto di parola agli imbecilli». Retrieved December 7, 2016, from Il Messaggero: www.ilmessaggero.it/societa/persone/umberto_eco_attacca_social_network_imbecilli-1085803.html )) Within seconds the post snowballs with likes, comments, retweets, shares, reposts of like-minded individuals until the unreasoned impulsive argument/opinion starts to “#trend”. Manufacturing consent becomes easier in this digital prosthetization of the consciousness where users, through their Twitter feeds, Whatsapp, Facebook walls, and more, are constantly bombarded with information/misinformation and search engines literally froth with content manipulated with keywords, backlinks and shock-value. This is the picture – this constant wrestle of attention and distraction – that informs politics in the age of social media. Our ability to assess political candidates and make political decisions has become impetuous, conforming to the configurations of the digital milieu. “Once scuba diver[s]…. Now… [we] zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” (( Carr, N. (2008, July). “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The Atlantic http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/ ))

2014/2016 – Performing Political Partisanship

Performativity in this disembodied virtual space is reduced to profile pictures, tweets, retweets, blogs, posts, likes and shares. Political assemblies transform into social media communities, and political rhetoric transforms into hashtags. “Bhakts” and “deplorables” became the highest trending ‘tag’ that were used against any candidate in both constituencies. Bhakt is a Sanskrit word which means devotee. In the context of the 2014 General Elections in India, it connoted the apotheosis of Narendra Modi – the Prime ministerial candidate for the Hindu Right party, Bharatiya Janta Party (Indian People’s Party). His campaign team had mobilized an army of Twitter accounts (mostly fake) to campaign for their candidate and slander and heckle politicians and/or supporters of other parties. In a snowball effect, many supporters took the cue and took to social media to glorify their leader and bracket every other alternative as traitor, Muslim-appeaser, pseudo-secular and/or anti-national. The trend has continued even after the elections and dissenters are subjected to frequent online abuse. In November 2015, BJP’s Twitter army launched a campaign against a popular Bollywood actor who expressed his views on rising religio-cultural intolerance in India. The campaign asked people to boycott his films and the products that he endorses. Being a Muslim made his situation worse. It led to the termination of his advertising contract. Several others who have disagreed with governments policies or questioned its objectives have faced similar flak at the hands of these swarms of devotees. The situation would be reiterated with every activity. (( Pal, J. (2015). “Banalities Turned Viral: Narendra Modi and the Political Tweet.” Television and New Media, 16(4), 377-386. )) On 16th May 2014, Modi posted what would be the Golden Tweet of the year and the most retweeted tweet ever in India.

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Top five tweeters during 2014 Election Campaigns

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Modi’s Victory Tweet, “India has won! India’s Victory. Good times are coming.”

While the keyboard wars were largely tilted in one direction in India, the Presidential Elections in the US witnessed widespread digital campaigns. Although Donald Trump was unbeatable in his bullying and name-calling (despite a limited vocabulary), Clinton’s prognosis of Trump’s followers as “a basket of deplorables”. shocked people but quickly started trending. After a long campaign that Trump ran on lies, fear and hate, no other word could describe the people who continued to support him as one after another skeleton popped out of his closet.

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Popularity Trend for #Deplorables

Filtering through claims of sexual harassment, misogynist statements, unfounded theories on migration-crime, blatant generalization of ethnic groups as criminals and terrorists, of women as sexual objects who “should be treated like shit”, the only sections of the demography Trump did not abuse in his campaign were uneducated working class/middle class white men. There were pro-Trump automated Twitter handles consistently tweeting false news and to their advantage there were groups of teenage content writers with absolutely no interest in the U.S. elections accept the attention economy it was generating. (( Tynan, D. (2016, August 24). How Facebook powers money machines for obscure political ‘news’ sites. Retrieved December 8, 2016, from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/aug/24/facebook-clickbait-political-news-sites-us-election-trump )) Thus, Macedonian teens would spin and publish scandalous and sensational stories that would be picked up by Trump supporters and extensively retweeted or shared.

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Sample Stories from Macedonian content writers

It appears in both cases that in an abundance of information and a decadence of research or critical thinking, people filter information based not on ideology or interest but on a certain kind of inertia that this information highway affects. More than creating bubbles of self-interest or self-preservation the propaganda creates communities and cults of a leader. The two years since the General Elections in India have witnessed a number of radical policy changes, some quite progressive and others outright blunders of management. The notion of dissent as akin to anti-nationalism still dominates social media discourse and the fickle nature of the medium prevents any intellectual debunking of these views. What turn will politics take once Donald Trump assumes office is still unpredictable. Unlike India, partisanship might dwindle once he starts backing out of his poll promises. On a lighter note as a cyborg completely incorporated within the Twitter ecosystem, his quips on China don’t bode well for diplomacy.

Image Credits:
1. Modi Trump
2. Internet Penetration
3. Trump’s Sexism
4. Top 5 Tweeters
5. Modi’s Victory Tweet
6. #deplorables
7. Macedonian Content Writers

Please feel free to comment.




