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Trump Swings Against TikTok, WeChat

  • August 08, 2020

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, industrial conglomerates like Standard Oil and U.S. Steel were regularly portrayed as octopuses or other tentacled creatures in illustrations, editorial cartoons and other visual depictions.

I kept coming across these octopus drawings as I dug into the history of U.S. antitrust law, which was a response to those old industrial monopolies. This history is relevant today, of course, because a handful of American tech superpowers are now being compared to those Gilded Age trusts.

Edward O’Donnell, the chair of the history department at College of the Holy Cross, said tentacled monsters were very popular images a century ago to depict anxieties about big corporations unfairly wielding power and poisoning food, mistreating workers and bending government officials and competitors to their will.

The octopus was, yes, a meme.

There’s this famous 1904 illustration of Standard Oil (see above) with one tentacle wrapped around the U.S. Capitol building, another squeezing white collar and blue collar workers and others grabbing at depictions of the shipping, steel and other industries.

The Curse of California,” which appeared in a satirical magazine in 1882, showed the bosses of the Southern Pacific railroad in the eyes of a monster that was squeezing miners, farmers, wealthy power brokers, wheat exports and stage coaches.

Illustrators of the age knew what teens on TikTok and Russian propagandists on Facebook figured out nearly a century later: A powerful visual can influence public opinion about important topics.

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