The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The #WalkAway meme is what happens when everything is viral and nothing matters

(Picture illustration: Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

On the pro-Trump Internet last weekend, the #WalkAway hashtag was the nexus of an exciting idea: that “millions of Americans are walking away from the Democrat party,” as one pro-Trump account put it. Breitbart said that the hashtag had gone viral; the Epoch Times said it represented a “growing movement” of Democrats — particularly minority Democrats — abandoning their party, and liberalism.

#WalkAway, the hashtag, went viral this weekend, as something of a delayed reaction to a popular video renouncing liberalism by Brandon Straka, who described himself to the Epoch Times as a New York hairdresser and aspiring actor. The video, posted in late May, now has more than 1 million views on Facebook. In it, Straka says he was once a liberal, but now he is not.

“If you are a person of color, an LGBT person, a woman or an American immigrant, the Democratic Party wants you to know you are a victim,” Straka says in the video. “This is perhaps the Democratic Party’s greatest, and most insidious, lie.”

“I am walking away. And I encourage all of you to do the same. Walk away,” Straka concludes. The video was meant to spark a movement; this weekend’s going viral of the hashtag has been cited as proof that Straka has succeeded.

As the Internet fragments, our understanding of what it means to go “viral” has become complicated, and increasingly meaningless. A hashtag claiming to capture a movement among liberals has gone viral, in this case, almost exclusively on the right-wing Internet, as a reinforcement of one of its binding ideas.

There’s little actual evidence to suggest that #WalkAway represents a mass conversion of millions — or even thousands — of Democrats to the Trump Train since Straka’s video. Instead, the #WalkAway hashtag is going Conservative Internet viral on the same hope driving recent pro-Trump support of Kanye West: that the country is on the verge of a mass conversion to conservative thought, a Great Awakening of sorts. And the thing about anticipating an awakening is that it never actually has to happen for the idea of it to go viral.

‘The mob can’t make me not love him’: How Kanye West joined the pro-Trump Internet

One of the most viral #WalkAway tweets, for example, read as the generational reverse of the “woke toddler” meme:

The tweet had more than 16,000 retweets by Sunday. However, as my colleague Dave Weigel noted, the account appears to be a bot, an impersonation or both: @sofialimited’s profile picture was stolen from a book cover by someone with a different name. The account has since been suspended from Twitter.

Other viral tweets on the hashtag came from real people who aren’t exactly recent converts. Another popular #WalkAway tweet comes from CJ Pearson, a teen who describes himself as “the left’s youngest nightmare” on his website. His #WalkAway tweet has more than 10,000 retweets.

Pearson has been right-wing Internet famous for a while now: The teen helped to campaign for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) in 2015, and has gone serially viral for his videos and Twitter stunts targeting former president Barack Obama. 

By Monday, the conversation about #WalkAway followed two familiar, diverging lines of thought: Conservatives were praising the hashtag as proof of a mass conversion in the works, one that they accused Twitter of artificially suppressing from its “trending” tab. Meanwhile, others were pointing to evidence that the hashtag itself was being amplified artificially by bots to seem bigger than it was.

#WalkAway went viral because anticipating a mass conversion of Democrats to its side is an idea that the pro-Trump Internet loves to share. Those who represent the possibility of this conversion become conservative celebrities.

When Kanye West tweeted praise of Candace Owens — a conservative commentator who believes that black people have been brainwashed by the media to vote for Democrats — the right-wing Internet saw an opportunity for a mainstream prophet, whose huge platform would bring around the End Times for liberalism.

When PewDiePie, a YouTuber with more than 50 million subscribers, followed Alex Jones’s Twitter account, the Infowars personality aggressively courted him for an interview on his show. If Jones could reach PewDiePie’s young audience, the movement could grow.

The pro-Trump Internet is really good at convincing its audience that going viral signals popular opinion, that its movement is and always will be #winning. In this case, #WalkAway is the answer to the possibility of a Blue Wave in the 2018 midterms. It doesn’t need to be true to be effective. After all, the hashtag has now become an article in The Washington Post.