Trolling is not very presidential, to say the least. But it is exactly what Donald Trump is doing with his Twitter account.
That's especially true of his latest salvo at CNN, a video of his old professional wrestling days — which is also not presidential, but beyond the statute of limitations. It's doctored to make Trump look like he is beating up an avatar of CNN. And there’s a very good reason he’s doing it — or actually, a couple.
The first reason, obviously, is because it pleases his base, or at least part of it.
CNN is part of the mainstream news media. Like most of the legacy news establishment, it has made no secret of its disdain for Trump. It is, therefore, fun to pretend, through the magic of video, to slam CNN to the ground. In fact, the video not only pleases his base, it was made by them, having first emerged on Reddit, a fecund breeding ground for troll memes.
The second reason is because it works — in the classic sense of a successful troll.
One of the key elements of effective trolling is that it should infuriate the target, hopefully to the point they respond. That lets the trolls know their attacks are working. It is a sign for them, and hopefully other trolls, to ramp up the onslaught.
CNN and other news outlets took the bait, working themselves into high dudgeon — along with many members of Congress and other public figures who are also being trolled. All noted the undignified nature of the attack, as well as the potential for such videos to incite violence against journalists and others.
At this point, the troll community takes advantage of its size and diversity to continue the shadowboxing and humiliation, principally by splitting into myriad sub-streams of discourse. Each presents a different reaction and argument.
Some continue the confrontation. Others appear to minimize it and mock the target for “taking the bait” and “not having a sense of humor.”
In this case, some trolls will continue to present more overt calls to violence online, as well as more humiliating depictions of CNN and other news orgs. A second, presentable face will argue it’s absurd to imagine a cartoonish old video of Trump acting out in pro wrestling could be taken as a serious incitement to violence.
The reason? Because “everyone knows pro wrestling is fake.”
This argument tries to make CNN and other members of the mainstream news media look “humorless” for not getting the joke. It also takes the troll to a new level of irony and self-reference.
As the trolls well know, those pointy-headed media types look down on pro wrestling, imagining many of its fans do not understand it is fake. This puts them on the horns of a dilemma. They can either reveal their disdain for pro wrestling fans, or admit they are getting upset “for no reason.”
But ultimately, all the above serves as one big distraction — and that’s exactly the point.
The real goal of the CNN post — and all the other bizarre, petty attacks on the media — is probably what is called (in other contexts) “shitposting” — except it is now taking place on a grand scale.
In shitposting, the trolls attempt to derail an online group forum by randomly posting inflammatory, obscene, or simply irrelevant content in the midst of a discussion.
The goal is to distract the members of the forum and redirect their attention away from the original subject or project.
Now, Trump and his supporters are engaging in shitposting on a scale befitting the size of their target, the mainstream news media, whose primary job is to cover substantive issues of policy and the like — not respond to juvenile attacks on itself.
While the web is effectively infinite, broadcast TV time, newspaper columns and their editorial resources are finite — and every minute, inch, or dollar devoted to deploring Trump’s latest outrage is one less that can be spent on covering the rollback of environmental regulations or discovering the contents of the Senate’s healthcare bill.
On this fine July 4 holiday week, consider yourselves all shitposted!