Shake My Turban: Alter Egos and Altering Perceptions in Trump’s America
Suzanne Enzerink / Brown University

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The Sequined Sikh Elvis

In the midst of this year’s election season, a 1986 short documentary called Rockin’ with a Sikh resurfaced on social media. The twenty-six minute profile starred Peter Singh, an Indian-born Sikh who ran a hybrid curry/English takeaway restaurant in Swansea, England, by day, and transformed into a Sikh Elvis at night. With songs like “Turbans over Memphis” and “Who’s Sari Now,” Singh modeled that being a devout Sikh and idolizing mainstream American pop cultural icons were not mutually exclusive—in addition to the turban, Mr. Singh sported a full beard in adherence to kesh, one of the five outward manifestations of Sikhism, the practice of allowing hair to grow naturally. “I don’t smoke dope/ I don’t drink Bourbon/ All I want to do/ is shake my turban” became Mr. Singh’s most popular catchphrase, garnering him a cult following that remains to this day. Sikh Elvis was a positive enunciation of a Britain that was globally-oriented and could embody difference without demanding full assimilation. It was a facile multiculturalism, in a way, one able to celebrate ethnic difference superficially whilst ignoring the racism that already permeated Britain and the U.S. in the 1980s— “Everyone especially loves my spicy food. I wish Elvis could taste my spicy foods. I’m sure he would love the papadums,” Singh said for example—but the move remains powerful, symbolically accommodating both religion and popular culture, the national and the global, rather than casting these metrics as in tension.

Fast forward to 2016, and these tensions have yet to be resolved definitively. Large segments of the population still need to be reminded that being an American and being a Sikh — or a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Hindu, etc., for that matter — are not mutually exclusive or oppositional identities. They are, in fact, wholly compatible, yet the vitriol aimed at Captain Khizr Khan’s family by Donald Trump and his supporters readily demonstrates that the potent mix of Islamophobia and Anglo-Christian entitlement still produces a highly exclusionary idea of who can lay claim to the label of “American.” Tangled up in this is an injurious stereotyping of Muslim and Muslim-perceived Americans as terrorists, circulated widely in cultural productions in the aftermath of 9/11. Members of this group are guilty until proven innocent: Donald Trump’s proposed registry and loyalty test are the most blatantly Islamophobic incarnation of this, yet even Hillary Clinton’s suggestion that we need “American Muslims to be part of our eyes and ears” and “part of our Homeland Security” dangerously fuses patriotism with surveillance. As Jasbir Puar and Amit Rai note in their study of how contemporary media has constructed the South Asian, the turban works to “produce the terrorist and the patriot in one body, the turbaned body.”[ ((Jasbir K. Puar and Amit S. Rai, “The Remaking of a Model Minority: Perverse Projectiles under the Specter of (Counter)Terrorism.” Social Text 22.3 (Fall 2004): 82.))] It is through excessive nationalism and self-surveillance that the turbaned subject must seek to redeem itself, but always in vain within this exclusionary white vision of America.

What could be a more powerful critique, then, than taking one of the nation’s dearest and most widely-circulated characters, the very embodiment of American values, as a way of challenging this wounding and decentering its monolithic whiteness? The most compelling and viral challenge to white nationalist definitions of Americanness during this election season came in the form of a beloved American hero, Captain America. Like Sikh Elvis, the iconicity of Captain America lends itself perfectly to show that the idea of Brits or Americans as white males was always a fiction, and an increasingly fantastical one. Sikh Captain America, the alter ego of Vishavjit Singh, a cartoonist from Washington, wears the classic star-spangled costume with a turban, an “A” boldly emblazoned on it. His cartoons—or Sikhtoons—challenge the rhetoric of fear espoused by Trump, the myth of the perpetual foreigner, and misconceptions about turbans, all crucial elements that render Sikh and Muslim Americans “suspect” in the eyes of many Trump supporters.

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Vishavjit Singh’s Sikhtoons

The former are especially vulnerable, as their turbans made them targets for profiling even before 9/11. Sikh Captain America’s role reversal, from terrorist to hero, then powerfully resonated. #sikthoons trended on social media, and sources like Slate, The Washington Post, and The Huffington Post covered Singh during the primaries, and during his trip to the Republican National Convention. With Trump in office, he feels his mission more urgently than ever; his presence is more needed than ever to counter the overt racist displays circulating widely.

Social media propelled Sikh Captain America to fame, but with its relative lack of oversight and lightning quick dissemination, it has also been one of the main outlets for perpetuating stereotypes. After the attacks in Nice, a photoshopped selfie of a Sikh Canadian man named Veerender Jubbal was circulated identifying him as an “Islamic terrorist.” The same thing had happened to Jubbal after the 2015 Paris attacks. Only by bringing into circulation competing narratives, and challenging who gets to define what America(n) is, the turbaned terrorist will begin to erode as the dominant image. By giving the turban positive visibility, Sikh Captain America is simultaneously educating Americans and debunking racist associations.

