Even before the impeachment inquiry against President Trump was announced on Tuesday, the president’s re-election campaign blasted an email to supporters, urging them to defend Mr. Trump against the “baseless and disgusting attacks.” Facebook quickly filled with ads for impeachment-themed merchandise, including $ 3 “Impeach Now!” bumper stickers and $ 35 “Impeach This!” T-shirts. In a private chat room, pro-Trump internet trolls discussed which memes, videos and news stories to push on social media in order to reclaim the narrative.
The last time America watched an impeachment inquiry, it was largely an analog affair. When the House voted to begin impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton in 1998, only one in four American homes had internet access. AOL and Yahoo were the biggest websites in the world, and “tweet” was a sound birds made.
If the inquiry opened by House Democrats this week results in a formal impeachment of Mr. Trump, it will be the first of the social media era. In many ways, it is a made-for-the-internet event. The political stakes are high, the dramatic story unspools tidbit by tidbit and the stark us-versus-them dynamics provide plenty of fodder for emotionally charged social media brawls.
As impeachment looms, disinformation experts are bracing for a fresh cyclone of chaos, complete with fast-twitch media manipulation, droves of false and misleading claims, and hyper-polarized audiences fiercely clinging to their side’s version of reality.
“We’ve seen quite a surge in disinformation in the last two days, most of it from trolls and bots, to a degree we haven’t seen in a while,” said Yoel Grinshpon, vice president of research at VineSight, a start-up that detects disinformation on social media. “We assume that this will last a few days, and then come back in waves, whenever a new development in the Biden story or the impeachment process comes to light.”
In the past, Democrats have been caught flat-footed by Mr. Trump’s internet fans, who have proved to be adept at inserting noise and confusion into political controversies in real time. When the Mueller report was released this year, the pro-Trump internet rushed to claim victory, blaring “NO COLLUSION” headlines even before the proverbial ink had dried. Fox News and other conservative media outlets joined in the celebration. By the time it emerged that the report had not totally exonerated Mr. Trump, Democrats found themselves shouting through a fog of exaggerations and half-truths.
If Democrats want their impeachment narratives to stick, they will need to do a better job of controlling the online battleground, where partisan opportunists jockey to set the narrative in real time and undermine the opposing side.
“Politics is being consumed like entertainment,” said Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist. “It’s a choose-your-own-adventure reality.”
On Wednesday morning, when a memo summarizing Mr. Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president was released by the White House, the pro-Trump internet seemed unusually sedate. Breitbart, the right-wing website, called the whistle-blower’s report “another deep-state coup” — the equivalent of a ho-hum, “move along, folks” headline. The top-ranked post on Reddit’s biggest pro-Trump forum, r/the_donald, urged followers to pray for Mr. Trump, saying that “he is fighting the American Communist Party all by himself.” On Infowars, the website started by the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, the impeachment news appeared below a story about Mattel’s new line of gender-neutral dolls.
But by the afternoon, these sites had found their voices, and the battle was raging. Right-wing websites recycled misleading claims that congressional Democrats requested an investigation into Mr. Trump in 2018. Trump partisans stoked a years-old conspiracy theory involving CrowdStrike, a cybersecurity firm that has been falsely accused of helping Democrats conceal Ukraine’s involvement in meddling in the 2016 election. They also circulated negative claims about Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, whose business dealings in Ukraine are at the center of the impeachment firestorm. On Wikipedia, volunteer editors scrambled to remove dubious information from Mr. Biden’s page.
Democrats have also seized the impeachment moment, using social media to solicit donations and gather names and email addresses for voter outreach lists. Julián Castro, the Texas Democrat running for president, bought Facebook ads urging his supporters to sign an impeachment petition. So did Senators Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren, two other presidential contenders.
Facebook ads bought by Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign offered membership in the “Impeachment Defense Task Force” to people who donated or gave their email addresses and phone numbers, while other ads offered spots on the “Impeachment Defense Team.” Both groups appeared to be primarily marketing tactics, rather than official entities, and the ads gave few details about their activities or mandates.
The Trump campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Veteran digital strategists characterized the impeachment inquiry as a potent opportunity for raising money and collecting voter information. On Wednesday, Brad Parscale, Mr. Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, claimed that the campaign had raised $ 5 million from small donors in the 24 hours since the impeachment inquiry began.
“When we fund-raise online, we’re always looking for ways to create a sense of urgency, like a deadline,” said Mr. Wilson, the Republican digital strategist. “This is like the ultimate deadline.”
Impeachment is a lengthy, drawn-out process, and it remains to be seen how long it will capture Americans’ attention. Several partisan online publishers said that the appetite for news about Mr. Trump’s potential impeachment appeared to be lower than the appetite for other four-alarm internet events, like the release of the Mueller report or the confirmation hearings of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh last year.
Mark Provost, a manager of the left-wing Facebook page The Other 98%, said that progressives’ interest in impeachment was “there but tentative.” He added that stories about Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist whose impassioned speech to the United Nations General Assembly this week became a viral sensation, were outperforming impeachment-related stories on the page by a 100-to-1 ratio. A moderator of the pro-Trump Reddit forum r/the_donald, who would speak only on the condition of anonymity, speculated that interest in impeachment would increase in the coming days, as more details emerge about the contents of the whistle-blower’s report.
In the pre-internet world, impeachment was a dramatic, singular event — the last-ditch option enumerated in the Constitution as the remedy for a lawbreaking president. But today, it’s just one more skirmish in a long-running information battle being fought between partisan keyboard warriors using Twitter threads, YouTube clips and Facebook memes to seize control of the national conversation.
“They’ve been through this time and again,” said Jeff Giesea, a Washington-based communications strategist. “This is just another day at the office.”