Speed Reads

how we live now

How a meme made Hillary Clinton's health a campaign issue

Of all the possible controversies to have arisen during Hillary Clinton's presidential run, it is somewhat surprising that her health became one of the biggest — the subject was even front-and-center in a Donald Trump campaign ad. But how exactly Clinton's "peculiar travel habits" and "lengthy naps" morphed out of seemingly regular ol' travel and naps is another story, and one that was carefully crafted on social media using the same kind of thinking that generates viral memes.

One of the major architects is Mike Cernovich, an influential alt-right Twitter user who clarified "I'm not a pure troll" to The New Yorker. "Pure trolls are amoral. I use trolling tactics to build my brand," he explained. And in doing so, Cernovich has also built the political conversation:

"There are a million things wrong with Hillary," Cernovich told me. "She's a documented liar. She's massively corrupt. She wants to let in more so-called refugees, which makes her an existential threat to the West." (He calls the Syrian refugee crisis a "media lie.") "But I was looking at the conversation online — what was getting through to people and what wasn't — and none of that was sticking. It's too complex. I thought that the health stuff would be more visceral, more resonant from a persuasion standpoint, and so I pushed that."

On September 11th, Clinton fainted after attending a memorial service at Ground Zero. Cernovich wrote a post called "Complete Timeline of Hillary's Health #HillarysHealth," which included such data points as "peculiar travel habits" and "lengthy naps." It got two hundred and forty thousand page views — less than a marquee Huffington Post story, but impressive for a blog with no advertising budget. More important, #HillarysHealth became a national trending topic on Twitter. That day, Chris Cillizza, a centrist pundit at the Washington Post, wrote an article titled "Hillary Clinton's Health Just Became a Real Issue in This Campaign." Scott Greer, a deputy editor of the Daily Caller, tweeted, "Cernovich memed #SickHillary into reality. Never doubt the power of memes." [The New Yorker]

Read more about how one tiny troll can influence the entire presidential race at The New Yorker.

Editor's note: This post originally misstated the name of the Twitter user who spoke to The New Yorker. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.