Truth-Telling and Trolls: Trolling, Political Rhetoric in the Twenty-First Century, and the Objectivity Norm

Abstract: Trolling has received increasing scholarly attention both as an online phenomenon and as an allegedly new strategy of political communication. This article moves trolling out of the digital realm and applies ‘trolling theory’ to political communication by well-known and influential figures on the political front stage. To establish consistency between the online and the offline phenomenon, this paper will focus on a (broadly defined) style of political communication that seems to focus more on provoking outrage, establishing itself as speaking from an outsider position to defend free speech to counter an allegedly totalitarian opponent, and to trigger political sensitivities of opponents and thus cause outrage on ‘the other side.’ Contrary to the vast majority of trolling research that simply dismisses trolling as ‘antisocial,’ ‘nonnormative’ behavior, I argue that trolling in contemporary politics gains effectiveness by reproducing some of the patterns of ‘objective communication’ on a discursive and an emotional level. Political trolling embraces the notion of a universal truth, with the speakers often branding themselves as ‘disinterested’ and thus not emotionally involved and incorruptible, thereby gaining credibility by pointing to their position as discursive outsiders. When trolling rhetoric succeeds and the trolls’ claims are met with outrage by the people the trolls deem to be totalitarian and censors of free speech, the speakers can downgrade their opponents as weak, biased, emotionally involved and thus necessarily illegitimate, gaining a superior position in the conversation.

In May 2018, The Atlantic published a lengthy feature about Stephen Miller, President Donald Trump’s “top speechwriter and senior policy advisor” (Coppins). In the article, Miller is portrayed as a provocateur, an agitator, a rebel, and—a troll. The entire article relies on this characterization as well as on the complicated rhetorical and political implications of witnessing “a right-wing troll [...] grow[ing] up to run the world.” Trolling as an online phenomenon has received increasing scholarly attention over the last years (cf. Bishop, “Dealing”; Bishop, “Representations”; Cole; Sparby; Cheng et al.), and the familiarity with the term led to a quick labeling of a variety of phenomena as ‘trolling’ and a variety of people as ‘trolls.’ Many journalists—and some scholars—apply the term as a one-fits-all description for ‘unconventional’ or ‘disruptive’ political and/or communicative behavior, yet the actual meaning of trolling remains contested and muddy. This project is informed by attempts to understand where this term is coming from, what it denoted originally and how this meaning has evolved to include a broad range of behaviors and rhetorical strategies, to detect the commonalities and differences of these strategies, and to find out why this term is increasingly used to refer to right-wing politics and politicians. Analyzing the basic rhetorical strategies at work both in labeling something as ‘trolling’ and in political communication thus described will not only provide insights into the current political moment but detect key features of disruptive rhetoric and contribute to an understanding of its success.

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