One of the more popular pastimes of establishment media pundits is complaining of their various “trolls”—anonymous, faceless basement dwellers who lurk online and harass with aggressive, non-stop vigor. But a recent online dust-up started by Washington Post columnist Philip Bump made something clear: When you factor in actual impact, big media pundits troll just as much as—if not more than—any random egg avatar on Twitter.
Last Monday, Bump ran a piece seeking to debunk a very popular claim by the Sanders camp: that his average donation was $27. The piece was framed with a “gotcha” headline:
The big reveal? The Sanders camp actually had an average donation of $27.89! What a scandal indeed. Predictably, this lead to a flurry of criticism from Sanders supporters on social media. In a follow-up post on the backlash against his piece, Bump admitted something rather relevant to the entire “Bernie Bro” conversation. Acknowledging that “I don’t see this as any sort of lie on the part of the Sanders campaign,” but that “the headline was viewed as suggesting dishonesty on the part of Sanders’s campaign,” he wrote:
The working headline for the piece was “How Does Bernie Sanders’ Average Donation Stay at $27?,” but we (my editors and I) ended up choosing a headline that was more provocative. And provocative headlines provoke.
This is the living, breathing definition of trolling: provocation for its own sake. To deliberately seek a reaction from people in bad faith. It’s something one sees often: Corporate media use deliberately antagonizing headlines to solicit outrage and generate traffic—only to turn around and feign indignation when they get precisely the reaction they sought.
As I’ve noted before, the “Bernie Bro” label—often used to describe pro-Sanders “trolls”—isn’t entirely without merit. As in any large system, there is a cohort of sexists lurking in the broader Sanders “movement,” and it’s useful to point this out when it happens. But the term has morphed into a catch-all to describe any online dissent aimed at traditional media, namely Clinton partisans. As I noted last week:
What at first meant “hostile online white male Sanders supporters” quickly morphed to “online Sanders supporters” to “any carbon-based organism I disagree with regardless of age, race, sex or demeanor.” Everyone from Sanders himself to women to the Pope has been called a Bernie Bro. One Vice article even asked if competitive gaming had created the phenomenon. The trope had reached peak absurdity, making parodies of the conceit indistinguishable from the conceit itself. We are all Bernie Bros, and yet—none of us are.
Frequent Sanders critics routinely admit to being provocative or distance themselves from gimmicky headlines. Slate’s Jamelle Bouie recently dismissed a headline that referred to the “good intentions” of Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill as “promotional copy.”
Vox‘s Matt Yglesias, when confronted over his continued reliance on lazy weasel phrase “most experts,” glibly suggested he continues to use the phrase “in hopes of garnering a link” from me. He was half-joking (I think), but he’s right: Corporate media outlets (typically more pro-Clinton) and online activists (typically more pro-Sanders) feed off each other in a troll-outrage industrial complex.
It’s a symbiotic relationship, except only one side is finger-wagged and derided for promoting a “toxic atmosphere.” Indeed, generally neo-liberal (and thus pro-Clinton) Slate has made something of a joke out of writing “provocative” headlines, often referred to as “Slate pitches,” specifically designed to get a rise out of people. What is this if not trolling on a wholesale level?
There’s a libertarianism to the discussion that is out of whack—power dynamics are never really factored in. Establishment media folks like Bump–the kind who get a “blue checkmark” when they post on Twitter, to certify that they really are who they claim to be—are the victims under siege, while random Twitter users with 40 followers are social media terrorists that must be condemned.
Certainly there are nuts and creeps, racists and sexists, and it’s important not to not dismiss these concerns. But too often, the online-troll narrative—and its offshoot narratives, like the Bernie Bro meme—fail to recognize that aggressive online activism is the logical result of a corporate-consolidated media that omits certain voices and causes.
Not all these voices are worth hearing out (alt-right, #GamerGate, bigots, etc), but many in the activists community are, and to dismiss all of these voice as unhinged “trolls” is little more than a way to avoid criticism and gatekeep the discussion. Put another way: If establishment pundits are genuinely concerned with trolling, perhaps they can start by criticizing their own editors who do it on a much greater scale than any random Bernie Bro ever could.