Updated at 3:05 p.m. ET on July 2, 2021
Late in the evening on Christmas Day, the lawyer and Donald Trump loyalist Lin Wood tweeted an elaborate infographic stating his views about the upcoming U.S. Senate runoff election in Georgia. The final tally would be corrupted by Dominion voting machines, it said, and the only way to expose the fraud would be to boycott the election. That would “break the algorithm” by producing a result in which the GOP candidates would receive fewer than zero votes—and then the Supreme Court would have “no choice” but to overturn the presidential election, while someone would have no choice but to arrest Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, as well as Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler and the other GOP candidate, David Perdue. “I just want an HONEST election,” Wood wrote above the image. “Don’t you?”
The next day, on Reddit, the members of a vaguely leftist community called r/ParlerTrick started celebrating. One of them had created the infographic out of whole cloth, with the hopes that it would be picked up in right-wing internet spaces and persuade Trump supporters not to vote in the runoff. That Wood had come across it and shared it himself was a far wilder result than they could have hoped for. Still, most of them avoided breaking character in their posts. “We must have fair elections. We must know the Truth!!!” one wrote. “Let every nasty democRAT vote while true patriots stay home and trust the plan!” wrote another. The fact that Wood was calling for the arrests of various Georgia political figures was soon covered by Yahoo News, Business Insider, and other bloggy mainstream outlets, with no mention of the way the thought had been incepted into his tweets.
That wasn’t an ordinary day in r/ParlerTrick, but it is representative of the group’s culture. Members of the forum—which was created shortly after the 2020 election and is named after the social-media app Parler—pretend to be prototypical social-media “patriots” in order to sow confusion in right-wing online spaces. They boosted the hashtag #DeleteParler as part of an effort to convince other Parler users that the app is a “wholly-owned project of the FBI” and that everything posted there is subject to surveillance by the “Deep State.” In the days following the Capitol riot, they spread a rumor that anyone who attended would be pardoned by Trump if they turned themselves in before the end of his term. Recently, r/ParlerTrick subscribers signed up for free tickets to an event hosted by the MyPillow CEO and Trump loyalist Mike Lindell in order to limit actual attendance, and then congratulated themselves on their choices of fake names: Harry Sach, Yura Dumas, Ann T. Fa.
At first glance, the forum’s whole deal can be difficult to discern. When I first reached out to its moderator team, r/ParlerTrick’s creator replied, “Can you please stop being racist about reddit and swearing about it thank you.” Several weeks later, after he agreed to an interview, I asked him what that message even meant. “We kind of wanted to keep it a little cryptic,” he told me, also sort of cryptically. Then he asked to go by his middle name, Michael, because he and the other moderators are often harassed and sometimes receive death threats.
Michael and his compatriots are targets on account of their participation in one of the most visible and active forums in a new online ecosystem dedicated to surveilling and poking the MAGA universe. (In other subreddits, members boast of messing with those on the conspiracy-theory-hotbed platform MeWe and the QAnon-favored chat app Telegram.) These forums signify an important cultural shift: For the past five years or so, internet trolls have been among the most hated and feared actors in American politics, blamed for the rise of Trump and the sad triumph of ironic bigotry. Then an upswell of leftist trolling started attracting attention last summer, when the hacking collective Anonymous returned after years of dormancy and coordinated, internet-based pranks were adopted as part of the political tool kits of K-pop fans, TikTok kids, and random coalitions of Twitter users.
The question is whether all of these anti-MAGA trolls represent a corrective counterforce or a misguided reaction. “Even the most ethically oriented troll is always going to be controversial because it uses deception,” says Gabriella Coleman, a cultural anthropologist known for her research on Anonymous. Trolling is also chaotic as a rule. “These campaigns spiral,” she told me.
The Parler trolls on Reddit first got together in a forum called r/ParlerWatch. It was imagined as a small space for like-minded Redditors to share the most out-there things they’d seen on Parler, and to come up with ways to mess with the people who were sincerely posting on the app. But it grew quickly, gaining about 16,000 members in its first week, and its creator, Sloane—who asked to go by his middle name for the same reasons as Michael—decided to steer the forum in a more serious direction. Now, instead of hatching practical jokes, its 150,000 members focus on surveilling the Trump-loyalist internet and organizing moments of “armchair activism,” such as combing through Parler data scraped from the site after the Capitol riot and sending tips to the FBI. “Monitoring right-wing spaces online has always been kind of a hobby of mine,” Sloane told me.
