As politicians become increasingly comfortable with social media, they've also begun dabbling in its darker impulses, employing tweets and Facebook posts as bait in a partisan war of words. Yes, trolling—the act of gleefully using the Internet to intentionally provoke or anger someone—is fast becoming a substitute for political discourse in America.
On the bright side, trolling can show off a politician's sense of humor, or at least the humor of an aide authorized to use the politician's sign-on.. The winking sarcasm of tweets or gifs does offer momentary relief from politics' often dreary, C-SPAN-esque excitement. But it's also hard to deny that when elected officials stoop to snide point-scoring, something feels amiss. It's as if they are admitting that cynicism has won the day.
The past few weeks alone have given us ample examples of political trolling. Here then, is a sampling.
There's no one in Washington who is as sophisticated at trolling as Senator Rand Paul. What distinguishes Paul's Internet activities from, say, those of his likely Republican opponent for the party's presidential nomination, Senator Ted Cruz, boils down to snark. While both men routinely use their social media channels to bash Democrats and the president, Paul is far more comfortable taking on the sarcastic tone that defines much Internet interaction. Last week, Paul rolled what might be the most clear-cut example of political trolling ever: a playful Soundcloud file purporting to be a secret recording of phone call between Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton.
The post has now been listened to more than 107,000 times at Soundcloud, and knocks both of Paul's presumed presidential rivals over their attempts to resume their respective families' political dynasties.
Further demonstrating his fluency in all things Internet, Paul derisively trolled the president during the State of the Union address with the following graphic that calls into question Obama's plan to offer tuition free community college.
Mockery is not an often-cited presidential virtue. But that hasn't stopped Hillary Clinton from jumping on the trolling bandwagon. In response to the mixed messages on whether American children should be vaccinated according to the schedule recommended by most doctors and the Centers for Disease Control, the former secretary of state could not keep her fingers from firing off a mocking tweet.
Were it not for the chiding lines "the earth is round, the sky is blue" as well as the playful hashtag #GrandmothersKnowBest, Clinton's tweet would not have broken the trolling threshold. With them, it did.
The Republican National Committee
In some ways, both the RNC and the DCCC are organizations made for trolling. As the fundraising and communications hubs for their respective parties, these groups know that partisan clicks are the name of the game. The RNC under Reince Priebus has proven especially adept at launching Internet memes, hashtags, and generally anti-Democratic propaganda.
Humor is key if a troll hopes to hit the mark in any lasting way.
The Democratic National Committee
Not to be outdone, the DNC has also adopted trolling tactics.
Reinforcing a narrative about an opponent is par for the course for political trolls, as is directing people to the less-than-articulate moments that plague those seeking higher office.
Even the president is not immune from trolling his political critics from time to time. While his off-the-cuff State of the Union quip about winning both of his presidential campaigns went viral and became one of the most talked-about parts of his speech, a tweet sent off before the speech better qualifies as an example of presidential trolling.
So is rise of trolling as a political tool a good thing? Probably not. But there's little doubt that it's here to stay.