Is Trump's candidacy a model for online extremists?

Trump's parallel universe of polls_00035924
Trump's parallel universe of polls_00035924


    Trump's alternate reality: He's winning online polls


Trump's alternate reality: He's winning online polls 05:44

Story highlights

  • Moira Whelan: It was my job at the State Department to understand America's role in the global social media landscape.
  • Extremists everywhere are learning a lot about what they can do in their own countries from this election, writes Whelan.

Moira Whelan is a partner at BlueDot Strategies in Washington, DC. She previously served in senior strategic communications positions at the Department of State, US Agency for International Development and the Department of Homeland Security. She is supporting Hillary Clinton for the presidency. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

Moira Whelan

(CNN)It's easy to make fun of Donald Trump's lack of sophistication on "the cyber." In the first debate, instead of offering a smart approach on the likely hack of DNC emails by Russia, he turned his attention first to a hacker on a bed who weighs 400 pounds, then to ISIS and then to his own 10-year-old son.

But the fact is that when it comes to what extremists do online, Trump knows exactly what he's doing, and around the world he is a model.
Until this summer, it was my job at the State Department to understand the global social media landscape so we can make sure America's message resonated.
    We went to work every day knowing that in the Middle East, it wasn't uncommon for a Western-educated businessman to believe wild conspiracy theories that the US had staged the 9/11 attacks. In Europe, we watched as suspicion of US policies rose with the growing reach of RT -- the Russian media empire. To be sure, we set the global standard in terms of social media outreach and engagement through our embassies, often besting the efforts of our host countries. But as extremists moved into the global discourse online, the challenge increased.
    Social media has amplified the ability of one voice to have disproportionate influence on a conversation -- a new global conversation that is democratizing how people see world events. Information moves quickly. It's first-hand. It's personal. When used for the forces of good, we end up with the likes of Malala Yousufzai or global efforts to #bringbackourgirls.
    Then there's the downside: ISIS broadcasting horrific beheadings and recruiting. Russian trolls rewriting the invasion of Ukraine. Each iteration gets better and better at this kind of manipulation. Bad guys can learn too, and in response, governments are pulling the plug. In an effort to take out extremists, they take away an important tool of civil society. The governments get criticized, and the bad guys keep making videos.
    Trump embodies the trends we see among the worst of the worst. His tweets are embraced by white nationalists. He has been featured in terrorist recruiting videos. He is representing America to the world right now and he's teaching extremists a few things.
    First, Trump makes it OK to hate America. Calling America "bad" is just the beginning. Attacks on policies, leaders and even celebrities prove to extremists around the world that every negative belief they have about our motives are real.
    Second, Trump proves that facts just don't matter. Breaking new records in the fact-check category, Trump has shown you don't need the truth to win. Peddling false internet memes doesn't get extremist leaders in trouble, it gets them media coverage and more followers.
    Third, Trump legitimizes violence as a means of political discourse. Trump has called for physical attacks on his opponent, condoned attacks on protesters and verbally attacked countless individuals. He is a cyberbully, and we give him the attention he craves.
    Fourth, Trump makes it OK to be an irresponsible one percenter. He lives in lavish estates. He defends the practice of paying as little taxes as possible. He attacks the families of others with a string of broken marriages of his own. And then he somehow promises to reverse all of the wrongs in America. To people who would believe in the false promises of ISIS or in the humility of Putin, Trump's promises don't seem that unbelievable by comparison.
    When we talk about what Trump has already cost America, we shouldn't look any farther than his Twitter feed. As America works to mobilize the world on fighting extremists online, the Republican nominee will serve as the primary model of just how successful those extremists can be if they use digital tools.
    Donald Trump's success reminds us that we can't ignore the dark corners of the internet anymore -- and we can't even pretend that this activity is restricted to just these dark corners.
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    Extremists everywhere are learning a lot about what they can do in their own countries from this election. And thanks to Donald Trump, governments everywhere are now questioning whether this idea of free and open dialogue online is a good thing. In many ways, you can't really blame them.