The online movement that played a key role in getting Donald Trump elected president of the United States has begun to spread its political influence globally, starting with crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Among several key elections happening in 2017 around Europe, few are as hotly contested as the race to become the next president of France. Having helped install their man in the White House in Washington, D.C., a group of online activists is now trying to get their far-right woman, Marine Le Pen, into the Élysée Palace in Paris.
In 2016, a group of online activists some might call trolls – people who engage online with the specific intent of causing trouble for others – joined forces on internet comment boards like 4chan and Reddit to promote Donald Trump’s candidacy for the White House. These online rebels embraced Trump’s conscious efforts to disrupt mainstream media coverage, normal politics and public discourse. His anti-establishment message resonated with the internet’s underground communities and inspired their members to act.
The effects of their collective work, for the media, the public and indeed the country, are still unfolding. But many of the same individuals who played important roles in the online effort for Trump are turning their attention to politics elsewhere. Their goal, one participant told Buzzfeed, is “to get far right, pro-Russian politicians elected worldwide,” perhaps with a secondary goal of heightening Western conflict with Muslim countries.
Our research has focused on studying political actors and citizen participation on social media. We used our experience to analyze 16 million comments on five separate Reddit boards (called “subreddits”). Our analysis suggests that some of the same people who played significant roles in a key pro-Trump subreddit are sharing their experience with their French counterparts, who support the nationalist anti-immigrant candidate Le Pen.
Finding Trump backers active in European efforts
The so-called “alt-right” movement, an offshoot of conservatism mixing racism, white nationalism and populism, is fed in part by online trolls, who use 4chan message boards and the Discord messaging app to create thousands of memes – images combining photographs and text commentary – related to political causes they want to promote.
As Buzzfeed reported, they test political images on Reddit to see which get the most attention and biggest reactions, before sending them out into the wider world on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. However, we weren’t clear about how much this actually happened.
We set out to quantify exactly what was happening, how often, and how many people were involved. We started with the subreddit “The_Donald,” one of the largest pro-Trump hubs, and analyzed the activity of every Reddit username that had ever commented in that subreddit from its start in 2015 until February 2017. We looked specifically for those same usernames’ appearances in European-related “sister subreddits” – as recognized by “The_Donald” users themselves.
We found that of the more than 380,000 active Reddit users in “The_Donald,” over 3,000 of them had indeed participated in one or more of the “sister subreddits” supporting right-wing candidates in European elections, “Le_Pen,” “The_Europe,” “The_Hofer” and “The_Wilders.” The first two had the most involvement from people also active in “The_Donald.” This is admittedly a small percentage of participants, but it shows that there is overlap, and that the knowledge and techniques used to support Trump are making their way to Europe.
What are they up to?
Next we looked at how involved these Trump-supporting users were in the European right-wing discussions, based on how many comments a user made in any of the subreddits. Most users were moderately active, as might be expected of casual users exploring issues of personal interest. But we identified several accounts with behavior that suggested they might be actively organizing ultra-right collective action in the U.S. and Europe.
There were three types of these users: People who were actively involved in European efforts, bots making automated posts and people concerned about global influences.
Two outlier accounts in particular were what we called “Ultra-Right Activists.” They commented heavily on “The_Donald” and the four European subreddits – one of the outliers had more than 2,500 comments in “The_Donald” and over 1,000 comments in the “Le_Pen.” The other outlier had over 1,000 comments on “The_Donald” and over 1,000 across the European subreddits.
These accounts actively called people to action in both the U.S. and European subreddits. For instance, one post in “Le_Pen” recruited people to make memes: “Participate in the Discord chat to help us make memes.” Another post sought to organize Americans and Europeans to work together to create propaganda that would be effective in France: “We still have to explain to the Anglos some things about French politics and candidates so that they can understand. We must translate/transpose into the French context the memes that worked well in the U.S.”
We also found plans of flooding Facebook and Twitter with ultra-right content: “Yep, the media call them ‘la fachosphère’ (because we’re obviously literal fascists, right), and it dominates Twitter. That’s a great potential we have there. Soon I’m making an official account to retweet all the subs’ best content to them and make it spread.”
Not all of their efforts were necessarily successful. For example, an effort to transfer Trump’s main campaign slogan to Europe never really got going.
One comment we found on “The_Donald” appeared to lay out a game plan: “PHASE 1: MAGA (Make America Great Again) PHASE 2: MEGA (Make Europe Great Again).” Another sounded a similar theme: “Once we get the ball rolling here we will Make Europe Great Again. Steve Bannon has already been deployed to help Marine Le Pen, we haven’t forgotten about Europe.”
But we found only 210 comments mentioning “Make Europe Great Again” across the four European subreddits. While people on “The_Donald” seemed excited about spreading the phrase, Europeans didn’t go for it. Maybe the fact that the phrase is in English didn’t click well with Europeans.
This group involved accounts who were moderately involved in both “The_Donald” and the European subreddits. While many of them were undoubtedly real people, some accounts in this group behaved like bots, posting the same comment repeatedly, or even including the word “bot” in their account names.
Just as we don’t know the real identities or locations of the humans who posted, it’s not clear who might have been running the bots, or why. But these bot-type messages were posted in both The_Donald and the European subreddits. They seemed to be used as a way to create silly or fun collaborations between Americans and Europeans, and to spread an ultra-right-wing view of certain world events.
Some of the words most commonly used by people in this group were “news,” “fake” and “CNN.” People seemed to use those words to criticize traditional news media coverage of the ultra-right. However, some people also commented about possibly manipulating the big news channels to get coverage for Le Pen similar to Trump’s strategies:
“So we must get Le Pens (sic) name in the news every damn day. Just the (sic) like the MSM [mainstream media] couldn’t ignore Donald here, they will have to give her air time which will help her reach the disenfranchised.”
A third group of accounts were highly active on “The_Donald” but far less so on the European subreddits we examined. When they did join the European discussions, it was usually to discuss how European and U.S. liberals were around the globe ruining everyone and everything.
People in this cluster appeared to participate in the European subreddits primarily to emphasize the potentially negative actions that liberals had orchestrated.
With the French election still weeks away, any effects these people might be having remain unclear. But it’s worth watching, and seeing where these activists turn their attention next.