He is not fighting alone. Actor Riz Ahmed and Heems of rap duo Swet Shop Boys also tackle profiling, both lyrically and visually. Their 2016 song, “T5,” tongue-in-cheek remarks that they “always get a random check when [rocking] the stubble,” highlighting again that hairstyles can impact how others read us racially or ethnically, and how they attempt to glean our political leanings from such readings. The visual work of Sikh Captain America, the uncoupling of the beard and turban with terrorism and coupling it instead with patriotism, thus has direct effects.

The trope of the terrorist is not unique to the United States, and the Swet Shop Boys also ask us to consider how stereotypes travel. Ahmed is British Pakistani, Heems is Indian American. In “T5,” they reference newly-elected London mayor Saadiq Khan as a positive model while simultaneously disparaging Trump. The video opens with audio describing Trump’s proposed “loyalty test” for Muslims, while Riz MC later raps that “Donald Trump wants my exit, but if he press the red button to watch Netflix, bruv, I’m on.” The South Asian diaspora is equally affected by xenophobic impulses, not confined to national borders for inspiration or protected by them from threat. The line also highlights a central irony: Americans will consume productions starring Muslim or Muslim-perceived Americans without hesitation, but this has not yet translated into shifts in thinking that can see beyond stereotype and accord them complexity, diversity, and humanity.

Certain representations complicate things, raising the specter of terrorism only to then challenge it. Scripted shows, for example, have also made efforts to stop the equation of terrorism with brownness, but more mutedly so. ABC’s Quantico, for example, resorts to hypernationalism to offset its criticisms—the FBI trainees of season 1, and CIA recruits of season 2, are willing to risk their lives to protect the safety of the United States, even if the country has conspired against them and wronged them. Priyanka Chopra’s Alex Parrish, an FBI agent of mixed Indian and American descent, is framed for a terrorist attack on Grand Central station. Yet when asked by an Anonymous-inspired group aiming to exonerate her what she would like to tell the 12 million viewers of the live broadcast, she replies: “I love this country.” Even though Alex knows that the real attacker chose her because “in this country I’m an easy person to blame,” a move that relies on an association of brownness with terrorism (as Alex says, “they framed the brown girl”), she never faults the country as a whole for its structural inequalities or racism. In the realm of Quantico, America is not to blame, but certain malevolent actors within it are. It is thus through a hypernationalism that they frame their critique, but for a primetime TV show, it is a gesture at challenging the stereotype of the brown terrorist nevertheless.

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Quantico‘s Critique of Muslims-as-Terrorists

Such efforts are especially crucial to diversity and increase the representation of brown Americans who are hypervisible as terrorist stereotypes yet often marginalized when it comes to discussions of discrimination. In October, New York Times-writer Michael Luo was told to “go home to China” by a woman unknown to him on the street. In response, the Times collected and chronicled racist incidents of a similar nature via #ThisIs2016. The hashtag was so powerful—flooding Twitter for days—that The Times invited some respondents to star in a video to tell their story. None were South Asian or Filipino. Invisible again, a group of brown Americans wrote an open letter, noting that their erasure was painful as “our brown skin activates different kinds of stereotypes in this country.”

The stereotypes are generalizing and dangerous. When asked by Lt. Brian James Murphy, who was shot fifteen times by a white supremacist when he responded to calls of an ongoing massacre at a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, how he would protect the rights of minority groups, Trump’s answer only included the need to combat “radical Islamic terror.” Even Murphy’s remark that 99% of turban-wearing men in the United States are Sikh and not Muslim, was cast aside by Trump. Muslim or Muslim-perceived, American or not, right-wing media and candidates make all of them potential terrorists. The first victim of the last spike in hate crimes in the U.S before Trump., in the aftermath of 9/11, was not coincidentally also a Sikh—Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner, was killed on September 15 by a man on a mission to shoot “some towelheads” in retaliation for the attacks.

Caught between such spectacular misrepresentation and invisibility, Sikh Captain America really is the hero these United States need, and brown Americans especially. I taught his ‘toons this semester, together with music by Swet Shop Boys. Their transnational archive highlights the interconnectedness of global crises that have seen a rise in hate crimes and increased popularity of the far right (white supremacy) across nations. It is not just Donald Trump or Steve Bannon. The global reach of contemporary media, be it social or entertainment, has provided complexity and visibility where it was lacking. It also supplements scholarly works that have dealt with the same question—by showing their prevalence in current political and media discourses, students were able to discern and dissect stereotypes constructed across genres, that powerfully and detrimentally determine how groups of people are perceived.

Twenty years after Sikh Elvis asked the Brits to embrace his turban as part of the British fabric, rather than at odds with it, #sikhtoons and #ThisIs2016 effect the same here for (South) Asian Americans—but rather than a question, it is now a demand for the full humanity that Trump and his ilk seek to deny them.

