In one sign of the unusual nature of this year’s US presidential election, an activist and social media star has undergone a remarkable political transformation, from a hero on the left to a writer for a Russian state-funded news agency who supports Donald Trump.
Remember “Dancing Man”? He became one of the biggest internet sensations of 2015 when he was captured on camera shaking his rather oversized frame at a concert. Originally the subject of scorn and ridicule, Dancing Man – or, to give him his proper name, Sean O’Brien – was later identified and celebrated by anti-bullying campaigners, who raised money and flew him from London to Los Angeles for a celebrity-packed party.
The woman who organised the quest to #FindDancingMan was 31-year-old activist and journalist Cassandra Fairbanks. And although the Dancing Man saga garnered her mainstream media attention, it was only one in a string of liberal and libertarian causes she’s taken on over the years, with the help of her significant social media following.
Fairbanks organised protests around a notorious rape case in Ohio, and reported on events in Ferguson, Missouri and other Black Lives Matter protests. In July 2014, blogging about an anti-immigrant protest, she wrote: “Why should an invisible line created by some [politicians] dictate where we can and cannot go? If I want to go to the beach at 11pm I should be able to. If I feel like rowing a boat to Australia, why cant I just go?”
But earlier this year Fairbanks underwent something of a political transformation. She’s now trying to rally her more than 70,000 Twitter followers to support Donald Trump.
Fairbanks says her conversion came about fairly recently. She began 2016 as a supporter of Clinton’s main rival within the Democratic Party, socialist candidate Bernie Sanders. As Clinton progressed towards the party nomination, she says, she grew increasingly frustrated with the Democrats. But what really shifted her political outlook, she says, was the mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub in June by a man who pledged allegiance to Islamic State.
“I thought I was going to vote for [Green Party candidate] Jill Stein. But I think she’s wacky and too over the top to appeal to a mainstream audience,” she told BBC Trending.
“Then Orlando happened, and the son of one of my mom’s really good friends was shot there. I heard this horrific story, and everyone’s like ‘blame guns’, and I was like, ‘no, we need to blame terrorism’. I was just offended. Then I started to look more seriously at Trump, and at people who have been pushing censorship on the left.”
At first her support was based on her anti-Clinton feelings, and she also cited foreign policy and free trade as key issues. Eventually, Fairbanks says, she warmed to Trump in his own right.
“I’d been watching his speeches for so long, but then I just started agreeing with more of what he was saying,” she says. “I’d been looking at him a bit more seriously before that, but I wasn’t prepared to, say, wear a Trump hat until that moment.”
She posted a video in June going public with her support and outlining her views.
Fairbanks works as a reporter for Sputnik News, a Russian state-funded news agency which critics have accused of spreading propaganda on behalf of the Kremlin, although Sputnik hasn’t endorsed either candidate.
Fairbanks denies that her employer has any influence over her political views. She says some others who work in Sputnik News’ Washington office support Clinton and that says she is the only one of her colleagues who is a Trump fan.
Trump, of course, is no fan of Black Lives Matter, once calling it a “threat” and claiming that it contributes to police shootings. And he’s not adverse to a bit of fat shaming, an issue that popped up during the first presidential debate when Clinton accused him of calling a former Miss Universe winner “Miss Piggy.”
So how does Fairbanks square her previous activism with her chosen candidates’ views?
“I supported Black Lives Matter initially,” she says. “And I will always support the phrase but speaking of the organisation and the movement, the rhetoric got hostile and angry.. It’s become a divisive movement, rather than keeping people together.
“I’m always a believer that if you see someone who’s wrong or you see someone who is bullied, you should stand up and trying to do and make something better. But I’m not going to judge him on comments he allegedly made 20 years ago.
“Obviously policy issues matter significantly more than someone’s personality,” she says. “Trump’s mean words are insignificant compared to Clinton’s deadly actions.”