Ostensibly, this is what makes trolling different from other kinds of retorts: The chief feature is irony, and the troll derives his power from being the master of the joke. In some cases, the irony comes full circle: While Duke may have been trying to mock Clinton, his meme just ended up proving her point that some Trump supporters are racist.
No matter what, the problem with labeling these kinds of memes as “mere” jokes is that it implies the underlying hateful sentiment is ironic rather than sincere, even when it isn't.
“It allows people to say, ‘You can’t hold me responsible. Don’t get mad at me. I was’—drum roll—‘just trolling,’” said Phillips. “It’s as if the intentionality behind a hateful utterance takes away from the fact that a hateful utterance was hateful.”
The mainstream attention given to trolls, and the use of troll-style tactics by public figures like Donald Trump, could be explanations for why trolling had gotten dumber.
That’s not to say that journalists who write about the alt-right or Hillary Clinton’s speech about extremist ideology are responsible for racism on the internet. But they can exacerbate it. “When your job is to comment on things that are happening, it’s a weird feeling to know that, by engaging with something—even to condemn it, or even to question it—that’s attracting more participants to the space,” Phillips said. “You are giving something greater life by talking about it.”
It might seem pointless to mount a defense of humane trolling, if “trolling” even means anything anymore. The people perhaps least in need of saviors are those who love to excoriate others with their wit. But it’s a sign of just how dead American political discourse has become that even fairly obvious and well-executed trolls—like this piece about Hillary Clinton needing to be propped up on pillows—are taken seriously and rebutted soberly.
And there’s a darker downside to eliding all kinds of “offensive” political discourse: If any kind of speech, whether it’s a Pepe meme or racist tweetstorm, is dismissed as only being playful, the meaning becomes impossible to falsify. If a comment seems offensive, and feels offensive to those who read it, that makes it offensive; but the guise of “trolling” gives people license to offend without purpose or end.
“A lot of the things that they’re saying and doing—regardless of whether or not they’re undertaken in the spirit of play—it’s racist, it’s anti-Semitic, it’s homophobic, it’s all of these things that deeply impact people at the level of embodied identity,” Phillips said. These provocateurs aren’t just using irony as their medium; they’re using it as an excuse to say things that are [or at least were lolsob] unacceptable in mainstream political discourse.“To call it trolling gives them more credit than they might deserve.”