Anger and fear – in pro-Trump online networks

Trump fan at Mar a Lago

Two weeks ago, Donald Trump called on his supporters to protest against his expected indictment. Now it happened, how do you react?

News of Trump’s criminal charges spread like wildfire online, but it can be difficult to get a full picture of the talks that responded.

By getting into the social media feeds of US voters and joining the internet groups populated by Trump’s most loyal fans, we can better see how all of this is unfolding.

That’s where the BBC’s “undercover voters” come in – social media accounts of five fictional characters from across the US political spectrum, based on data from Pew Research.

These five profiles give us a snapshot of what US voters are seeing on social media, both on mainstream platforms and in the niches that are out of reach for most of us.

After searching their feeds for Trump-related material, three key themes emerge.

Trump supporter ‘sick in the stomach’

Let’s start with the mainstream legal profiles.

For our right-wing constituents, Britney and Larry, their feeds are dominated by pro-Trump messages.

Echoing the former president’s language, there are defiant comments about a “witch hunt” and how the Democrats have “armed the legal system.”

This includes tweets from Republican politicians, commentators, and other pro-Trump accounts using this as a rallying cry for his 2024 presidential bid.

Some accounts are calling for him to be reinstated in the White House now, and there is talk of his supporters feeling nauseous.

News of the impeachment has largely drowned out mention of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who could be Trump’s biggest Republican rival if he runs.

This includes the feeds of our non-political voter Gabriela, in which he has been a key figure over the past few months.

Instead, she receives many posts supporting Mr Trump, claiming these charges are an “unfair” attempt to thwart his presidential bid.

The story goes on

Unlike Trump’s original post on Truth Social, which predicted his arrest and called for protests, the posts these accounts see have generally avoided direct calls to action.

“Trust the Plan”

The mood is different on sites like Telegram, where Trump’s most dedicated supporters gather.

This is where the sprawling, baseless QAnon conspiracy theory thrives — positing that the former president is waging a secret war against elite, Satan-worshipping pedophiles in government, business, and the media.

In fact, there is much talk that the prosecution is part of a conspiracy by the so-called Deep State.

Two competing narratives simultaneously unfold in these channels.

The first involves angry and sometimes violent rhetoric towards the government, along with cryptic calls to action. Messages include “Here We Go!!” and “It’s your turn soon”.

Others refer to false claims that the 2020 election was rigged and Trump was the rightful winner, stating: “See if we stand against this fake government if Trump [be] arrested”.

The more extreme messages urge supporters to “kill the deep state,” but there’s no visible evidence of plans for insurrection.

There’s talk of pro-Trump rallies, but the mood feels different than the US Capitol riots, which were preceded by a social media movement riddled with hateful language and calls for violent action.

The difference might now be partially explained by the different narrative swirling around in these online circles – stay off the streets.

Several contributors on Telegram fear there is a sinister conspiracy tricking them into taking action and being arrested. They say there’s a bigger plan from which Trump will emerge victorious – if they can stay out of trouble.

You’ve just made Trump “the most prolific political martyr in history,” writes one.

While the chatter on the main channels does not appear to include any specific calls to arms, there are smaller, private groups that we cannot discern, where some very committed ones could pose a greater risk.

The “Most Prolific Political Martyr in History”?

celebration and doubt

Trump’s indictment is also a big topic of conversation on the left.

Memes showing Trump behind bars in prison jumpsuits hit the top of left-leaning voters’ feeds shortly after the news broke.

Posts targeting Emma and Michael’s profiles celebrate his impending arrest – several noting that “nobody is above the law”. But there are also some nagging doubts.

Several posts question whether Trump is being charged with the right crime given the gravity of other investigations he faces.

And some say the way his base and the broader Republican party is rallying around him could boost his presidential campaign. There are posts fearing that the prosecution will backfire by eliciting support from those who might otherwise have been less committed.

But the conversation isn’t just about Trump on the left. Within hours of the indictment news, other issues such as trans rights and criticism of Ron DeSantis also begin to creep in.

Where can you keep up with the Undercover Voters?

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Listen to Americast on BBC Sounds and tune in to BBC 2’s Newsnight for regular updates on what these profiles are recommended around major news events and explore how they’re being targeted ahead of the 2024 election.