Trump sessions at Storyology Brisbane 2017

Reflection on two discussions about the impact of Donald Trump’s presidency at Storyology 2017, a conference on media and journalism in Brisbane.
Despite taking place in a different hemisphere, Storyology 2017 could not possibly ignore the phenomenon that in the last 12 months has altered the worldwide media landscape in such a disorienting, unprecedented way. This is, of course, the election to the White House, and the continuing behaviour and language, of Donald Trump.
Saturday at Storyology in Brisbane therefore saw two sessions that attempted to make sense of the consequences of Trump’s success for increasingly bewildered, scrambling media outlets, and offer an explanation of exactly how and why he managed to defeat Hillary Clinton in November last year.

The first of these saw BuzzFeed Canada’s Craig Silverman, in discussion with The Conversation’s Lucinda Beaman, examine fake news. Silverman initially outlined the elasticity of the term by pointing to Trump’s definition of fake news as being pretty much any negative media coverage of him or his administration. The more universal understanding of fake news is, of course, news reports that are fabricated and published with a certain agenda – or financial gain – in mind. Silverman referred to the recent story of how alt-right extremists created a fake Twitter account that was seemingly anti-fascist, that then advocated physical violence against women who voted for Donald Trump, complete with graphic imagery.
This turned out to be a smear campaign against the left by alt-right groups from the 4Chan messageboard, and stands as an example of the evolving nature of fake news and the ever-imaginative ploys used by its producers. Even since last year, when fake stories about Hillary Clinton selling children as sex slaves to ISIS appeared, the phenomenon has developed at a rapid rate.
And it’s one that can make money if played right. Silverman went on to tell the dispiriting story of how a number of teenage students in Macedonia took it upon themselves to set up a number of ‘news’ sites that were stridently pro-Trump and propagated false and misleading information regarding both his and Clinton’s campaign and support base. These young Macedonians are not Trump supporters, and are simply looking to make a profit: the fact is that clicks to their sites from US-based Facebook accounts can go a long way financially in Macedonia, and amid the ‘hyperpartisan’ US election of 2016, it was politics that offered the best chance of traffic, clicks, and earnings.
You could say that Trump has done the same thing as the Macedonians: capitalising on existing sentiment by hitching his campaign to it, without necessarily being sincere himself about the ideology. You might also note the irony of a BuzzFeed editor holding court on the evils of clickbait. But those may be debates for another day.
This warped commodification of political allegiance cannot really be said to be Trump’s fault. The following session however, The Trump Effect, looked to answer the question of how his presidential style is affecting American politics and public debate and featured Damien Cave of The New York Times, American Silicon Valley correspondent Tonya Mosley and Australia’s own Colleen Ryan.
All agreed that a major lesson for the media in the wake of Trump’s victory is to never be predictive again, with Cave lamenting the The New York Times’s notorious ‘election meter’ on its website, that ended up being so wrong. Mosley, meanwhile, pointed out something that those watching Trump’s presidency unfold from Australia might not be aware of: the degree to which he has been ubiquitous in American life for decades. Trump has been part of the furniture in mainstream media since the 1980s, therefore his becoming president is not a case of an invasive monster coming from nowhere, rather a savvy media manipulator, already long in the spotlight, pivoting artfully.
Eventually, the two Americans, Mosley and Cave, joined forces to point out that despite his constant attacks and complaints towards the media (including Cave’s own newspaper, constantly), Trump adores the media and frankly couldn’t live without it. A baffled Ryan wondered why he should be so abusive towards the media in that case, but the fact is that he needs it as an opposition to play off, to be his great nemesis to sure up his own identity and that of his base. As Cave pointed out, he has no real interest in governing, for Trump the presidency is more about the sport of jousting with and ideally crushing his enemies.
The session’s most startling observations ultimately came from Mosley. She explained how Trump has managed to get his supporters to completely ‘tune out’ from the media, ensuring that they too are unaffected by, or unaware of, negative stories about him. Her other comment that resonated was this: “Not all Trump supporters are white supremacists”. That such a thing needs to be said about the President of the United States proves we are living in weird times indeed.
  • My attendance at Storyology 2017 was courtesy of a Regional Scholarship from the Walkley Foundation and the Copyright Agency

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