Campaigns and consultants have spent the last four years worrying about the Trump campaign’s digital operation. Even before COVID-19 upended the election and forced candidates online, the Trump campaign was geofencing campaign rallies, micro-targeting digital ads, and amplifying deepfake videos.
And now, as both the crisis and the general election enter their third month, panic is beginning to set in about the startling digital gap between the two parties, amplified by the recent Trump campaign announcement of both a new app experience and the start of a $10 million digital push against Joe Biden.
Think of it like a casino, which is one of the best made and most obvious traps in America.
Purposefully built to keep gamblers inside and at the table, everything from the artwork on the wall to the placement of the machines is meant to encourage people to stay just a little bit longer and spend just a little bit more money. It’s a space purposefully created, according to Roger Thomas, the head of design for Wynn Resorts, to help people “enjoy the act of losing money, and encouraging them to lose even more.” It’s the reason why clocks are rarely visible from the slot machines and finding an exit always takes just a little too long.
Trump’s digital infrastructure is performing a similar function—it’s trapping people inside an ecosystem of dangerous misinformation, conspiracy theories, and grievance politics. And it’s doing so while making the experience as fun and exciting as possible!
Take a look at the much-vaunted Trump App.
All campaigns these days have apps, but what makes the Trump App special is both the sheer volume of content and the ways in which it gamifies the process of being a Trump supporter. For instance, inside the app you can find tweets from campaign staff and supporters, press releases, talking points, explanatory videos breaking down to older voters how to use a hashtag, step-by-step instructions for creating your own Facebook page, invitations to upcoming virtual events, and sign-up forms for becoming either a financial bundler or field organizer in your community.
And users are encouraged by a points system to share all of this content with their networks for real-world benefits such as discounts on store merchandise or a picture with the president. The Trump App is providing news, entertainment, and the dopamine rush of earning points and acknowledgement. It’s Candy Crush, but for politics.
Or you can look at Trump campaign’s nightly livestreamed content, which is produced to mimic television news with its talking heads format and rotating chyrons. Broadcast across every Trump platform, including the app, and recapped later on the others, it’s hour after hour of surrogates from the Trump world spreading fear and misinformation while spinning tales of grievance.
Just look at one recent episode of Don Jr.'s show Triggered, where he described a "California revolution against the lockdown" before spreading a lie about the Speaker of the House and the Governor of California letting child rapists out of prison.
Now, here’s the tea: The app reaches more viewers than daytime cable news! But what’s even more worrisome than its evident popularity is the fact that it’s probably some of the most entertaining content being created this cycle. Meaning that more people will spend more time watching the Trump campaign’s version of State TV than watching real news programs, making it harder to reach them with the truth.
And it’s not going to get any easier to reach them with that truth. Earlier this week, Vanity Fair reported that “an investor group aligned with [President Trump’s] son Don Jr. and the Dallas-based Hicks family has acquired a major stake in One America News Network, the fledgling conservative cable-news channel." Meaning that the trap they’re building will soon include a television station as well their previously erected digital infrastructure.
Once you add all of that to the other components of the Trump ecosystem, such as the hundreds of Facebook groups or their popular YouTube channel, you get the sense that Trump supporters could live their entire digital lives without ever leaving the ecosystem.
And that is—of course—the point of the trap.
Roger Thomas, the Wynn designer, once described his work as constructing “adult playgrounds” that trick people into spending money. President Trump’s campaign has done something similar, building for his supporters a political playground filled with private Facebook groups, regularly broadcast live streams, news alerts, text message updates, prizes and rewards—all in an attempt to distract them from the President’s monumental failure to lead.
We cannot allow Trump to keep building bigger and more intricate traps.
His poll numbers are soft. Tens of thousands of people are dead and tens of thousands more will probably die before November. If Trump is allowed to complete construction of this alternate reality then it’s going to be nearly impossible for Democrats to lure people out of the trap and into reality without a significant expansion of resources we don’t have.
Considering the task ahead of us, maybe Brad Parscale is right and this is the Death Star.
But if that’s true, then it’s time for all of us to join the Rebel Alliance.
Stefan Smith is the former online engagement director for Pete Buttigieg’s campaign. You can follow him on Twitter or Instagram @TheStefanSmith.