Image Credits:
1. The Sequined Sikh Elvis
2. Vishavjit Singh’s Sikhtoons
3. Quantico‘s Critique (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.




It’s the Political Economy Stupid: The Case for Media Industries Studies in an Era of Fake News
Christopher M. Cox / Georgia State University

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The Fake News of InfoWars

Alex Jones describes himself as a “trailblazer of new media.” He is less apt to apply the moniker of “fake news” to his affiliated brands (such as websites InfoWars.com), even though CBS News shows less restraint – it recently counted InfoWars among fake news sites.

Fake news itself isn’t a recent phenomenon. Disingenuous information has long plagued journalistic inquiry and endured despite efforts to instantiate professionalized ethics, institutions, and training related to news reportage. These undertakings seek to curb the deleterious effects of information that has no reliable claim to empiricism yet flourishes as a means of ascertaining truth, as in the case of the recent Pizzagate conspiracy theory that identified Hillary Clinton and her 2016 presidential campaign chairman John Podesta as participants in a child sex-trafficking ring operating through Comet Ping-Pong Pizza, a Washington D.C. pizzeria.

While these claims have been thoroughly debunked by outlets ranging from The New York Times to Fox News, the widespread dissemination of this fake news led to real material consequences in the form of a gunman who entered the pizzeria with an assault rifle and fired a shot in order to “investigate the claims” made by Pizzagate adherents, including Alex Jones. Even after the incident, the shooter “refused to dismiss outright the claims.”

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“Pizzagate” Moral Panic

Indeed, much of the online commentary around fake news focuses on the need for such dismissal, particularly on the importance of developing tools for media consumers to identify fake news, dismiss the underlying claims, and seek out reliable sources. To the extent that these efforts address what constitutes fake news and what to do about it, this essay seeks to widen the lens in order to address how and why fake news originates and the motivating factors as to its inception.

With this in mind, I argue for media industries as a disciplinary and methodological framework highly adept at accounting for the underlying circumstances that shape the production, dissemination, and consumption of fake news. In what follows, I make some brief observations about fake news and suggest some ways in which media industries studies’ indebtedness to political economy paves the way for a more assured assessment of circumstances that make fake news a profitable commodity and venture, circumstances that in turn illuminate how fake news can be distinguished from reliable journalistic enterprises. To the extent that Trump’s election was an economic mandate, political economy is a necessary mandate for scholars and critics as a counterbalance to the forces that enable fake news to shape political and economic realities.

Fake News is Clickbait.

As Melissa Zimdars recently noted after her list of fake news sites received widespread online attention, “fake news is cheap to produce…and profitable.” This profitability stems from a digital ecosystem that enables clickable interaction (searches, shares, likes, etc.) to become part of a broader commodity reflective of consumer interest and therefore attractive to third-party advertisers and marketers. Content, then, is often tailored to what will garner the greatest number of clicks, whether it’s clicking on an article itself or clicking a like or share button. Even though journalistic enterprises undertake internal checks and balances to help ensure informational integrity, professional news reporting on social media competes for clicks with entities that neither internally scrutinize their content nor find themselves subject to scrutiny by the platform in question.

While professional journalism has long wrestled with a tension between profit motivation and pro-social aims, fake news encounters no such tension. In the absence of institutional values, ethics, and gatekeeping mechanisms applied internally or externally, fake news is the neoliberal dream writ large: minimal production costs and practically zero regulatory measures. In this way, economics is the most drastic distinction between journalistic enterprise and its facsimile. Nothing distinguishes the online spread of real news from fake news more than the economics on which they thrive. Tracing economic relations thus not only helps to discern between fake and trustworthy information, but also identify connections and motivations behind emergent industrial actors that have an economic stake in the promulgation of fake news.

Fake News is Vertically Integrated.

InfoWars is more than just a space for Alex Jones to exult his worldview – it’s also a storefront that sells a diverse array of products from coffee to teeth whitening gel to apparel promoting Trump. The diversity and prolificacy of products offered through InfoWars suggests a commercial enterprise undergirded by an economic structure in which mediated content is both product and promotion, a digital commodity form in its own right and a means to advertise more tangible goods.

As one example, the below video dedicates the bulk of its runtime to discussing the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, yet opens with Alex Jones himself inducing watchers to visit the InfoWars storefront. It’s also not an isolated incident, as Jones’ YouTube videos regularly promote products for sale on the InfoWars site.


The InfoWars Storefront

On Dec. 7, 2016, the channel posted a 5-minute video dedicated to Jones promoting the InfoWarsLife brand of ingestible supplements, a line of products regularly promoted as breakaway embeds within the Alex Jones Show. The Dec. 8, 2016 show, for instance, breaks away at just over one hour to briefly roll video of InfoWarsLife products. InfoWarsLife is also promoted in the description accompanying the video, as more than 20 InfoWarsLife products are listed with accompanying links to their respective page on the InfoWars store.

