In February, the MIT Media Lab published a ranking of the biggest election influencers on Twitter. These are the accounts that, in terms of pure reach, the most voters are listening to.
The top 10 are pretty obvious: Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders. Further down you have your CNNs, your GOPs, your Bill Mahers.
But of the 150 names on the list, a full 42 belong to people who are not candidates, politicians, celebrities or media. Instead, they’re private citizens or hobbyist bloggers who have become forces in national politics, thanks entirely to the power of Twitter.
The trend isn’t limited to Twitter either, of course. On YouTube, a pair of vloggers named Diamond and Silk have mobilized so many Trump supporters that they now open rallies for the man himself. On 4chan, an amorphous group of pro-Trump trolls have made anti-Semitism a major issue of the election. On any platform, at any given time, the narrative of Election 2016 is driven almost as much by these social influencers as it is by the mainstream media or the candidates themselves.
Below, meet nine of the Trump supporters who have made a major Internet impact.
The Meme Provocateur
Even the truest believers in Trump’s Internet diaspora probably haven’t heard the name Richard Flint. That’s because the 53-year-old meme-maker rarely uses his real name online: He usually goes by the moniker “fishbonehead.”
Since 2011, Flint has delighted his corner of the alt-right Internet with mocking Photoshops of liberals, deliberately offensive snark, and caps-locked “ALERTS” about non-events, like Muslims “invading” the U.S. But he only came to mainstream attention recently, after tweeting a meme that superimposed Hillary Clinton’s face over a pile of money and a red six-pointed star. Critics considered the meme offensive and anti-Semitic, particularly when it was picked up by Trump’s official accounts.
Flint declined to speak to The Intersect on the record. But in the past five years, he has left a trail of breadcrumbs that’s not difficult to follow. The Twitter account @fishbonehead1 was registered using a Gmail address of almost the same name; that email address has also been used to register several websites under the name of a Northern Virginia man named Richard Flint.
Flint, according to public records, co-owns a home in a planned condominium community with his mother. He is the father of two. In a 2014 Amazon review, he referenced being a “trained chef,” but also appears to have other business interests: He has owned now-defunct URLs related to Asian trade, home-buying, and musical instruments.
Whatever his professional affiliations, it’s easy to see his political leanings. On his now-deleted Twitter account, and in the comments sections of websites like Twitchy, the Daily Caller and Breitbart, he regularly criticized feminists, liberals, equal-marriage advocates and members of the Black Lives Matters movement.
It was Flint’s inflammatory memes that really made him famous, however — and it appears he was often trolling with those. Flint has made memes that feature swastikas and Stars of David, but he has also defended Israel. And while many critics assumed the moniker “fishbonehead” referred to boneheads — a subculture of punk white supremacists — there’s actually some indication it refers to the band Fishbone, whose members are all African American.
“Comedian,” his Twitter bio read before the account came down. “Probably offend you if you are Liberal, Politically Correct, Feminist, Democrat or Piers Morgan.”
The YouTube Stars
“People expect us to be embarrassed of him. And we’re not embarrassed of him.”
Diamond and Silk, a.k.a. Lynette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, jumped on the Trump Train a year ago, and nothing’s been the same for them — or The Trump Train — since.
A viral rant featuring darts flung at Fox News host Megyn Kelly, fixed the YouTube vloggers as institutions in the online Trump world last August. Furious at Kelly’s debate questions to Trump about past sexist remarks, Diamond (who tends to do most of the talking for the pair) told Kelly she should “go back and report news for Sesame Street.”
“Leave my man, Donald Trump, the hell alone,” Diamond said in the video, which now has 1.6 million views. “If you got something to say, you got something you wanna tell him, run it by us first.”
In a recent phone interview, Diamond and Silk turned the conversation back to Trump at nearly every question. They were women on a mission for the man, and their focus on that mission is exactly what their fans have come to expect and love about them.
For their fans, Diamond and Silk are living proof that Trump supporters aren’t an army of white racists. Diamond and Silk are black, they’re women, and they’re former Democrats who, they said, will vote Republican for the first time to support Trump. They wield their identities like a weapon against the main target of their criticism: the media.
“People expect us to be embarrassed of him,” Diamond said. “And we’re not embarrassed of him.”
Diamond and Silk met Trump in December at a North Carolina rally, the first Trump rally either of them had been to. Trump chatted with the pair before the event began, and they were treated as VIP guests of the campaign. Then they met again onstage, when Trump invited them to “do a little routine” for the crowd.
The way Diamond tells it, the pair had “no idea” they’d be up on stage with Trump that evening. During a question and answer segment, a campaign staffer encouraged them to ask a question. “When Donad Trump turned around and saw it was us, he asked us up on stage,” Diamond said.
