The 2016 US presidential election campaign has been riddled with controversies and scandals. One candidate in particular, Donald Trump, has muscled his way into the public eye with his childish aggression and sharp tongue. Today, having weeded out all other Republican contenders, Trump has been nominated by the Republican party as their candidate for the next President of the United States, in spite of the many concerns raised about whether he is qualified for the job.

Considering the immaturity and pettiness with which Trump has treated his rivals and the criticism he has garnered for his positions on immigration and trade, these concerns are well founded.

Though he has been compared to fascist dictators like Benito Mussolini, many people continue to find Trump hard to take seriously; shamefully, I too used to find his persona hilarious. As the election draws near, it has become clear that Trump isn’t just a clown for everybody to point and laugh at. Not only is he serious about winning, he is also gaining followers by the hundreds.

In the midst of this trend, a cohort of Trump supporters have adopted his confrontational style on social media platforms, such as Twitter and reddit. Their weapon of choice? The Internet meme.

A popular meme used by Trump supporters is the phrase “Crooked Hillary,” referring to a series of scandals involving Hillary Clinton’s emails. Trump’s online supporters are not the only ones using memes in this fashion. His critics often refer to Trump’s supporters as “Trumpanzees,” something that has become relatively well known in Internet circles.

Though we may all enjoy a good meme, it cannot be denied that this practice is loaded with meaning. In fact, the implications of politics mingling with Internet culture can be serious.

Comments on YouTube videos often have little to do with the actual video. Instead there is usually intense political and cultural posturing, peppered with discriminatory slang and profanities.

Even this would not be such a serious issue if it weren’t for the existence of the Internet ‘echo chamber’ – a region in cyberspace where people with similar ideals and beliefs typically congregate. Theoretically, an entire website can be an echo chamber, but a social media network may also find itself increasingly divided by many separate echo chambers. Though the proliferation of communities of people congregating over shared views is not inherently wrong, problems occur when feuds erupt between different online communities, whose members may harbour an intense emotional connection to their own groups.

It may be amusing to watch grown adults arguing over a character from a children’s television show, but it is not particularly amusing to be caught in the crossfire of a more serious online debate. This is often the case when riots break out following rumours and criticism directed at a certain toupée-topped politician.

We should all be familiar with the fact that the Internet can be a very hateful place. It is difficult to control one’s emotive impulses on the web for two different reasons.

The first is anonymity: in many cases, anything you say on the Internet is unlikely to be traced back to you. The second reason is that, partially due to freedom of speech gone astray, there are generally few consequences for aggression, trolling, or hate.

Some websites, particularly reddit, may have strict moderation of its forums, chatrooms, and comment sections, yet others — YouTube being a prime example — may have none whatsoever.

It would seem that the mixing of politics and Internet culture is evidence of the start of a new era: what occurs on social media goes on to influence events in the real world. Given that the Internet has tended to be the domain of trolls, bullies, and sinister types, this is a real concern.

Trump may be one of the first major politicians to reach such notoriety on social media, but he won’t be the last politician to create a firestorm on the web. It is likely that future generations will continue to use similar tactics, meaning that the balkanization of the Internet will continue.

We must seriously consider the possibility of the Internet influencing the real world in terrible ways: the existence of echo chambers online may breed hateful or toxic ideologies. For now, watching a politician rise to power on the back of such a beast is no laughing matter.

Nicholas Wolf is a second-year student at Innis College.

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