The commercialization of news reportage has long troubled the institution of journalism and its critics and remains a locus for critical analysis. But whereas the economics of journalism often place commodities and their promotion at a remove from news content, the InfoWars example demonstrates no such buffer, neither between the commodification of content or commodities promoted within such content. The integration of vertical markets and associated products is therefore a critical means of assessing the motivations to develop tight relays between content and commodity and the economic drivers that make such relays a profitable venture.

Political economy is especially important when such content and commodities situate among technologies that can be gamed to replicate journalistic forms.

Fake News is Code.

Melissa Zimdars’ documentation of misleading and clickbaiting sources includes a caution against URLs that end in “.com.co,” since they are often fake versions of legitimate news sources, advice echoed by FactCheck.org in their guide to spotting fake news. URL suffixes such as “.co” are available to anyone who registers a site name not currently taken, even if a portion of that site name replicates the URL for existing news sites.

A prominent example is ABCNews.com.co, a site created by noted fake news propagator Paul Horner, who typically earns $10,000 a month in advertising sales from the uptake of his fabricated content. The site reproduces the URL, look, and form of ABC News, with only slight variations to the logo and other indicators of institutional affiliation. Its allegation that Trump protestors were paid $3,500 to protest Trump rallies caught the attention of former CNN contributor and Donald Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who (as shown in the below screencap) spread the post via Twitter before later deleting it, but not before it found widespread purchase in the social media ecosystem.

lewandowski-trump-rally

Spreading the Fake News

Given that 62 percent of U.S. adults get their news from social media, the majority of news is not consumed from the source itself but from secondhand aggregators such as Facebook and Google, each of which perform algorithmic generation often agnostic to content that emanates from ABC News or ABCNews.com.co. In the wake of the election, both Facebook and Google have made gestures towards altering their technical configurations to weed out fake news, including Facebook updating the language of its Audience Network Policy to more directly account for fake news.

In their own way, they seem to be taking steps to address their role as informal regulators of aggregated content. What remains to be seen is whether or not – in the spirit of Lawrence Lessig’s admonition that “code is law” – more formal regulation is placed on entities such as domain registry services and third-party hosting services that enable fake news to mimic the URL, form, and function of legitimate news sources.

Going forward, emphasizing media industries approaches that examine the role of regulatory frameworks (both governmental and informal), in conjunction with the economic incentives that underpin digital platforms and their technological affordances, can not only cut through the complications of an increasingly nebulous media ecosystem, but offer tools to better understand relationships among various enterprises (journalistic and otherwise) increasingly bound within an expanding market of commodifiable digital forms.

What I have offered here is by no means exhaustive. It is, however, a means to underscore the fact that understanding the foundations of media industries methodologies runs parallel to the ability to understand and address deleterious effects of fake news.

Image Credits:
1. The Fake News of InfoWars
2. “Pizzagate” Moral Panic
3. Spreading the Fake News

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The Scourge of Fake News
Richard Van Heertum / New York Film Academy

fake-news
The Scourge of Fake News

In the wake of a party-changing presidential election or collective traumatic event, there is a tendency for bold proclamations of a sea change in the cultural milieu. In recent history, there are two rather profound examples, the short-lived incantations of a “post-ironic” age after 9/11 [ (( Randall, Eric. “The ‘Death of Irony,” and Its Many Incarnations,” The Atlantic. September 9, 2011. ))] and the rather absurd “post-racial America” discourse that followed the victory of Obama in 2008. [ (( See, for example, the NPR piece “A New ‘Post Racial’ Political Era in America” (All Things Considered, January 28, 2008), or Toure and Dyson, Michael Eric, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What it Means to Be Black Now. New York: Atria Books, 2011. ))] With the election of Donald Trump last month, a new narrative has developed, proclaiming a “post-truth” world, where fact and fiction are indistinguishable and “fake news” has sullied the public sphere beyond recognition. [ (( See Egan, Timothy, “The Post-Truth Presidency,” New York Times, November 4, 2016; Holland, Justin, “Welcome to Donald Trump’s Post-Fact America,” RollingStone, November 30, 2015; or Glasser, Susan, “Covering Politics in a ‘Post-Trust’ America,” Brooking Institute, December 2, 2016. ))]

Unlike the stories of a post-ironic or post-racial age, there appears to be less hyperbole in the more recent arguments around the inception of a “post-fact” America. In fact, there is growing empirical evidence to support these claims. One such source was BuzzFeed, which showed that fake news stories on Facebook, in some cases passed along by Russian hackers, may have fooled a rather large percentage of the electorate into voting for a man who does not appear to have their best interests at heart. They found that during the final, critical months of the campaign, 20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook, compared with 7,367,000 shares, reactions, and comments for the top 19 articles from reputable sources. [ (( Silverman, Craig, “This Analysis Shows How Fake Election News Stories Outperformed Real News On Facebook,” BuzzFeed News, 16 November 2016. ))]