“How great are they?” Trump asked a cheering crowd. “I turn on my television one night and I see these two on television. I say, ‘they are the greatest, what is it?” Trump tells him, his arm around Diamond. “I hope you’ve monetized.”
The pair support themselves full-time as vloggers now, although the amount of money their videos and online store brings in was, this reporter was told, “none of your business.”
“Donald Trump talkes about bringing back jobs,” said Silk. “He’s doing that already with us being even able to have a job.”
Since that December rally, Diamond and Silk have opened for Trump rallies a couple of times, and plan to keep on vlogging beyond the 2016 elections.
The pair might be about to get an even bigger stage this week at the RNC, Diamond hinted during our phone conversation. “We were formerly asked by our man Donald Trump to speak at the conventions, but we’re still waiting for concrete information,” she said.
The Twitter Kingpin
“I feel like I’m part of something historic”
At this time last year, Bill Mitchell had 149 Twitter followers and “nothing particularly interesting to say.” He is now, per a recent MIT Media Lab study, the single most influential private person tweeting about the campaigns.
“I feel like I’m part of something historic,” Mitchell said from his home in Charlotte, N.C., where he currently tweets about Trump an average of 73 times per day. “I think historians will look back on this election in 30 or 40 years and see it as the moment when America stepped back from the brink. I’m proud to be a part of that.”
Mitchell, 56, has always been interested in politics: He describes himself as a “lifelong conservative” who has gotten in yelling matches with TV news. But he was never moved to actually participate until Trump entered the Republican race last June.
Mitchell liked the idea of a businessman as commander-in-chief. (He’s personally worked in executive recruitment for the past 30 years.) He also saw a gap in mainstream Trump coverage: No one, Mitchell believed, was doing a particularly knockout job explaining complex concepts to the political newcomers who had embraced Trump. And while the “highly paid punditry” predicted Trump’s downfall on the daily, Mitchell thought they had it wrong.
So he started tweeting: news articles from his favorite sources (Breitbart, Gateway Pundit, Conservative Treehouse, DC Whispers and Truthfeed), pithy commentaries, bite-sized political analyses. During the height of the primary season, Mitchell’s account saw 25,000 retweets per day and reached 60 million people per month.
“I had to turn off notifications,” he said, ruefully. “If I had the live feed on, it would be like watching a 60-frame-per-second movie.”
Both online and in conversation, Mitchell comes across as garrulous, confident and relentlessly upbeat, peppering his tweets with smiley faces. While Mitchell is unabashed in his disdain for liberals and progressives, he doesn’t get into Twitter spats and he doesn’t call people names. When he swears, which is rare, he bleeps the words out with asterisks. And as for the echo-tweeters and /pol/-expats of the Trump Twitterverse: “I stay away from those folks,” he said. “There’s so much positivity in this campaign.”
Recently, Mitchell has become interested in spreading that message beyond Twitter. He’s started YouTube and Facebook accounts. Five weeks ago, he launched an online radio show called Your Voice Radio that’s already become the top political talk show on Spreaker, the Internet radio platform it broadcasts on. His guests have included Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson, Paul Ryan challenger Paul Nehlen, and Juanita Broaddrick, who has famously accused Bill Clinton of rape.
Mitchell says he’s spent upwards of 14 hours a day working on the program, teaching himself audio editing from YouTube, designing a new website, and combing through listener calls to a 24-7 hotline. (“I’m single and not involved with anyone,” he jokes. “If I was, they’d probably dump me, because I’d have no time for them.”) His hope is that the show, like his Twitter feed, will extend far beyond the election. With its 50,000 monthly listeners, he wants it to get picked up by a satellite radio station.
“Things slowed down a lot after Indiana,” Mitchell said. “But with the Republican conventions, things are gonna pop. The next couple months will be crazy.”
He sounds genuinely excited about the prospect of more 14-hour Twitter days.
“My career has taken off exponentially”
Milo Yiannopoulos might best be understood as the Caesar Flickerman of Gamergate, a fastidiously styled alt-right figure who revels in mocking the movement’s feminist and progressive enemies. He refers to Trump as “Daddy,” himself as a “Trump-sexual.”
Trump is “a perfect storm of everything I love in life,” Yiannopoulos told The Intersect in an email. “He is fearless in the face of a hostile press and speaks with both conviction and clarity. He has a very deep and obvious love of America and the American people.”
“And of course there is the fact that he is fabulously wealthy,” he added. “I probably should have put that first.”
