Welcome to the Era of Strategic Trolling
Trolling has a bad reputation. The term is usually used to describe bad faith arguments and the most annoying types of online interactions. But just like white-hat "hackers" can use their skills for good, candidates, campaigns and causes can righteously troll, too.
In ethical hands, trolling can expose the opposition's insincerity and turn people's attention back to positive aspects of a campaign's agenda and things people can do right now to help out and win. Importantly, strategic trolling involves more than negative messaging — strategic trolling uses the opposition's ability to generate attention against them.
Last month, for instance, Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz opened himself up to a valuable strategic troll when he hurled some sexist insults at abortion rights advocates during a conservative conference. Olivia Julianna, with GenZ for Change, responded with a personal message directed at Gaetz.
Gaetz inartfully tried to respond and did so in a way that attempted to cut off Julianna's viral message, only drawing more attention back to her account.
Juliana immediately turned this interaction around, teeing off Gaetz's sexist remarks and personal insults to raise $2 million for abortion funds. Anything Gaetz did to further the controversy would simply add more fuel to Juliana's fire, which meant that abortion rights advocates were able to effectively weaponize an anti-choice politician's platform against him.
Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman's Democratic senate campaign has been engaged in a more concerted effort to body Republican Dr. Oz with a variety of strategic trolls, many of which are focused on Oz being from New Jersey. But this isn't just a strategic troll focused on a Republican Senate candidate engaging in some carpetbagging. It underscores the fact that Oz owns multiple homes, can't quite get his number of legal residences right in public comments, and doesn't seem to know his way around a grocery store. In other words, this guy is rich and out of touch and has a variety of right wing policy stances to match, which all contrast quite neatly with Fetterman's populist, pro-union, pro-worker Democratic agenda.
The Fetterman campaign's trolling has also included "endorsements" of Oz from New Jersey celebrities such as Snooki and Stevie van Zandt, which amplify the campaign's message off social media and into earned media, where a variety of non-political sources can get in on the joke and appreciate the simple message that Oz is out of touch.
Amid this concerted online campaign, offline stunts that might otherwise not generate media attention on their own instead become newsworthy.
Importantly, the trolling also hijacks the Oz campaign's ability to communicate to its own supporters, too. If you cruise by Oz's mentions on Twitter, for instance, it's just Fetterman fans dunking on him, many of whom share links to volunteer for or donate to Fetterman's campaign.
This week, the White House digital team pulled off a god-tier viral strategic troll by pointing out Republican hypocrisy on student debt relief, sharing facts about Republican leaders who opposed debt relief for students, but were happy to have their own pandemic-response business loans forgiven.
Unlike loftier arguments about hypocrisy, which require close reading of past and present positions, this one resonated due to the basic class politics of student loan relief, which exclusively helps workers and families. Republicans, it seems, only complain about programs that help regular people, not the ones that aid the wealthy, including ones that aid businesses exclusively or the ones that only aid employees with businesses as the pass-through.
And because it's the White House, this fact-based digital strategy also generated a significant amount of earned media attention.
Good strategic trolling works because it provokes the opposition, gives people something to talk about, and sparks the kind of viral, organic reactions that justify media coverage.
Occasionally strategic trolling will create some pearl-clutching.
But here's the thing...even the pearl-clutchers are amplifying the message.
These are all solid examples of what modern communications campaigns look like. They're not a fit for every cause, organization or campaign, but they're absolutely the future of politics because they are participatory. They take risks, knowing that most communications strategies that don't work are simply ignored. The important thing is to keep trying. When you have a hit, your audience will let you know. And as I've written before, messaging alone won't save us. It's action, provocation, and, yes, strategic trolling, that ultimately generate attention in our media ecosystem.