Rhetoric of Accountability

On April 7th, Trump ordered an airstrike on the al-Shayrat airfield in Syria, a decision that marked the first U.S. direct military action against Assad’s regime. The strikes came in response to a chemical weapons attack that occurred two days earlier, from which 69 civilians were killed. This is not the first time Assad has attacked his own people with chemical weapons: in 2013, Assad’s military killed as many as 1700 people when they dropped a nerve agent on the agricultural area of Eastern Ghouta.

During his election campaign, supporters of Donald Trump rallied behind his call to “put America first,” withdrawing from conflicts are interventions overseas so that the country can focus on its own internal growth. After the strikes, however, doubt began to spread amongst supporters of MAGA, and online debate sprung up as to whether Trump’s actions were a justified or unnecessarily aggressive and unnecessary. On twitter, die-hard Trump fans praised the President’s no-holds-barred attitude in showing Assad “who’s boss.” Others expressed their disappointment, seeing the intervention as a divergence from his campaign promises. Amidst all this, a hashtag emerged and quickly gained popularity: #Syriahoax, referring to the idea that the chemical attack was a false flag carried out by the so-called “deep state” government.

Besides the obvious issue that the conspiracy paints the U.S. as scheming aggressors, the most concerning issues in respect to the rhetoric it is trying to perpetuate is that it conveys that not only is Trump not responsible for his own actions, but that his base is willing to shift the blame to a “shadow government” that is manipulating him. Backed by sources such a Ron Paul and Infowars, simple hashtags can balloon into wide-reaching, full-blown conspiracies. Without the need for evidence, the rhetoric we see on Twitter in matters such as this is disturbing. Politicians should be held accountable to facts, not hashtags.

When Hashtags Win Elections

If the 2016 election proved anything, it’s that in this age of tweets, shares, instas, and viral content, the hashtag is as powerful a political tool as anything. Candidate slogans and mottos have been around since the birth of campaigning, from Obama’s “Hope” (2008) to James L. Polk’s “Reannexation of Texas and Reoccupation of Oregon” (1844) and Henry Clay’s “Who is James L. Polk?” (joke’s on you Henry Clay). This past election, the dominant slogan proved to be “Make America Great Again,” #MAGA, the rallying call of Donald Trump supporters.

#MAGA is not an exceptionally unique or radical slogan: in 2004, Democratic John Kerry ran under “Let America be America Again.” However, used in the context of conservative and libertarian patriotism and in opposition to the “leftist” ideologies and “corruption.” Regardless, it erupted virally and became a political phenomenon. To say that it is a activism is a bit of a stretch: it acts more as a lens through which people began judging events, people, the media. Cooccurring often with other ambiguous “movements” #Draintheswamp and #Americafirst, it is not connected with a specific or defined mission, and yet its sentiment drew out enough voters to get Trump into office.

Why was this movement effective? In his article Small Change (link below), Malcolm Gladwell speaks about the inefficacy of social media in inspiring activism. He argues that although social media platforms allow for activists to connect on a virtual level, any chance at real activism is hindered by the fact these connections are far weaker than those that are formed in real-life interaction and engagement. These “weak ties,” he says, are not conducive to revolution, and claims that in the places such as Iran where uprising went hand in hand with social media, avenues of communication such as twitter served only a peripheral role. In a democratic country such as the United States, where elections are decided by the whims of the people, weak ties are all that are needed to create change within the system (as long as the majority buys in). Hashtags such as #MAGA occur most often in posts concerning the support of capitalism, condemnation of political correctness, and a rejection of all things considered un-American by the conservative and libertarian crowd. Connect these ideas with the notion of Patriotism and you have a enormous crowd of “patriots” eager to vote to put America first.

When dealing with ideas, strong ties and real life activism is not always necessary. As discussed in the the article Beyond the Hashtag (link below), social media can inspire real change when the message is clear and and the mission is tangible. The idea that black lives matter and the mission is to stop police violence towards blacks are powerful and concrete. In this case, social media plays in pivotal role in inspiring awareness and activism: videos of police brutality and testimonies of victims are exposed to the point where they breach nearly every echo chamber and feed on Twitter and Facebook. Inevitably, it became politicized, and associated with the left, drawing in voters who support it to vote democrat. #MAGA was a republican counterpart to this, playing off notions of patriotism and anti immigrations among others to generate a powerful sentiment. Stats about crime rates and immigration, news stories (real and fake) concerning supposedly corrupt politicians proved capable of generating as powerful a reaction, but among a larger voter base.

What #MAGA has taught us is the power of a hashtag: connect a slogan or idea with the content that will play upon voter’s emotions, and you may just win control of the country. Forget debating, qualifications or behavioral standards: all you need is a #, a few words, and maybe some real or fake facts, and social media users will do the rest.