The British writer heads up Breitbart Tech, a vertical on the pro-Trump news site that that publishes a mix of tech news, commentary and dossiers on individual progressives involved in the tech or gaming industries. Plus news about Yiannopoulos himself. The stream of Milo updates on Breitbart Tech are so frequent that might seem strange to remember that the writer works for a site that was named after somebody else. Last week, the site published a story about a new photoshoot of the writer.
Among his clips is a sympathetic explainer of the alt-right, a nebulous movement that has ties to recent spates of online anti-semitism targeting people perceived as Trump’s enemies. Yiannopoulos writes about the alt-right as a group of young Internet natives who are primarily just trying to have fun; a characterization that drew some criticism from one of Yiannopoulos’s allies. He’s stuck with it, much to the delight of the alt-right.
“My career has taken off exponentially as one of the few journalists that understands the merry pranksters of the Internet that have fueled so much of the excitement about the Trump campaign,” Yiannopoulos said, pointing to a recent article of his titled “My Fame: an Update,” in which he outlines several of his recent successes. Maybe he’s more Gilderoy Lockhart.
Yiannopoulos has made an art out of being high profile in a way that has paralleled the rise of Trump’s own campaign for president. He surrounds himself with the markings of success and fame. He denies or disregards the accusations of various critics, who say Yiannopolous’s work causes offense or incites online harassment. Those accusations — be they from the mainstream media, establishment conservatives, or progressives — will only rally his base to his side even closer. He didn’t become a lightning rod, he volunteered.
The way Yiannopoulos tells it, he’s earned at least partial credit for rallying the various factions of Gamergate behind Trump, whom he once called the “Internet’s candidate.”
“For certain conservative elements of Gamergate, supporting Donald Trump was an easy decision,” he wrote. But for others with different political leanings, “I believe my involvement had an effect in setting the stage for supporting Trump.”
“Every candidate has made what gamers would characterize as fatal flaws,” Yiannopoulos wrote, naming moments from the campaigns of Clinton, Sanders, and Cruz. “Every candidate but Trump himself, who constantly feeds into the internet culture that has sprung up around his candidacy.”
The Trump Babes
“Then I thought, maybe it’s good. People will know there are females out there who support Trump.”
Sarah and Samantha Hagmeyer may have come to the world’s attention for their pretty faces, but the 20-year-old twins are also quite a bit more than that. After all, long before they were posing in bikinis and “Trump 2016” hats, the girls were hustling for Students for Trump, a student-run, grassroots effort to mobilize conservatives on college campuses.
“I have always been a Trump fan,” Sarah said. And now that she’s finally old enough to vote for him, she’s determined “to bring more students into politics.”
Both young women are currently at New Jersey’s Rowan College where they study business — which, Sarah says, has only increased their respect for Trump. She coordinates public relations for Students for Trump; Samantha is the group’s social media coordinator. Between the group’s Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat accounts, and the various traditional and online outlets that have come seeking comment, the pair command an audience of well over 100,000.
But that pales in comparison to the number of people ogling the ladies’ scantily clad Trump-themed selfies: Those have become iconic Election 2016 imagery.
There’s the photo of the two girls standing in the snow in flag-print bikinis. (Hashtag #twinsfortrump.) There’s one of Samantha, arms outstretched before the flag, wearing a halter top that says “America.” In late June, when the hashtag #TrumpGirlsBreaktheInternet became Twitter’s No. 1 trending topic, the Hagmeyers’ photos were featured in dozens of media outlets. A picture of the two posing by a pool with Trump campaign signs remains pinned atop the @BabesForTrump Twitter account.
“They’ve almost become a piece of clickbait or clip art,” said Sarah, who has a light, pleasant laugh and answers every question with an emphatic “sure!” “My thoughts were spiraling: Is this good or bad? There are pictures of us in bikinis all over the Internet. But then I thought, maybe it’s good. People will know there are females out there who support Trump. And now all these people want to talk to us.”
Both girls grew up around politics: Their parents, particularly their father, often talks about Fox News at the dinner table. (He also regularly stumbles upon his daughters’ photos in Trump Facebook groups, which seems a little awkward.) In high school, the twins were involved in student government and began voting in local elections as soon as they were able. They’re excited to cast their votes for Trump, said Sarah, who calls him the only candidate “who is really out there for the American people.”
Classes start back up in the fall; Sarah admits she’ll probably be pretty busy with school when the election comes around. But she and other organizers from Students for Trump are planning a new organization for young conservatives, called Generation Onward, that they plan to launch shortly after that. Until then, Sarah is making the rounds on numerous podcasts, YouTube channels, radio and TV shows, cheerily personifying the ideal female Trump supporter.