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Total Facebook Engagements for Top 20 Election Stories

While it is difficult to quantify the effects of inaccurate or false information on individuals voting behavior, a poll released by the PPP on December 9 provides some rather startling findings that do support a voting bloc less informed than their peers. Among the results, Trump voters were far afield of the 50% who have a favorable rating of Obama (45% unfavorable) with a mere five percent holding a favorable view of the outgoing President versus a full 90 percent who see him in a negative light. More troubling were the false beliefs they held about his presidential legacy. Under Obama, the Dow has risen from 7,946 to 19,615 and unemployment has fallen from 7.8 to 4.6 percent. A majority of Americans are aware of both facts, but not Trump voters. Among them, 39 percent say the Dow has actually dropped under Obama and 67 percent believe unemployment has risen. On top of this, 40% of Trump voters believe their candidate won the popular vote, 60% believe millions voted illegally, 73% believe George Soros is paying protestors to take to the streets post-election, and an astounding 53% have inexplicably decided that California’s electorate should not count in the popular vote tally.

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Trump Voters on Who Won the Popular Vote

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Trump Voters on Unemployment Rate

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Trump Voters on Stock Market

The reality of the contemporary crisis of democratic legitimacy is thus clear and yet the panic surrounding the “post-truth” America fails to acknowledge the long history of both manipulative political discourse and of radical ontological skepticism. The ability to spread false information has existed for as long as modern politics but has, ironically, risen precipitously in recent years, aided by the very tools that were supposed to provide the entire world with a free and readily available “fact-checking” sources. The foundation of the new skepticism also has deep roots whose seeds rose to prominence among social critics in the 1960s, building on ideas that go all the way back to Ancient Greece. One was Marshall McLuhan, an English professor in Toronto, who predicted the coming of an “electronic age” where retribalization would initiate a world dominated more by faith, mysticism, and mythology than science and reason. A few years later, the French Situationalist Guy Debord proclaimed the arrival of a Society of the Spectacle where all human ideas and emotions are commodified and sold back to the public in a representational field that was superimposed on top of reality. Below, I briefly consider their central arguments and relevance to examining our contemporary political malaise.

Marshall McLuhan was arguably one of the most brilliant cultural critiques of the 20th century, though his popularity in academic circles has waned in the years following his death. His seminal work, Understanding Media: The Extension of Man (1962), however, rather prodigiously predicted the world we live in today. McLuhan was the first to speak of the inchoate global village, imploding time and space through modern technology that radically alters our relationship to the social, economic, and political spheres, forcing us to choose sides in the key battles of the era (like the Civil Rights Movement). McLuhan was a technological determinist who believed that major social transformation was initiated by impactful new technologies, most profoundly the book, which commenced an age of scientific, technological, and economic advancement, before the more recent “electronic age,” which was pushing back toward the Zeitgeist of the oral tradition that preceded the “literate man.”

He argued this was accompanied by a change in consciousness that made the distant near and altered the very nature of our relationship to the world around us. Among the ways media specifically affected us was his famously misunderstood “the medium is the message,” which argued that the form of new media was substantially more important in determining its social effects than the content. To McLuhan, it didn’t much matter what you watched on television as much as the fact you were watching television at all. The reason was that particular technologies altered the nature of our sense ratios, focusing attention on some while neglecting others. McLuhan believed the electronic age, with the advent of radio, television, record players and the like, was replacing book culture and what he called the “literate man” with more tribal communities where consciousness itself became simulated and the time between action and reaction shrank to the point that there was little time for contemplation and critical thinking.

In his estimation, this change was moving society from a world of detached rationality and individuality to one punctuated by retribalization and mythology, where the individual becomes subservient to the larger social whole, undermining reason in lieu of group mythology. While many at the time pointed to the cultural revolution that soon ensued, many of his ideas were still relevant and they have only become more so in the digital/internet/smart phone world of today. Among the many prognostications that have come true are clear signs of retribalization occurring in contemporary Americans society today. Facebook and social media in general allow us to codify our friendships and business associations into well-defined groups. Specialized news outlets create political insularity where many are unwilling to even consider the arguments of their ideological foes and are often openly hostile to them. New virtual communities, based more on taste and predilection, have replaced proximity or old social lines of demarcation. At the same time, aging populations hold even more steadfastly to those old identity markers seemingly dispirited and alienated by the more diverse populations that now surround them. This has not been all bad, of course, but it has drawn ideological lines in the sand that have served the rise of right wing populism in both America and across Europe. The general decline in quality of life in the West dating back to the 1970s has been redefined in this discourse by a narrative that places white as victims of affirmative action, feminism, the liberal media, the liberal elite and, more recently, Muslims, PC culture, and immigrants. Trump played on all of these narratives at once, using white resentment as the foundation to spread misinformation and lies, largely immune to truth as the very institutions that could challenge those ideas have been disparaged as biased and thus untrustworthy. The end result is that mythology replaces science and reason as the defining founts of truth and echo chambers supplant balanced, reasoned, and civil debate.

