Updated at 12:35 p.m. ET on November 9, 2020.
Being online has changed Donald Trump. He was the internet’s candidate in 2016—he appears in Urban Dictionary’s definition of meme god—and his campaign leveraged the power of Facebook advertising to beat Hillary Clinton. Since then, he’s become even more obsessed with petty grievances and conspiracy theories that play well on Twitter, a platform used by just 22 percent of the American population. On several occasions, the president has employed Reddit posts to help him make points or issue threats.
Trump has also changed the internet in obvious ways. During his first term, Americans have watched his administration relish the opportunity to destroy net neutrality—the core principle of a free and open internet. We’ve had to ask whether social-media platforms should penalize the president for threatening and glorifying violence, and whether the president might in turn just ban internet companies he doesn’t like. We’ve seen some people on the internet turn into emotionally-numb doom-scrollers, while others have joined the #Resistance, engaging in viral virtue signaling and creating a micro-economy of political merch.
But Trump’s impact on the internet is bigger than its weirdest memes or its most prolonged Twitter fights. His presidency has changed how Americans communicate with one another on the internet, heightening its tone of divisiveness and suspicion, shaping its norms and rules, and creating an expectation that each day online will be more surreal than the one before. We’ll look back at these years as an era of major upheaval in nearly everything about being online: The internet is a fundamentally different place from what it was in 2016, and using it the way many people do, the president’s influence is undeniable. Four years in, Americans are only starting to get a sense of how Trump has altered daily American life. Regardless of what happens on Election Day, we can expect four of the biggest changes to last.