Pro-Trump Internet Trolls Escalate Ugly Attacks on Nikki Haley
Social media posts depicting her as Shiva, the deity of destruction. Others that misleadingly use deep fake technology to show her insulting voters. And still others that direct vitriol at her son, a college student.
For most of her presidential campaign, Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and former United Nations ambassador, has been spared the full onslaught from former President Donald J. Trump’s devoted following of internet trolls. The cadre of mostly anonymous personalities who wage near-constant battle in Mr. Trump’s name focused first on brutally attacking Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who had been considered the former president’s most potent rival in the 2024 Republican primary. But with Ms. Haley now his last remaining opponent, the machine has turned her way.
Online personalities have in recent weeks circulated vicious attacks through memes, posts and videos that often center on her race, gender and identity, including some that malign her for saying she was “teased for being brown” and others that falsely claim she is ineligible to serve as president because her parents were immigrants. Some of the most disturbing material has been generated by artificial intelligence, and digitally manipulates her voice and likeness. Much of the content is rife with crude sexual innuendo.
Joan Donovan, a disinformation researcher and assistant professor of journalism at Boston University, said the threats and insults were indicative of the form of low politics and “network harassment” that Mr. Trump and his online admirers ushered in.
“These are people who see themselves as participants in Trump’s troll army,” Ms. Donovan said. “Other politicians haven’t been able to activate online audiences in the same way.”
As Ms. Haley and Mr. Trump head into a heated primary showdown on Saturday in South Carolina, her home turf, the online smears are likely only to intensify. And in an era when campaigns wage war online as well as off, not all the efforts have been confined to the internet.
Laura Loomer, an internet activist close to Mr. Trump who has lobbed harsh personal attacks at Ms. Haley on social media, has also tried to ambush her at campaign events, shouting questions at her staff and surrogates and filming their responses. Alex Stein from BlazeTV has confronted some of Ms. Haley’s young female volunteers.
For the better part of the election cycle, Trump staff members, his allies and MAGA fans online directed their energies at Mr. DeSantis, who was subjected to wave after wave of social media posts and videos depicting him, his wife, his staff and his surrogates in deeply unflattering ways. The attacks against the governor focused on his masculinity, loyalty and competence, helped crater his poll numbers and deflated his image among Republican primary voters as a confident warrior for conservative causes.
The tide against Ms. Haley began soon after the Iowa caucuses, when it became clear that she, not Mr. DeSantis, represented Mr. Trump’s strongest challenger. At first, the content focused on her foreign policy stance, accusing her of being a “warmonger” and attacking some of her policy decisions as South Carolina’s governor. Although Ms. Haley mostly sought to stay above the fray, her son, Nalin, was willing to hit back at her rivals on social media platforms with his own memes and quips.
The tone of the attacks changed drastically after The Daily Mail published a story on Jan. 19 that dredged up old allegations that Ms. Haley had engaged in two extramarital affairs in 2008, two years before she was first elected governor. Ms. Haley has long denied the accusations, but the article prompted a blitz of content on X and other social media platforms depicting her in highly sexualized ways.
The posts, often obscene and employing artificial intelligence to manipulate images or mimic Ms. Haley’s voice, did away with traditional political critique, trying instead to cast an opponent as someone with loose morals. Some posts were created by a team of internet trolls that calls itself Trump’s Online War Machine.
Karen Kedrowski, the director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, said the content captured the combination of sexist and racist overtones meant to rob targets of authority and convert them into objects of ridicule. The type of harassment, she and other analysts said, can be particularly damaging for female candidates.
“It reduces women down to being sexual objects,” she said. That can open the door to more dangerous threats or physical violence, she added, pointing to how Ms. Haley has been a target of “swatting,” hoax emergency calls that have sent the authorities scrambling to her door.
Interest in Ms. Haley appeared to wane this month as Mr. Trump began looking past the primaries toward the general election and MAGA’s internet gladiators pivoted to attacking President Biden and Fani T. Willis, the Fulton County district attorney responsible for bringing criminal charges against Mr. Trump that accuse him of interfering with the 2020 election in Georgia. But with the South Carolina primary just days away, Ms. Haley has come back into focus.
Ms. Haley’s supporters and allies see Mr. Trump and his staff as responsible for helping fuel the online vitriol. As Ms. Haley first started to climb in the polls last year, the former president began calling her “birdbrain.” His top advisers have followed suit and often describe her as “stupid” in online posts. Mr. Trump himself, on his social media site, amplified a report sowing doubt about her citizenship.
Ms. Haley has fired back at some of the attacks coming from Mr. Trump, albeit with mixed results. Her campaign, whose top staff members are women and which has a national coalition of highly active female volunteers, initially and gleefully pointed to the “birdbrain” insults as evidence that the Trump camp was worried about her momentum. Lately, she has stepped up her criticism of the former president, blasting him as “unhinged” and a grumpy old man. Her attacks on Mr. Trump’s age and mental fitness have not always landed with some of her supporters, who have said they prefer her previous refusal to get personal.
Ms. Haley’s use of social media tends to be fairly traditional and scripted, as does that of her team, focusing on promoting events, policy and news media appearances. Unlike Mr. Trump, she does not seem to have a wide base of deeply loyal and highly online messengers. And an attempt by her campaign to make anti-Trump memes several weeks ago was roundly mocked. Still, some on her staff have engaged directly with Mr. Trump’s team.
An online back-and-forth erupted Tuesday after Ms. Haley delivered a speech vowing not to drop out, despite a string of early losses and no matter the outcome in South Carolina on Saturday.
Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr. Trump well known for slinging insults at the former president’s rivals, said on X that Ms. Haley would “drop down” and praise Mr. Trump once the primary was over. Olivia Perez-Cubas, Ms. Haley’s spokeswoman, responded with a kissing emoji and “xoxo.”
In a statement to The New York Times, Mr. Cheung again referred to Ms. Haley as “birdbrain” and said she had yet to name a state that she could win. In response, Ms. Perez-Cubas cited a line from Ms. Haley, who has said that she “attracts all the voters Donald Trump chased out of the party,” a reference to Republican losses in recent elections.
With regard to the uptick in content generated by fans of Mr. Trump, Ms. Perez-Cubas said it underscored why “the tone at the top matters.”
“We need someone who can bring civility back and heal this country,” she said. “You can be tough and strong without being hateful.”
Some of the offline efforts to troll Ms. Haley’s team have prompted a backlash. Outside the upscale honky-tonk in Dallas where Ms. Haley spoke last week, Mr. Stein, the BlazeTV personality, harangued some of her young female staff members on camera, calling them “hoes” and asking for information about their accounts on OnlyFans, a subscription-based website mainly used by sex workers.
The move was criticized online by Representative Chip Roy of Texas, a Republican who had been one of Mr. DeSantis’s top backers, and other conservatives.
“I debate elevating this behavior, but it must be called out,” Mr. Roy wrote on X. “I have no problem with out-of-the-box efforts to challenge the status quo. But attacking a young, particularly female, campaign staffer or volunteer like this deserves blunt repudiation. Be better, @BlazeTV.”
Mr. Stein has since apologized.
Nicholas Nehamas contributed reporting.