From a more Marxist/postmodern perspective, Guy Debord took these ideas even further in his 1967 work The Society of the Spectacle. In the book, Debord argued we live in a world where representations of reality had replaced reality itself and relationships between humans had been largely replaced by relationships between humans and commodities. In this new configuration, commodities have colonized social life with social relationships between people mediated through images, leading to an impoverished quality of life and a lack of authenticity that distort human perceptions, degrade knowledge, and hinder critical thought. Debord believed the new channels of knowledge production were employed to assuage reality, with the spectacle obfuscating the past, imploding it with the future into an undifferentiated, never-ending present that disarms the channels for dissent and social transformation. The vast right wing news empire perfectly fits this description, cultivating a siege mentality that dehumanizes the many others, victimizing the power elites and treating all knowledge as a battleground of perception.

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Still from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983)

Many are indirectly aware of these theories as channeled through the work of the famous French philosopher Baudrillard in The Matrix Trilogy [ (( See Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. ))] or the translation of McLuhan’s worldview in David Cronenberg bizarre 1983 film Videodrome. Both provide a compelling visual metaphor of a world that is not lived as much as it is relived, with the average American spending countless hours daily surfing through the hyperreal miasma of popular and celebrity culture, the manufacturing of desire in the worlds of advertising and televisions and the shift to news as infotainment. For almost every social phenomenon, there is an almost endless array of narratives that describe both its contours and potential solutions, with a readymade shield to protect us from inconvenient truths that might challenge our deeply held shibboleths.

With McLuhan, Debord, and Baudrillard, we see three related theories on how reality has been distorted into subjective pods where an individual can live cocooned, comfortably oblivious of news or information that could shatter their worldview. The result has been a dramatic increase in political insularity that cuts off the channels for dialogue and debate, of conspiracy theories that distort real world problems and solutions, and a resultant deep cynicism, all working to undermine democracy and redefine the relationship of the public to our social and political institutions. Believing is seeing today, as the documentarian Errol Morris put it, with the average American more likely to see the world through their ideological beliefs as to alter those beliefs based on the empirical world around them. With the election of Trump, we have seen the culmination of these trends, as the thin line between truth and fiction disintegrates into an epistemological jungle where just about anything can be considered true. With a President Elect who finds little reason to adhere to traditional notions of truth, no problem is too big to be washed away in a tidal wave of half-truths, lies, and mythologies, altering the very contours of our reality and, in the process, the path of our collective future.

Image Credits:

1. The Scourge of Fake News
2. Total Facebook Engagements for Top 20 Election Stories from BuzzFeed News
3. Trump Voters on Who Won the Popular Vote (author’s screen grab)
4. Trump Voters on Unemployment Rate (author’s screen grab)
5. Trump Voters on Stock Market (author’s screen grab)
6. Still from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983)

Please feel free to comment.




Veteran Activism Against Donald Trump
Ben Schrader / Colorado State University

vets

VetsVsHate protesting outside Trump Towers in New York, NY.

One interest group that gets little attention from academics, who is constantly trying to use, shift, and manage the narrative is that of military veterans. Because soldiers have been the direct tools of foreign policy and return home to become the rhetorical tools of domestic policy, they can act as the miners canary as they are usually one of the first effected by policy as well as act as a cautionary tool of bad policy. Furthermore, since 9/11 veterans carry a unique status throughout American society, their stories carry more political weight as all sides of the political spectrum try to utilize their commitment to veterans’ service as an act of measuring their patriotism. Organizations have long worked to manage and shift the narrative, and veteran activism is no stranger to this, from the veterans of WWI in the Bonus Army seeking benefits of their service to Vietnam Veterans of Vietnam Veterans Against the War who sought to end the US’s imperial war; all used their veteran status to show how the government was wrong, and they were often successful.

#VetsVsHate
As the summer of 2016 began, I was invited to participate in a progressive veterans leadership conference, put on by the organization Beyond the Choir. The three-day conference was a workshop to help build media skills useful for veteran activism. The main project that the organization was working on was a campaign called #VetsVsHate. It was a direct response to the violent and hateful rhetoric being used by Donald Trump, specifically, to combat Trump’s depiction of Muslim and Latino populations. The campaign took place primarily on social media forums Twitter and Facebook. The goal was to use our status as veterans to show that these populations are not the problem as we served with and fought along side people who identified as Muslim or as Latino. It did so through a number of tactics, primarily through signs that the veterans would hold denouncing Trump’s rhetoric and post these photos on social media sites with the hashtag #VetsVsHate. The organization would also send groups of veterans to Trump rallies to hold up protest signs.

veteran protest

VetsVsHate protesting outside a Trump rally in Colorado Springs, CO.