Members who still wanted to do anti-MAGA trolling, led by Michael, went on to form a spin-off group with Sloane’s blessing: r/ParlerTrick. The members of the smaller forum discussed their forays into far-right spaces, where they posed as caricatures of liberals and riled people up to no real end. Later, they experimented with using the language and framing of a MAGA diehard to push their own politics, including support for unions, but this ended up confusing everyone. Their messages on Parler would sometimes get reposted as screenshots in r/ParlerWatch and discussed as if they were authentic right-wing activity. Eventually, the whole subreddit became a role-playing game, Michael told me. “We started having people coming in not knowing if it was real or not, which is perfect,” he said. The members now call themselves “patriots” and disavow liberals with every sentence. As role-playing games go, it’s low-effort: At the time of the Georgia runoff election, they made a meme of Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue that said simply, “They know what they did to Donald Trump.” It was shared by Trump fans on Parler hundreds of times, though no one actually had any idea what Kelly Loeffler or David Perdue might have done to Donald Trump.
Trolling used to be the pastime of a subculture that considered itself apolitical, and that claimed to be interested in provoking everyone. But for Michael and Sloane, the jokes are part of how they practice their politics—the only fun part, they say. Similarly, many politically minded young people have come of age with an innate understanding of how antisocial behavior online can be used to win attention for and participation in a chosen cause. “Trolling has a long and noble history, and shitposting can be useful,” says Talia Lavin, the author of Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy. She took part in an attempt to troll Trump’s “Voter Fraud Hotline,” she told me, by submitting a long video in which she described being intimidated by the sexual attractiveness of an antifa operative at her polling place.
But trolling can have especially unpredictable results when it engages with hateful rhetoric and conspiratorial thinking. It might even help spread and amplify misinformation or extremist beliefs. Some r/ParlerTrick members, for example, created memes that, per Michael, had “some racist stuff” in them, or might have stoked “unnecessary hate.” The forum has struggled with this issue, he said. “It’s a thin line. You have to really pay attention to what you’re doing.”
The problem that needs fixing, say the people who spend hours monitoring the MAGA world, is that the MAGA world has gotten so hard to see.
The more radical of Trump’s supporters were largely pushed off mainstream social-media platforms last summer and fall, as the result of an industry-wide crackdown on election misinformation and QAnon activity. They joined sites such as Parler, Telegram, MeWe, and TheDonald.win because that’s where other, further-right actors had gone when they were banned from Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. With that, an ideological divide became a literal separation across platforms. “The Balkanization of the internet is what led to r/ParlerWatch,” Sloane said. “That’s exactly why these watchdog groups started around the 2020 election cycle.”
While the sequestering of the MAGA internet has made surveillance of far-right ideas seem more important, it has also made trolling MAGA diehards easier (and, for some, more fun). An excursion onto a platform like Parler can be exactly that for pranksters—a quick trip behind enemy lines, where you know you’ll find a target-rich environment, and where your mischief might be less likely to cause collateral damage. (Parler, for its part, seems to welcome the additional activity. An updated set of community guidelines added in February specifically allows “trolling content.”) But constant engagement with the ideas that gain the most traction on Parler and similar platforms might still have risks for the people who are trolling. When I asked Michael whether he thought r/ParlerTrick members could ever role-play themselves into having actual hateful beliefs, he expressed concern but in an unconcerned tone of voice. “You have to be aware of that,” he said. “You have to really be thinking and conscious in the moment and know what you’re looking at.”
Some of the anti-MAGA trolls’ motivations are obscure. In a smaller subreddit called r/MeWeTrolling, created in February, one highly active user who calls himself a “trolling expert” regularly shares dramatic confrontations he’s had in character with right-wing users of MeWe. This poster is the star of the show, and he receives accolades from commenters who suggest that he upgrade his title to “trolling legend” or “trolling god emperor.” Recently, a new member pointed out the high degree of absurdity in this troll’s exploits, and cautiously suggested that he might be playing both characters in his “interactions.”
This ambiguity could be the biggest problem with trolling as a political tactic. It’s obviously a game, but what are the prizes? Lavin said that when trolling is publicly coordinated, it tends to work better; Coleman added that campaigns like that are more transparent—they’re built less on sustained deception than on participatory spectacle. A public call to spam a militia-recruiting site or to humiliate a politician who’s blaming “woke ideology” for ruining the military invites a different sort of game, with clearer boundaries than an online space for posing as nationalism-addled “patriots.” When I asked Michael if he ever feels overwhelmed by the subterfuge and irony, he said yes. Sometimes when the r/ParlerTrick people go out to troll, they come back confused. “We’re probably in communication with other trolls, who are trolling back to us,” he said. “It’s like seven layers of troll, and there’s actually no real discourse happening at all.”
This article originally misstated that the event hosted by Mike Lindell took place at the Iowa Corn Palace. It took place at a campground in Wisconsin; in addition, the Corn Palace is located in South Dakota.