Trolling started out as a joke - a joke that no one really found to be funny, except maybe sick individuals.
In the Atlantic is a timely piece about how memes and online trolling have basically brought America to where we are today. It is a timely piece as it explains Trump's bizarre behavior - he is basically trolling America with his outrageous comments, and if you don't "get the joke" then you are one of those scolding schoolmarms that make up the Left these days.
It is an interesting article - and a long one - and that alone is one reason why it will have no impact. No one reads today, they all want short Tweets and Memes - shorthand ideas that can be expressed in a minimum number of bytes and with the least amount of time spent contemplating and consuming. The problem with this model of communication is - as the author points out - that these images and ideas flash right by you faster than you can acknowledge them and analyze them.
When I was a kid, there was always someone at school who told racist or antisemitic jokes, or made fun of "fags" or made disparaging comments about attractive girls who they could never date, or unattractive girls who wouldn't date them, either. You would chuckle or force a laugh, to be "one of the gang" but it would leave you with a hollow feeling later on, as you realize that the folks he was making fun of were friends of yours, or even you. But to say, "hey, that's not funny!" would elicit the standard cry of "It's just a joke, man, can't you take a joke?"
My stinking hippie brother got his PhD in puppetry. He calls himself "doctor" now, but I would not go to him for medical advice, unless you have a sick puppet. But along the way in his many years in Academia (almost as many as mine, I recall) he did one of his many papers and dissertations about how puppets and jesters are used to say things that a person could not get away with. The ventriloquist dummy says outrageous things, but the man operating the dummy can act just as shocked as you are. Think Jeff Dunham.
If you say things in jest, you can get away with saying things that if said seriously, would result in condemnation. And so it goes with the Internet. You can say horrible things in a meme or a troll and get away with it - most of the time - by passing it off as a joke. But somewhere along the line, it went from joke to reality. Surely Qanon started out as a joke, but apparently some people take it to be real. Flat-earth, anti-vaxxers - things that started out as "I'll bet you $10 I can get people to believe this..." but developed real followers. The key to trolling, it turns out, is not to pass it off as a joke, but to be deadly serious about it. The folks you are trolling aren't the idiots who actually believe the nonsense you are pushing, but the folks who try to debate you about it.
If you can get Neil deGrasse Tyson to debate you on a flat-earth society subreddit, you've won. I don't know if he's ever fallen for that bait, but that is sort of the goal trolls are looking for - to argue with someone who has facts, intelligence, and knowledge on their side, and you just fight back with utter nonsense and bullshit. Sort of like Trump last night, eh?
Sadly, the Left has fallen into this trap. Things like "micro-aggressions" and "safe spaces" and "cultural appropriation" are ripe for parody and laughter. A young woman of Vietnamese descent complains that the Ba Minh sandwiches at the school cafeteria are "cultural appropriation" but fails to realize that the sandwich itself - based on a French baguette - was a bit of cultural appropriation to begin with, as well as a symbol of French colonialism.
But she was deadly serious about this - the fact they didn't make the sandwich right wasn't just typical cafeteria food, but a micro-aggression against her culture. As I noted in an earlier posting, if was the case, then Taco Bell is guilty of cultural holocaust. Tacos made of Dorito chips? The horror.
Sadly, it used to be the other way around. The Left was the hipsters, the hippies and yippies, having fun and doing drugs and having wild sex and listening to rock-and-roll music. The Right was the "uptight" squares, who drank whisky and listened to Country music - and not ironically, either! My same brother, during his hippie protest parades and puppet shows, would mock conservatives for being so deadly serious and straight. Now the shoe is on the other foot.
I noted before how the Gay Student Association - once a student organization that was pretty lighthearted and fun - morphed into the "LGBTQ Studies Center" which is full of very serious and scholarly people who are no fun at all. Such stuff is ripe for parody, even from fellow Leftists. But no one seems to be laughing on the Left anymore - that would be a "micro-aggression".
I am not sure whether the Left can take back the funny side of politics - or should it. Attempts at similar trolling humor would be met by gasps of astonishment from the same people on the Right who are trolls. "How dare you!" they would say, "That is beyond the pale!" - as I am sure they are saying right now, on Fox News, because Joe Biden accurately described Trump as a "clown" (in orange make-up with funny hair).
Maybe. Humor is a funny thing. If it doesn't work, it falls flat.
Q: What do you call four basement Nazis on the bottom of the ocean?
A: A good start!
Hey, it's just a joke man. Chill out! Can't you take a joke? Sheesh!