One of the most interesting tactics we discussed at the conference was one called bird-dogging. This tactic was an interesting way to get public figures, primarily politicians, on record about particular issues. To do so a team of two will try to confront the target, one with a camera, the other asking questions. Using our subject position as veterans allows us a certain space and authority as politicians often feel obliged to take a moment for those they send off to war; they also feel obliged due to the camera because being seen blowing off a veteran could have political ramifications. The veteran then asks a series of questions trying to get the person on record for future public use in the media and to try and hold those politicians accountable. These tactics all heavily rely on narrative, or our stories as soldiers and veterans, because our stories influence policy makers, inspire the public, and have the power to dominate the political conversation, and sends waves throughout different media outlets.

Within the next few weeks we had begun planning a trip to protest Trump at the RNC in Cleveland. About twenty of us made the journey to the RNC to stand up against the bigotry and hate that we believed was being perpetuated by the Trump campaign. While there we had participated in a number of actions. The first was marching with a coalition of groups brought together by the new Poor People’s Campaign (a spin off the Civil Rights Movement organization). We also did a number of actions with the musical group Prophets of Rage, a spin off of the group Rage Against the Machine, which any word of their shows draws massive media attention. Our most impactful action though was when we teamed up with the organization Mijente. At this protest we had a couple of roles, first and foremost was to provide security for the migrant protestors, and secondly we joined their ranks and wore canvas walls that said, “Wall Off Trump.” This was one of the biggest protests to take place during the RNC and was highlighted by many mainstream and alternative media news sites.

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Me protesting Trump at the Republic National Convention in Cleveland, OH.

Throughout the rest of the election cycle the VetsVsHate group would continue to fight Trump and his rhetoric. The pinnacle of their attention came when Donald Trump attacked Muslim parents of an American soldier who lost their son in Iraq. #VetsVsHate would stage protests and news conferences outside Trump Towers, which gained media attention and constantly put Trump on the defensive from a powerful interest group. Many veterans felt that he not only lacked the foreign policy experience but was also lacked respect for the military, which puts our national security at risk.

Standing Rock
Before the election of President Obama it was fairly easy to organize for anti-war protests that I was heavily involved in; after his election it was like pulling teeth to get liberals involved in any sort of action that questioned Obama and his policies. Since the election of Donald Trump there has been a deep-seated fear amongst liberals that he will wind back the gears of progress to the pre-Civil Rights era. While in some ways this definitely seems to be what he is attempting to do, it has activated the left, possibly like no other time in history.

While the events surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) are not necessarily about Trump, they do represent his ideology and the perpetuation of unbridled free market capitalism. The fight by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe against the construction of DAPL slowly began to gain attention after the election ended; especially after the November 20th actions where police fired water cannons on peaceful “water protectors” in freezing weather, as well as the use of a host of other militarized gear that was more suited for foreign war zones than domestic peaceful prayer actions. Many had to be rushed to the hospital and at the time of this writing one girl may lose her arm due to the use of a concussion grenade by the police.

The use of all this militarized gear and tactics not only on American citizens, but more specifically on a group of people who have been oppressed since the arrival of European colonizers sparked outrage amongst many veterans. While I was up there it definitely reminded me of my time in Iraq as the North Dakota police forces and National Guard worked to protect the pipeline at all costs. This outrage sparked a Facebook group and GoFundMe page started by Wesley Clark Jr., a veteran and son of a famous military general, to mobilize veterans to ‘deploy to Standing Rock’ in order to stand with the water protectors. Over 2,000 veterans signed up to go to Standing Rock, which became the center of media attention across the country. Many believe that it was this action by veterans that pushed President Obama and his administration to deny the permits required for the DAPL project to continue. Though only time will tell if the denial of those permits matter, as they could either drill anyways and pay the fines or wait for Donald Trump to enter office, and since he has a financial interest in the pipeline he would likely push to have those permits granted.

After the Army Corps of Engineers denied the permits, most media outlets claimed that it was a victory, and that the fight was over; and less covered outside of social media was Energy Transfer Partners press release stating ‘that the denial of the permit was a political decision and that they would continue with the pipeline anyways.’ Thus, it would seem that while the Veteran movement temporarily helped to draw media attention to the NoDAPL movement, many believed the fight was over as the media has since moved on.

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A militarized police checkpoint outside the Oceti Sakowin Camp near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, ND.

Conclusion
The next four years will no doubt be tumultuous, however I believe that we will see an increase in activism. On the front lines of that activism you will find veterans, fighting for the ideals of freedom and democracy, and continuing to uphold the constitution they swore to defend against enemies foreign and domestic. While soldiers are often used to maintain empire, the reflections of unjust wars can weigh heavy on veterans and retribution comes in doing what’s right and fighting the injustices that have never made America great. Much as Vietnam veterans shifted the media narrative of the anti-war movement in the 60’s & 70’s look to find today’s veterans working to shift the narrative for many different social justice movements Trump threatens today.



Image Credits
1. Wall Street Journal
2. Twitter
3. Author’s photograph.
4. Author’s photograph.