2008 was the year in which the internet offered the democrats the upper hand, as the Obama campaign tracked and tapped its metrics in unprecedented fashion. By 2012, flipping followers into donors became a hard science at Team Obama, and campaigning on social media became semi-normal, as both Obama and Romney shared Spotify playlists. Now in 2016, the Clinton and Trump campaigns both feel more or less internet-native, debating largely by snappy tweet–though by the shape of the current election, it seems safe to say that Hillary is using the internet more effectively.
Yet it’s Hillary’s unofficial campaign that’s using the internet in a new way this election, with a secret weapon: Fiendishly viral websites, wrapped in superb designs, cutting words, and zany interactive elements. These sites are made pro bono, doing the funny, dirty work that’s conveniently unaffiliated with Hillary’s own campaign, like parodies that blow back Trump’s weird hair with a trumpet, or have him toss Mexicans over the wall one at a time (just be careful not to hit the patriot in a sleeveless tee and trucker cap!).
These sites may not exist to say much or say it for that long. But in this way, they are perfectly attuned to the internet circa 2016, to dominate a quick hit social news cycle.
“Like all things, even this very article, the traffic spikes, then drops, and conversation moves on to the next thing,” says Chris Baker. “We even have our own term for this––the fin. Because in analytics, the traffic pattern ends up looking exactly like a shark’s fin. It spikes up, hangs for a day or two, then immediately drops off. We’ve learned to love the fin over here.”
Baker, along with Mike Lacher and Brian Moore, are the force behind GOP Arcade, a left-leaning dig on the Republican party rendered in two-minute satirical games like Trump’s Rampage and Science Fighter. The concept was inspired by Lacher and Baker’s time working as creative directors at Buzzfeed. Could they design “playable news”–a sort of evolution of the poll or news quiz? This presidential election offered them the best test subject imaginable.
Their most recent release is a game called Trump’s Pussy Grabber. It’s essentially whack-a-mole, but the moles are kittens, and you hit them with a small, limp, pixelated Trump hand. I wouldn’t call it funny to play, but it’s almost funny that it exists, offering a cathartic release to the depressing news cycle.
No doubt, it helps that these games can be produced quickly, as relevance is their biggest draw. Pussy Grabber was built and released just a day after Trump’s tapes with Billy Bush were leaked. “They’re easy to make,” says Baker. “More and more people know the tools to pump out a quick site. And because everyone is talking about the election, creative ideas centered specifically around the election are more likely to be thought up, so these mass news events end up yielding a huge range of creative.”
The huge range of creative also comes from a pure numbers advantage. “Creatives tend to be very liberal,” says Jessica Walsh of design firm Sagmeister & Walsh, “and we are in the unique position where we have the tools and talents to design messaging, merchandise, websites, videos, and other forms of communication quickly and cheaply.” When conservatives try the same thing, it hasn’t worked out so well.
With her firm Sagmeister & Walsh and the help of eleven artists, Walsh recently launched Pins Won’t Save The World, a micro-shop full of pins that feature Trump as clown or his face emblazoned on toilet paper (the profits are donated). Walsh also teamed up with long-time collaborator Timothy Goodman on I’m With Her Because He’s Cray–again, a funny, boldly designed site that promotes the simple message that it doesn’t matter if Hillary is or isn’t the perfect candidate, because Donald Trump is cra[z]y. It also features several videos of Trump impersonators making out with one another; featured on Snapchat, the videos received hundreds of thousands of views. And the site has served as a launching pad for several live performances and protests in the city.
Meanwhile, Hire the Donald is a site that poses itself as Donald Trump’s own résumé. If you scroll over its content, with phrases like, “I am a leader. I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had a problem leading people,” you’ll see a link to where Trump actually said those things. And as an added bonus, when you mouse over the letter itself, the page turns, and Trump seems to sign it with a lipstick kiss.
Scroll lower, and you’ll see a gif of Trump sobbing in royal, democratic blue tear streams, while words like “losers” and “haters” blink on the page, drilling the hate speech into your retinas in brazen glee. Again, it’s the sort of internet-friendly, fact-backed propaganda that’s just out of reach for Hillary’s “go high” campaign against Trump. But it was just another day at the office for the design firm Hum, whose employees felt they couldn’t be silent in this election. “We watched the case against Trump grow across a multitude of articles and news channels,” says creative director Kate Harmer. “Our goal was to compose the most compelling threads into a single, undeniable argument. We used the format of a resume to reiterate that, simply put, Trump is a candidate for a very important job. We wouldn’t trust him to fetch our coffee, let alone as leader of the free world.”
Yet while many large and respected design firms may have piled on against Trump, the fact that all of this digital content is getting a lot easier to make means that even amateurs have gotten involved. Fraser Hemphill, an engineering student from Australia, took almost two years to build a mini game called Stop The Boats, about his country’s conservative, trade isolationist Prime Minister Tony Abbott. But it only took him a day of work to re-skin it as Trump Simulator, in which you control Donald Trump’s head as it blocks sombreros coming at the U.S. from all directions.
“I think this election has been so different to any before it, with social media playing a very strong part,” says Hemphill, pointing specifically to the rising power of meme culture.” In this particular case, however, Trump Simulator wasn’t near the hit that his Abbott version had been, though it’s been growing by tens of thousands of visitors a month into the election. That said, while Hemphill may not have managed to rise the tides in Hillary’s favor, he did succeed at upsetting a lot of Trump’s supporters, who called Hemphill a “Liberal shill who’s living on benefits” while insisting that “There’s no such thing as a skilled immigrant you dumb f**k”.
“He’s dangerous and laughable,” says Hemphill of Trump when I ask his opinion, but without any perceivable ire. “I’m just expressing my views, and I don’t think I’m any more of an activist than others expressing theirs.”