Earlier this week, on Flag Day, Senator Ted Cruz tweeted a video in which he gazed at Old Glory and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. “This didn’t use [sic] to be controversial,” he lamented. Rhetorically, there’s no way to describe the post other than “trolling.” And politically, there’s no way to describe it other than as a smokescreen. Texas, Cruz’s home state, is currently attempting to impose the nation’s harshest voting restrictions, which Black leaders have vigorously protested. Cruz’s tweet suggests that his freedoms are under attack (From the critical race police? From cancel culture wizards?), but what that trolling obscures is that it’s his constituents’ freedoms that are actually threatened.
When confronted by such sleights of hand online, the first thing to remember is that, however argumentative a claim might seem, smokescreen trolling is not an argument. When Trumpists post wild accusations to social media, they’re not open to having their minds changed, and they will be impervious to whatever facts you think they might be missing. They will, however, be very pleased by your efforts to try.
Here, too, Trumpists are aligned with old-school trolling. The goal for trolls on 4chan was the amassment of lulz, amusement in response to a target’s anger, frustration, or disgust. For Trumpist politicians, the goal is much loftier than lulz: It’s power. Still, the anger, frustration, and disgust of targets plays a critical role. Tempting the opposition to dunk on obvious falsehoods and over-the-top MAGA performance art only helps their bad-faith claims win the news cycle. This is precisely how I found out about Cruz’s Flag Day tweet; it was trending on Twitter, spurred on by how many people were making fun of him.
This isn’t a traditional amplification argument—the idea that if you share these kinds of messages, even by critiquing them, it will risk exposing other Trump voters to falsehood. Thanks to the increasingly insular and extreme far-right media ecosystem, supporters of this ideology are already steeped in these messages. Politicians like Ted Cruz are playing a game of catchup with them, not the other way around.
The true amplification concerns relate to what doesn’t trend because of what is trending. Ted Cruz dunkfests are easy, fun, and satisfying. They sure can feel like fighting the power. But that’s what makes them such an effective smokescreen.
To counter this tactic, the first step is to identify when it’s happening. This can be tricky, as there’s often a thin line between Trumpists like Ted Cruz who clearly know better and those who genuinely believe the things they’re saying. But forget what the politician actually believes. When what they say aligns with the strategies and tactics of trolling, imagine a 😂 at the end of their tweet, quote, or press release. This serves as a reminder to slow down and consider how a proposed response—from fact checking to “but actually-ing” to pointing and laughing—might end up boosting the nonsense and obscuring the underlying sincerity of the Trumpist project.
Don’t help them do that. Instead, refuse to play their game, and insist on a different one entirely—an approach that also helped counter subcultural trolling. As cognitive linguist George Lakoff has suggested, reframe the discussion away from what the Trumpists want you to talk about and toward the deeper truths buried within the stories that must be talked about. Describe the specific actions they and other officials in their state have undertaken to suppress the vote, reinforce white supremacy, and threaten citizens’ freedoms. Particularly if a story is already trending, responses that call attention to what strategies and tactics are being used and why they’re being used can help others understand how they’re being manipulated, where they should be directing their attention instead, and what is at stake.