President Trump won the 2016 election in part by using social media in an uncharted way. He attacked the “mainstream media” and connected to his supporters directly via Twitter. Now, despite bipartisan objections, he is continuing and arguably intensifying his Twitter tirade on journalism, threatening the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press in the process.
After a bipartisan uproar over sexist and inflammatory comments he tweeted about the hosts of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Trump tweeted on Saturday that his “use of social media is not Presidential - it’s MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL.” The next day, he posted a video - produced by someone else - showing him beating up a man whose face had been replaced electronically by the CNN logo.
If this is the standard for “modern day presidential,” the rest of us should be extremely concerned for the safety and ultimately the survival of our free press and our democracy.
The video was adapted from a 2007 cameo in which Trump was seen bodyslamming Vince McMahon, owner and ringleader of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and the husband of Linda McMahon, now working for Trump as head of the Small Business Administration. Trump’s tweet looked to some like a call to violence against the network. Its transformation from its origins as a GIF on the subreddit r/The_Donald into a public statement by the president demonstrates how a meme can morph into a threat to the First Amendment. It also raises questions about where the president gets his news - r/The_Donald is haven for some of the most toxic and hateful members of Trump’s base - and whether, despite the White House’s claim to the contrary, he or his staff frequent a repugnant forum that praises him as “The God Emperor.”
Building on the repeated attacks on the media that were a major theme of his campaign, Trump’s antagonism toward journalists has only grown since his inauguration. The administration has chipped away at the daily White House press briefing, banning cameras and audio recordings in a style that invites comparison to the tactics of totalitarian strongmen. In calling journalists “among the worst human beings he has ever met” and “the opposition party,” the president has cultivated an atmosphere that subjects them to threats and could lead to actual physical violence. New York Times reporter Jared Yates Sexton already has been sent death threats after he filed a story identifying the Reddit username of the creator of the CNN video.
Reddit user “HanA[**]holeSolo,” who produced the video, at first proudly claimed credit for having his work posted by the president. But after his name began turning up in news stories, he was quick to apologize. Revealed as a deeply islamophobic, anti-semitic and inflammatory commenter, the user argued that he was merely “trolling and posting things to get a reaction” and that he “love[s] and accepts people of all walks of life.” CNN’s decision in light of the apology not to broadcast the user’s real name while reserving the right to do so later has sparked outrage online and backlash from Trump’s base, whose members apparently see this as a form of blackmail against the poster.
Regardless of the sincerity of “HanA[**]holeSolo’s” apology, the most important part of his statement stresses his supposedly benign intentions. He called the video a “prank”, and insisted it “was not meant to be a call to violence against CNN or any other news affiliation.”
Coming only from an obscure Reddit user, the video is essentially harmless, even if it scratches away at our institutional trust in the media. But when retweeted by the president, the video became a vehicle for another display of his personal anger towards the mainstream media and a new attack on CNN, plus major outlets NBC, CBS, ABC, The New York Times and The Washington Post, as purveyors of “fake news” and “garbage journalism.” It also may serve as a spark to violence, in the same way some Americans believe tweets and other social media posts apparently fueled the rage of Thomas Hodgkinson, the Illinois man who last month opened fire on Republican lawmakers practicing for the annual congressional baseball game.
President Trump uses Twitter in the same way that he did as a candidate and private citizen, and his lack of regards for the consequences of his words raises serious safety concerns for those in the press.
Of the numerous lessons to be learned within this chaotic presidency, one of the most important is that when even the lowest-brow content can find its way to the president’s fingertips, all internet content creators should be wary about the messages their work could imply if broadcast to millions. In an ideal world this responsibility would lie solely with the president, but Trump’s impulsive and often crass online behavior leaves that task to the rest of us.
Despite the claim by the GIF’s creator that he has “the highest respect for the journalist community,” Trump’s usage has already had an impact on his millions of followers. And despite the White House’s insistence to the contrary, a call for violence against the press by the president moves the nation closer to autocracy. Trump’s message is part of a history of remarks that condone or promote violent action, and one that invites tragedy.
Office: Common Cause National
Issues: Media and Democracy