The Age of Trolling
How a small band of conservatives generated half of the Democratic Convention’s headlines.
© Richard Kalvar/Magnum Photos for Slate.
Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Democratic National Convention.
CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Joe Biden’s eyes welled up, bigger-than life on the Time Warner Cable Arena screens. “We acknowledge the incredible debt we owe to the families”—fighting back tears now—“of the 6,473 fallen angels.” The Georgia delegate standing next to me sniffed, and took a deep breath to ward off the waterworks. The Democratic strategist on the other side looked vindicated, because up to then, we’d been talking about how the party had been forced to amend its platform language, stuff that voters never seem to care about, because of a media firestorm over its references to Israel.
“This time yesterday,” said the strategist, “I was sitting in my office and asking: Are we really talking about this? Are people really covering this? It’s over, I guess, but how stupid was that?”
Whatever lessons the Democrats take from Charlotte, whatever it did for the president or for the ambitious senators and governors who stalked delegate breakfasts and whispered “2016,” this is a fact: The convention was successfully trolled.
I don’t use troll in the pejorative sense. Actually, I may be trying to craft a neutral meaning of troll where none previously existed. The term, in its modern Internet usage, refers to people who want to start fights online to bring the universe into an argument on their terms. It comes not from Grimm literature, but from a fishing technique in which multiple lines are baited and dragged to haul in the maximum amount of cold-bloods.
Democrats did not expect to spend Wednesday arguing about the capital of Israel and the appearance of the word “God” in their platform. There were, reportedly, 15,000 members of the media in Charlotte, of whom maybe 14,980 could have given a damn about the party platform. On Tuesday night, when the Obama campaign and the DNC released its platform, none of the bigfoot media outlets in town spent time on the text.
No, it took until Wednesday morning for Jeff Dunetz, at the YidWithALid blog, to comment that “Democrats have removed this pro-Israel section from their platform.” (They had removed references to Hamas and references to Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.) At 11:26 a.m., Weekly Standard reporter Daniel Halper published a story on the platform, making the same point. (He credited YidWithALid.)
It could have ended there. But within a few hours, CNN and Fox News were browbeating Democrats to ask why they’d changed the platform—why, too, had they removed an old reference to “God-given talents,” and thus deleted YHWH from the text? Democrats gave up. They forced a vote on new platform language, restoring the 2008 lines. Convention chairman Antonio Villaraigosa affirmed the change even though nobody—seriously, nobody—thought that the sleepy midday convention hall had given it a two-thirds “aye” vote.
Maybe the word “historic” is out of place for the modern convention. To say that they’re clichéd and staged is, in itself, a staged cliché. But who thought, just 11 months after the launch of the Occupy movement, that 99 percenters would have less influence on the platform than conservative media?
This is what I mean: We live in the age of trolling. Any comment made online, if it’s given the right forum, is as relevant as any comment made by some media gatekeeper. Think about a politician or a journalist on Twitter, and what he sees. If a colleague wants to tell him something, it appears in his feed with an @ symbol. If someone who just logged on and wants to bait a nerd logs on, he will send a message that appears with an @ symbol. Both are equally valid, at least in how they appear on-screen or on a phone. There is no ghetto-izing of comments into the bottom of a page, or into media that you don’t pay attention to.
And a small band of happy saboteurs took advantage of that. In Tampa, for the Republican convention, the Weekly Standard and the Washington Examiner, both owned by Philip Anschutz’s Clarity Media, had teamed up for a daily mini-magazine of happy-friendly-witty convention stories. A typical headline was “The Pride of New Jersey: Chris Christie, by Those Who Know Him Best.” In Charlotte, a team of four Washington Times reports dropped cluster bombs on the DNC opera, with stories like the platform series and “Another Dem. Compares Republicans to Nazis.” The Dem in question, Alexandra Gallardo Rooker, is vice-chair of the California Democratic Party, one of four people to make a Third Reich metaphor this week and immediately appear on the Drudge Report.
“Regarding ‘trolling,’ ” Weekly Standard reporter John McCormack told me via email, “I think the word ‘reporting’ would be better.”* I agree. The Washington Times, the Examiner, and other conservative media were trying to get Democrats on the record on subjects they’d rather ignore and finesse. “The mainstream press had a good amount of coverage on GOP platform's abortion plank,” wrote McCormack, “(which was silent on exceptions and hadn't changed at all from past) so they could talk about abortion in the instance of rape.” The rest of the media skipped out on covering the Democrats’ platform negotiations, and missed out on the story of the Jerusalem planks.
But why did conservatives get it? The Washington Free Beacon, a 7-month-old new site run by Washington Times alums, filed its own nagging stories about the convention (“DNC Delegates for Truth: Conventioneer Also a Member of 9/11-Focused PAC”), and dogged Democrats about an unforced error made by DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, when she claimed a Washington Examiner reporter lied about a quote he had on tape. The Washington Free Beacon stated, in its first editorial, that it would answer and outplay the “wolf pack” of liberal journalists who tried to protect the party. It was formed as part of the “Center for American Freedom,” which had been obviously designed as a parody of the Center for American Progress. In other words, trolling.
“We put a lot of resources into covering the convention,” says Center for American Freedom’s Michael Goldfarb, “and we think it paid off in our coverage of the platform fiasco that more established papers like the Post all but ignored. There was a real demand for hard-hitting, fact-based coverage of this Godless, anti-Israel convention, and we're doing our best to give people what they want.”
The Examiner, Washington Times, and Center for American Freedom’s teams were only fractions of the size of the CNN or New York Times teams in Charlotte. But they wrote the convention’s distracting stories. On Wednesday night, CNN scored an interview with Wasserman Schultz on the convention floor. She’d trekked to Tampa for the Republican convention, attempting to step on their message. But in Charlotte, her unique ability to create arguments that are both perfectly formed and supernaturally unconvincing was obliterated by the trolling. “President Obama really felt,” she said, “that it was personally important to him that his personal view—that Jerusalem is and will always be the capital of Israel—was reflected in the platform.” The network cut back to Anderson Cooper.
“I mean, Debbie Wasserman Schultz just said: It wasn’t a change of language,” said Cooper, mocking the DNC chairman on air. “There was no discord that we saw. It was a two-thirds vote. I mean, that’s an alternate universe.”
The platform fight faded from the late-week headlines. The masters of trolling, emboldened, kept on puncturing what they saw, previewing how they’d make the general election a pain for President Obama. It continued while I was watching that Joe Biden speech, which was well received by the big TV media. About that “fallen angels” line, though. The Weekly Standard had to weigh in on that.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.