Earlier this week on Flag Day, Senator Ted Cruz tweeted a video in which he watched Old Glory and recited the pledge of allegiance. “This did not use [sic] to be controversial, ”he lamented. Rhetorically, there is no way to describe the message other than “trolling”. And politically, there is no way to describe it other than as a smokescreen. Texas, Cruz’s home state, is currently trying to impose the toughest voting restrictions, that black leaders have vigorously protested. Cruz’s tweet suggests that his freedoms are under attack (From the Critical Police of Race? From Culture Cancellation Wizards?), But what this trolling obscures is that it’s his. voters freedoms really threatened.
In the face of such sleight of hand online tricks, the first thing to remember is that, as argued as a claim may sound, smokescreen trolling is do not a fight. When Trumpists post savage accusations on social media, they are unwilling to change their minds and they will be impervious to any facts you think they might miss. They will, however, be very happy with your efforts to try.
Here, too, the Trumpists are aligned with old-fashioned trolling. The goal of the trolls on 4chan was to amass lulz, fun in response to a target’s anger, frustration, or disgust. For Trumpist politicians, the goal is much higher than lulz: power. Yet the anger, frustration and disgust of targets play a vital role. Attempting to dunk opposition on obvious lies and exaggerated MAGA performance art only helps their bad faith claims win the news cycle. This is precisely how I discovered Cruz’s Flag Day tweet; it was a trend on Twitter, fueled by the number of people making fun of him.
This is not a traditional amplification argument – the idea that if you share these kinds of messages, even criticizing them, it risks exposing other Trump voters to a lie. Thanks to the increasingly insular and far-right media ecosystem, supporters of this ideology are already imbued with these messages. Politicians like Ted Cruz are playing a catch-up game with them, not the opposite.
The real amplification concerns relate to what does not tendency because of what is trend. Ted Cruz’s dunkfests are easy, fun, and satisfying. They can certainly want to fight the power. But that’s what makes it such an effective smokescreen.
To counter this tactic, the first step is to identify when this is happening. This can be tricky, as there is often a thin line between Trumpists like Ted Cruz who clearly know better and those who really believe what they say. But forget what the politician really believes. When what they say aligns with trolling strategies and tactics, imagine a 😂 at the end of their tweet, quote, or press release. This serves as a reminder to slow down and consider how a proposed response – from fact-checking to “but in reality” to pointing and laughing – might end up amplifying the nonsense and obscuring the underlying sincerity of the project. Trumpist.
Don’t help them do that. Instead, refuse to play their game and insist on a completely different game – an approach that also helped counter subcultural trolling. As a cognitive linguist Georges lakoff suggested, reframe the discussion away from what the Trumpists want to you to speak up and towards the deeper truths buried in the stories to speak of. Describe the specific actions they and other state officials have taken to suppress the vote, strengthen white supremacy, and threaten the freedoms of citizens. Particularly if a story is already in fashion, responses that call attention to what strategies and tactics are used and Why they are used can help others understand how they are being manipulated, where they should instead be directing their attention, and what is at stake.