What’s Trump’s think tank? Try internet message boards
WASHINGTON — President Trump bewildered security experts in February when he stated without evidence that Sweden’s refugee policies made the country less safe.
“What has he been smoking? Questions abound,” Carl Bildt, the former prime minister of Sweden responded in a tweet.
Yet in the corners of some pro-Trump Internet websites, the president’s statement was not bizarre in the slightest. For months, outside of the eye of mainstream political observers and in unpoliced forums such as private Listserv’s for supporters, anonymous Internet message boards, and social media communities on Facebook and Twitter, the president’s most loyal fans had been obsessed with claims that Sweden was being overrun with migrant crime.
It did not matter that the truth was more complex or that Sweden’s higher rate of reported rapes predates any influx in refugees. The narrative had already taken hold, beginning on Internet message boards before migrating to popular pro-Trump social media account, and, eventually, to the president.
Understanding the ecosystem of non-mainstream, pro-Trump media is critical to a fuller understanding of the Trump presidency itself. This alternative media, nicknamed the “alt-media,’’ can often be a sign post for where Trump is going, a predictor for a seemingly unpredictable president. No matter how true, misleading, or based in derogatory stereotypes its claims are, the information touted by the alt-media’s most prominent members has consistently bubbled up from anonymous Internet forums to the president’s speeches, policies, and tweets.
Some of the most vocal megaphones are well known, including Infowars’ Alex Jones, former Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone Jr., and Donald Trump Jr., who has consistently praised alt-media members and shared their work. But there are other important figures, too, such as Mike Cernovich, a pro-Trump filmmaker and anti-feminist writer with more than 300,000 Twitter followers, Chuck C. Johnson, a Massachusetts native and founder of GOTnews.com, who has been banned from Twitter for harassing women and nonwhites, and Jack Posobiec, a former naval officer and pro-Trump social media star who helped popularize the since-debunked conspiracy that members of the Democratic Party were running a child sex ring.
Though Posobiec’s claims may have led to a shooting at a Washington pizza store in December 2016, the president retweeted Posobiec earlier in August, after he defended the president’s controversial remarks about violence in Charlottesville, Va.
Trump’s “retweet of me was almost like an endorsement … in a very broad sense,” Posobiec said during an interview with the Globe at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, where he requested to meet. “It was almost like he was validating what we, the alt-media, are doing.”
There are different ways information gets from the alt-media world to the president, according to interviews with alt-media members and independent experts. Sometimes, experts said, it happens because an outlet the president trusts — mainly Fox News — picks up on the “alt-media’s” claims. Other times, the alt-media contingent feeds information directly to Trump’s inner circle — through back channels or on social media.
“One of the ways to influence the president is to make sure there’s things on Fox that interest him or make sure you can get something trending that he’ll see before he goes to bed,” said Johnson. “The paradigm that existed previously, that we’ll control the president by controlling his access to him and his reading list — that’s over in the Internet age.”
Cernovich, who also met with the Globe, said he and his colleagues see themselves as the embodiment of Trump’s base — rabble-rousers who channel the thoughts and personality of the president. “We’re part activists, part journalists, part provocateurs,” he said.
The White House did not respond to questions about its relationship with pro-Trump outlets. In interviews during the campaign, Trump officials acknowledged they monitored online forums such as Reddit and other message boards to get ideas and feedback.
“Reddit is a good place to consume content and find out how I am doing,” said Brad Parscale, digital director for Trump’s campaign, during a question-and-answer session in the Trump-themed Reddit group.
Reddit is a discussion website where members can post nearly anything in forums, largely under the cloak of anonymity. The website has consistently faced criticism for being a platform for false and objectionable content.
In the Sweden example, the connection between pro-Trump message boards and the president’s speech is relatively clear. In the months before his remarks, a deceptively edited film on the “problem” of migrant crime in Sweden, called “Stockholm Syndrome,” made the rounds on Reddit and other sites. Popular pro-Trump Twitter accounts then tweeted about the content, and days before Trump’s comments made international news, Cernovich and Posobiec premiered another film called “Invasion: How Sweden Became the Rape Capital of the West.”
“Riots. Crime. Chaos. Cover-ups” read a video shared by Cernovich and Posobiec with their 500,000 combined Twitter followers on Feb. 2.
Fox News’ Tucker Carlson picked up the story two weeks later, the day before Trump made his statement.
“We’ve got to keep our country safe,” Trump told his supporters at a campaign-style rally in Florida. “You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this?”
Media experts have come to see the most popular pro-Trump accounts as a pseudo-think tank for the White House. Republican presidents in the past have relied on Washington policy centers such as The Heritage Foundation or Freedomworks for ideas on legislation or crisis messaging, but Trump’s longtime feud with the Republican establishment and rhetorical war against “mainstream media” have created a void that the alt-media is happy to fill.
The result is a mutually beneficial relationship, unprecedented in the modern era. Alt-media forums provide the White House the unconditional loyalty it desires, in addition to a willingness to smear the president’s enemies. In return, Trump and some close advisers have shared the alt-media’s articles and memes and parroted its language in interviews.
Donald Trump Jr., White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, former national security advisor Michael Flynn, and current White House social media director Dan Scavino have all publicly shared or liked articles from alt-media sources — boosting the media’s credibility.
On Monday, the president retweeted Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative firebrand and favorite of the alt-media, who was commenting on violence among leftists. This, Cernovich told the Globe, is the number one topic of conversation now in the alt-media world.
“There’s an intentionality on the part of the administration to validate these individuals,” said Angelo Carusone, president of the watchdog group, Media Matters. “They understand the importance of rewarding these individuals because of the fact it helps fuel and foment an alternative narrative that they’re interested in.”
During the election, Posobiec was the face of “Citizens for Trump,” a Facebook community with more than 250,000 followers. In addition to “Pizzagate,” Posobiec is also controversial because he shared stories regarding the Seth Rich conspiracy theory, an unproven myth that a murdered DNC worker was secretly killed for collaborating against Hillary Clinton.
Cernovich bills himself as an “independent filmmaker” yet has gained popularity by also posting opinions that demonize women and question victims of sexual assault.
Johnson, 28, said he communicates with Trump administration officials about “once or twice a week.” The Globe was unable to independently verify his assertion, but according to a previous story published by Politico, Trump has read his GOTNews website, which influenced his decision to fire Katie Walsh — a former deputy chief of staff whom Johnson accused without public evidence of leaking damaging to the media.
“President Trump reads us. You should too,” reads the GOTnews homepage.
Since the election, the alt-media figures say they have become the link between Trump and the most enthusiastic members of his base. They abhor the traditional Republican establishment and openly talk of themselves as more powerful than Trump’s White House communications team.
Their proof: When the White House sought to downplay the testimony of ex-FBI director James Comey or smear special counsel Robert Mueller, officials cited misleading claims popularized by Cernovich, Posobiec, Johnson, and others.
Recently, the group’s coordinated effort against National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster forced the longtime general to address his future in public.
When asked why they wield such power, the group responded with characteristic hubris.
“If Trump was 40 years younger,” Cernovich said, “he’d be one of us.”
We’re “in his head,” said Johnson.