Tag Archives: trolling

Offensive and Random Discharges

If traditional rhetoric has rules and assumed courtesies, a verbal spew just happens.  Rhetoric is the product of adaptation and thought.  But spew never passes near the centers of intelligence.

I had a classmate who could empty the contents of his stomach on cue.  On a moment’s notice he could produce  a gross  barrage of undigested material that was never meant to pass a person’s lips. It didn’t matter that this childish gesture could be inconvenient to demonstrate on your mother’s new living room carpet. He didn’t have much sense about when to pick his moment. It was part of the unfortunate grade school freak-show that he had perfected.

This chunky kid was one of several characters at my hardscrabble school located a few blocks from runway 17R at Denver’s old Stapleton Airport. Planes would scream over all day. if the noise or cement playground didn’t nick you up, there were classmates who could do the trick. Happily, most later re-joined the human race in high school.

This kid reminds me of the President. I think of Donald Trump as just a larger hulk of gracelessness: a screamer of sorts, to be sure, but mostly a person who disgorges undigested gut reactions with no apparent shame.  Had he known him, Mark Twain would have gladly written about this curious figure, bloated by self importance and clueless about the rules of civil discourse. I suspect Twain would have tired of him, preferring his presence to be confined to the pages of his satire on manners.

All of this is made worse, of course, by others who work for Trump or his party. Like many unsteady grade-schoolers, they pretend not to notice  bully who could turn on them.

Our most damaging cultural rhetoric now appears at both the top and bottom of our national discourse.

My memory of this kid came to mind a few months back after seeing one of many tweeted insults from the President, this one referring to “a third rate reporter named Maggie Haberman, known as a Crooked H flunkie who I don’t speak to and have nothing to do with. . .”  Never mind that Haberman knows how to use language with precision, and that she shares a Pulitzer Prize in Reporting with several of her colleagues at the New York Times. By his standards, this was hardly the worst of nearly 600  insults that have come from the President since taking office.  But the ad hominem attacks continue to pile up. Against Trump, no insult comic could ever stand a chance.

Traditional rhetoric has rules.  Verbal spew just happens.  Effective public rhetoric is the product of careful adaptation and thought, even when coming from people we might otherwise disagree with.  In every case we have a right to expect a speaker has has at least some capacity to measure the effects of their words.

The presence of this continual vitriol has softened us.  We’ve grown accustomed to graceless verbal gestures.  Indeed, Twitter has perfected them.  We are getting used to putting our nation’s presidency alongside the trolls and dystopians who populate the fringes of the internet. It means our most damaging cultural rhetoric now appears at both the top and bottom of our national discourse. And like adolescents trying to fit in, we mostly marvel to the spectacle in silence, knowing that the nation’s chief executive seems incapable of much more than mimicking the kind of coarseness not seen since our days in grade school.

Taking the Bait

Ticking people off is not a way to win friends and influence people.  Except when it is.  And we seem to be at such an unhappy moment.

There is an obscure maneuver that is occasionally recognized when describing non-standard persuasion campaigns.  It’s usually fraught with so many potential liabilities that few risk it.  One formal name for the strategy is “intended misidentification,” which happens when an advocate sets out to alienate an audience by making statements he or she knows will not go down well.

What could motivate someone to be so reckless?  After all, communication is usually better understood as a series of carefully constructed bridges to others.  Burning bridges seems counterproductive.

The hope within the person or group using the strategy is that an even larger audience will see the event as emblematic of something bigger and potentially more significant.  The meta-language of such a move says that “I have something to say that must break through the routine bounds of courtesy. But it needs to be said.” For example, in 2015 three women representing Black Lives Matter took over Bernie Sanders’ campaign podium in Seattle. The crowd predictably booed the interlopers for interrupting his speech.  But the event succeeded in becoming a key media moment in the group’s efforts to dramatize rising death rates of African American men at the hands of local police. Losing the sympathy of the local audience surely figured into the calculations of the group. Such instances may be rare, but there are times when the quickest route to notoriety may come by being a non-adaptive communicator.

If you can’t have your own democracy, why not sabotage someone else’s?

A different version of intended misidentification happens when “trolls” bait their opponents with intemperate “comments” that verge into the mean and nasty.  We now have confirmation that Russian individuals–and probably agents of the Russian government–continue to make concerted efforts to sabotage and divide American public opinion. Deliberately toxic tweets, Facebook posts and ads are meant to inflame and polarize public opinion.  Racist comments from an apparent Clinton supporter? No problem. Outlandish accusations seemingly from a candidate’s worker?  They can do that.  If you fear having your own democracy, why not sabotage someone else’s?

Newsweek estimates that nearly half of Donald Trump’s Twitter followers are fake. That’s reason enough to abandon this toxic medium. The real mischief happens when Russian “bots” and others generate taunts that mostly “troll” his critics. According to Wired, the recent school shooting in Parkland Florida was immediately followed by Russian-linked pro-gun tweets sent using the legitimate hashtags of Americans. Sowing such disinformation contributes to a further weakening America’s already fractured polis.  We will struggle to keep an open society if it is cluttered with fraudulent messages intended to provoke rather than enlighten.

Much of this alienating prose would disappear if digital messages and comments on internet sites came from identified persons. But we have perhaps reached a disturbing tipping point when we too easily allow discourse to enter the public domain without a named author. When individuals sign their names to their comments they usually think twice before leaving a trail of ill will.  Those who still persist should be seen as losing the presumption to be heard.  And those who continue to rely on social media for informed views and news may learn too late that they have been ‘played.’