WASHINGTON — The fake video of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis dunking on himself is surreal, the stuff of former President Donald Trump's fantasies.
"Today, we're seeing the success of our uniparty NeverTrump campaign," DeSantis, who is Trump's leading rival for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, says in the video. "Yes, we’re 30 points behind in polling with zero credibility. But now, Trump's been indicted. Now, the people will have no choice but to accept me as their assigned candidate, and finally we can sweep the GOP establishment back into power."
Standing in front of a lectern bearing a "Stealing Your Future" sign, DeSantis concludes with "Hail Hydra," a reference to the Nazi-rooted criminal enterprise of the Marvel universe, and "Please clap" — words once uttered by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush during his failed 2016 presidential campaign.
It's obviously bogus — a parody posted by pro-Trump tweeter @ramble_rants — and would fool few viewers. But the smoothly altered video is emblematic of the way in which a small army of Trump-aligned social media influencers has honed its tools in the early phase of the 2024 presidential campaign.
Trump's online war machine is training those virtual weapons on DeSantis and has repeatedly attached him to another enemy — Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg — in the run-up to Trump's Tuesday arraignment. The goal is to portray DeSantis as insufficiently supportive of the former president at a time when most Republicans are rallying to his side.
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A preview of this strategy was seen on March 20, when DeSantis finally broke his silence on the potential indictment by denouncing Bragg but also repeating the allegations against Trump.
"DeSantis is such a fraud!! Takes a swipe at @realDonaldTrump over a BS rumor instead of sticking up for him as he’s being politically persecuted," Alex Bruesewitz, a Republican consultant and CEO of the Trump-allied X Strategies, wrote on Twitter minutes after DeSantis made his remarks.
Bruesewitz, who has 300,000-plus followers, was one of a group of Trump allies who pumped anti-DeSantis outrage into the political bloodstream faster than many of the former president's more prominent defenders.
"Let's not confuse internet trolls who previously praised Gov. DeSantis and are now deleting their tweets to try and protect their bottom lines with real influencers," said Erin Perrine, communications director for Never Back Down, a pro-DeSantis super PAC. "There is a stark difference between making noise and wielding actual influence."
Bruesewitz said the social media users who create and re-post pro-Trump content — and hits on the former president's adversaries — are "priceless." In some cases, scarcely followed accounts generate memes that end up going viral.
“I think something that helped President Trump in 2016 is that he inspired people to be so much more involved in this ecosystem — an entire movement of people who love the president and will go to bat for him,” Bruesewitz said in an interview with NBC News. “They’re organic members of the meme team, and there’s no value you can place on it.”
Over the weekend, when DeSantis lit into the prosecution, Trump's social media warriors slammed him for neglecting to utter the former president's name.
"The media is sending out news updates this morning to puff up DeSanctimonious by saying he 'slammed DA Bragg over the Trump indictment,'" former congressional candidate and Trump backer Laura Loomer tweeted. "This is fake news. DeSantis didn’t even say Trump’s name yesterday in New York."
The shows of online force serve a dual purpose as DeSantis signals that he is likely to challenge Trump for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination: They act as a persuasion campaign for Republican voters and a warning shot to DeSantis and his potential allies.
The "fake news" story Loomer linked to was published by Fox News, which has had a more strained relationship with Trump since he lost the 2020 election.
The same set of social media users has highlighted DeSantis' shifting positions on U.S. support for Ukraine and tried to cast him as disloyal to the man he is expected to run against. The effects are debatable, but one of them is that DeSantis and his team have to counter, or ignore, more incoming fire.
Like DeSantis' allies, some in Trump's orbit question how much the online sparring matters.
"I don't know that it's as valuable as some people want to believe it is," said one pro-Trump GOP operative.
Unlike DeSantis, Trump and members of his family — son Donald Trump Jr. in particular — are avid social media users themselves and can drive days of news cycles with single posts. Personal use of social media can also make Trump seem closer to his rank-and-file supporters than politicians whose accounts are more cautiously curated.
Still, the pro-Trump GOP operative, who has contacts in DeSantis' orbit, said that the Florida governor's aides keep tabs on what is being said about him on social media.
"His team, they're super online," the operative said. "They track all of the influencers very closely."
A spokesman for Trump, who was traveling to New York for his Tuesday arraignment, did not respond to a request for comment.
CLARIFICATION: (April 4, 2023, 8:47 a.m. ET): This story has been updated to remove a characterization of Perrine’s quote that Trump supporters on social media are “more of a nuisance than anything.”