Stop Calling Me a Troll
Just because you disagree with me doesn’t mean I am one.
That can’t be it. To prove that Trump is a troll, we’d need to show that he doesn’t actually believe what he’s saying. In other words, to call Trump a troll is to suggest that he’s not nearly as dumb as he looks.
And that’s what trips me up. Donald Trump is a guy who responds to critical articles on the Web by printing them out, scribbling on them, and mailing his scrawled print-outs to the author. Donald Trump once sued a guy for calling him a millionaire rather than a billionaire (and lost). See what I’m getting at? Maybe Donald Trump really is as dumb as he sounds; indeed, if anything, the totality of the evidence suggests that he may be much dumber than he’s made out to be. Why can’t we all come to grips with that? Donald Trump isn’t trolling us. He’s just not very bright.
Another example: Ross Douthat, the conservative New York Times columnist who wrote a column last week arguing that Americans should be having more babies. Among the reasons Douthat floated for a recent decline in national fertility were “cultural forces that no legislator can really hope to change,” including “a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe.” Douthat did not say that today’s women, specifically, are decadent, but he didn’t have to—people all over the Web took his column to mean that. And given some of his views, they’d be justified in believing so.
But what about Douthat’s column amounted to “trolling women,” as Salon put it in a headline? I don’t know; the Salon piece doesn’t say, which bolsters my suspicion that the term is being used in the most generic way possible, meaning, more or less, “Ross Douthat said something we don’t like.” Because, for Douthat to be trolling according to the classic definition, we’d have to believe that he doesn’t actually believe that “cultural forces” have shaped American fertility planning and is just saying so to make liberals mad. But he’s a conservative columnist. Of course he actually believes that.
But does the troll have to know he’s a troll in order to be a troll? Does he have to be disingenuous to troll? In my research—that is, Googling—on how trolling has been redefined recently, I came across a year-old post in which Choire Sicha, of the Awl, compared the trolling abilities of Katie Roiphe and Pico Iyer, who had both recently written pieces about how the Internet is distracting the world into oblivion. What struck me about Sicha’s explanation was his implication that Iyer was the better troll because he, as opposed to Roiphe, didn’t understand how incendiary and stupid his argument was:
Roiphe shows her hand too much, relishing in her trolldom, always crossing little lines of sense, drawing leaping bizarre conclusions, knowing that She Is Controversial. She just exists to stir pots, and so her strange, sometimes seemingly put-on beliefs seem so much thinner than Iyer's, whose work rings with true, if unintentionally hilarious, conviction about the way the world is. (Emphasis mine.)
Wait a second—so you can be a troll even if you have “true conviction” in what you’re saying? That, to me, is bizarre.
I’m not arguing that trolls don’t exist. Rush Limbaugh’s success suggests a keen intelligence, so there are likely many moments when he’s simply faking stupidity and, thus, being trollish. And a string of recent sensational Newsweek covers—“Muslim Rage,” calling Obama “the first gay president,” asking why his “critics are so dumb,” calling Mitt Romney a “wimp,” and telling Obama to “hit the road”—shows that Tina Brown doesn’t mind outrage. To the extent that she recognizes that some of those covers advance hollow arguments and only put them out to sell magazines, she’s being a bit of a troll. (Though the case is stronger for some of those covers than others; I don’t really see what’s so trollish about publishing a piece by a noted conservative calling for an incumbent Democratic president to hit the road.)
But to call everyone a troll, even those who are advancing their true beliefs, is to let genuine trolls off the hook. If you don’t like something I’ve written, don’t assume I’m punking you. I’m not. I really am that stupid, trust me.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.