“A woman and a student, passionate for Trump,” hyped Breitbart’s Kevin Scholla in a June interview with Sarah. “Debunking another false narrative about the Trump campaign! … you blasted that out of the water!”
The Conspiracy Theorist
“Donald Trump, let me say this. My audience, I’d say 90 percent supports you”
The Internet is full of conspiracies, and Alex Jones, the radio host behind Infowars.com, shouts them louder than anyone else. He believes the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre was a “false flag” operation by the government, a claim he and Infowars — which now employs a team of reporters — have applied to many other mass shootings. And last December, Alex Jones interviewed Donald Trump.
The interview was mutually friendly. “Donald Trump, let me say this. My audience, I’d say 90 percent supports you,” Jones told Trump.
Later, Trump said, “I just want to finish by saying your reputation’s amazing. I will not let you down. You will be very, very impressed. I hope and I think we’ll be speaking a lot but you’ll be looking at me in a year or two years, just give me a little bit of time to run things.”
Jones started building his conspiracy-trading empire long before Trump was a presidential candidate, but Trump’s Internet diaspora has helped Jones find a new audience. The Alex Jones YouTube channel has jumped from 20 million monthly views at the beginning of this year to 40 million in June, according to Socialblade’s analysis of the channel. From 2011 through late 2015, the channel’s monthly views hovered pretty steadily under 15 million.
Infowars has gradually crept into the online circles of Trump supporters as a legitimate news source.. If you look at where Redditors have posted Infowars.com links recently, you’ll see a flood of extremely negative articles about Black Lives Matter and Hillary Clinton funneling to r/The_Donald — the most influential of the Trump subreddits — and the related subreddit r/UncensoredNews. Redditors are overwhelmingly posting Infowars links to r/The_Donald, at a much faster pace than they are to r/conspiracy or to Infowars’s own, much smaller, subreddit.
Jones himself gave a “high energy” AMA to r/The_Donald last month, where the subreddit’s members gave Jones news tips, and commiserated over their common enemies: liberals, the media, the government.
“Alex may be a bit nutty at times, but the reporters and Paul Joseph Watson are definitely the better side of Infowars,” one Trump supporter said recently in a thread on r/AskTrumpSupporters. Another agreed: “I just like that infowars brings up topics that mainstream news won’t talk about therefore I know what to research.”
“Some weeks, I think we reach more people on Facebook than Trump himself.”
Before Sanh Oriyavong oversaw Facebook’s largest pro-Trump group, he was best-known as a guiding light in … the hunt to find Bigfoot. For several years, the 37-year-old’s news blog, Big Foot Evidence, was the largest Bigfoot site in the world.
“It’s not by accident that Redstate Watcher has been successful,” Oriyavong said, of his popular conservative news aggregator. “I was really proud of the Bigfoot site, and I used that as a jumping-off point.”
Oriyavong and his brother, Sam, launched Redstate Watcher and its accompanying Facebook page, Donald Trump For President, in August 2015. Neither man had been particularly political to that point, though they had always leaned conservative — a legacy of the fact that they had fled Laos’ communist regime as children. Sanh had initially gotten into blogging as a means to support his wife and three small children after his wife lost her job. Sam works in law enforcement in the Sacramento area.
But when Trump announced his candidacy, Sanh — who had made a career in niche websites after the success of Big Foot Evidence — asked Sam if he’d like to attempt a Trump-themed Web project. Redstatewatcher.com, their stand-alone site, aggregates right-leaning news from Twitter, YouTube and a range of major media outlets, including CNN, Fox, AP and The Washington Post. It’s blown up in the past eight months: According to the web analytics firm Similarweb, it consistently sees well over 1 million page views per month.
But that reach doesn’t even begin to compare to Donald Trump For President, the site’s associated Facebook page, which has almost 1.2 million hyper-engaged followers and posts between 80 and 90 times per day. (Sanh works until 2 a.m. each night, and Sam picks up the page at 5 the next morning.) Their average post gets over 1,600 likes and shares, and outraged image macros like the one below can easily spin off into the hundreds of thousands. According to the Oriyavongs, in the past week alone their page has seen 30 million impressions.
“I’m not sure how you’d measure this,” Sanh said, “but some weeks, I think we reach more people on Facebook than Trump himself.” There may be something to that: While Trump’s personal page has far more followers and his posts get more reactions, few have been shared as many times as the Oriyavongs’ memes have. The Facebook page has gotten so huge that they might keep it going after the election.
“People get their news from social media, so we keep them informed as much as possible,” Sam said.
“It’s a responsibility we take very seriously,” Sanh added. “Even if we wanted to stop, we wouldn’t.”