Don't Feed the Trolls: How Outrage Fuels Sickening Careers
Ryan Holiday, the media strategist behind Tucker Max's supremely sexist (but well known by fans and haters alike) I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, has written a playbook on trolling, titled Trust Me, I'm Lying—and so-called alt-right leaders have found his book useful.
In an article for The Observer on Tuesday, Holiday explains the way a marketing campaign based on trolling works. The more outrageous and offensive the product, ideology or personality, the more of a duty high-road, moral media has to cover it and call it out. But conversely, all that free publicity helps to amplify the troll's reach to find more of the otherwise tiny audience that would buy such atrocious ideas—an audience that previously was difficult and costly to target.
Holiday uses the example of Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, who has said and done plenty of offensive things:
"Let’s say 9 out of 10 people who hear something Milo says will find it repulsive and juvenile. Because of that response rate, it’s going to be hard for someone like Milo to market himself through traditional channels. His potential audience is too spread out, and doesn’t have that much in common. He can’t advertise, he can’t find them one by one. It’s just not going to scale.
"But let’s say he can acquire massive amounts of negative publicity by pissing off people in the media? Well now all of a sudden someone is absorbing the cost of this inefficient form of marketing for him. If a CNN story reaches 100,000 people, that’s 90,000 people all patting themselves on the back for how smart and decent they are. They’re just missing the fact that the 10,000 new people that just heard about Milo for the first time. The same goes for when you angrily share on Facebook some godawful thing one of these people has said. The vast majority of your friends rush to agree, but your younger cousin has a dark switch in his brain go on for the first time."
What's interesting about Holiday's argument isn't just the dilemma about whether or not to give free publicity to people making money off hate (be it misogyny, racism, xenophobia, or homophobia), but also the proposed solutions.
The media's first choice—not to cover the perpetration of hate—doesn't appeal to Holiday (he thinks it could set a standard of letting horrible things go unnoticed). Here's how Holiday explains the media's catch-22 when faced with a troll's marketing strategy, again using Milo Yiannopoulos as an example:
"This approach requires a certain shamelessness but it is effective because it puts the dominant group into the horns of a dilemma: Ignore them and let them do something offensive or object and give them the attention they need to survive and thrive? It’s why for Milo, there is no such thing as bad publicity right now. He’s maneuvered his brand with ruthless, bulletproof perfection."
The media's second option, which Holiday supports, is essentially to give trolls a chance (ick) to embarrass themselves and prove themselves either unqualified, unknowledgeable, or just not committed enough to promote the horrible things they're promoting.
"Organize all you want, get as many people as you can to show up at their events, but don’t try to shut them down," Holiday advises. "Regain the moral high ground by saying that you absolutely respect their right to free speech."
Frankly, it seems like a bad idea to give a platform to people with a history of infringing on the rights of others. But Holiday goes on:
"And then, actually listen and talk to them. To me, the most effective retorts against the alt-right were when Trevor Noah had Tomi Lahren on his show and when Elle Reeve profiled Richard Spencer for Vice. Both came off looking mostly like jokes. Tomi Lahren showed her age. Richard Spencer revealed his movement to be mostly a collection of a few thousand sad dorks."
I repeat, this troll-takedown seems dangerous. There must be a third way, perhaps one that's not as feasible or effective in a landscape where attention is short and subtlety is often wasted. Here are two compromise options: 1) make public mention of the terrible thing, but give the hate less attention than the context spinning its falsehood or wrongness, and prioritize more valuable news; or 2) let the troll speak, but make sure it's with a battle-ready interviewer and that it's simultaneously fact-checked. The latter presents a challenge, as Bill Moyers learned, when he described his disappointment that CNN let Kellyanne Conway on air a few days after banning her. Even when an interviewer is skilled at cutting down hateful language or lies, a dedicated troll can spew more incendiary comments than are possible to expose as fast and effectively as they are spouted.
Another key point Holiday brings to the table is that as much as we worry about normalizing trolls when they're repeatedly successful, it's not in the troll's interest to be normalized because then they lose the spotlight and aren't famous for being outrageous anymore.
As Holiday writes, "The key tactic of alternative or provocative figures is to leverage the size and platform of their 'not-audience' (i.e. their haters in the mainstream) to attract attention and build an actual audience."
Oddly, this creates an unexpected common goal between progressives and trolls: to keep fighting the normalizing of the troll's behavior. Of course we must continue not to normalize anyway, but it's easy to lose sight of this possibility.
On the flipside, if the successful troll tries to shake things up with a moral makeover, it probably won't work, making trolldom a self-perpetuating marketing scheme. Holiday writes that Tucker Max tried a moral makeover in a third book, which no one bought.
"When [Tucker Max] published a book of positive advice for guys—which was loved by the mostly female publishing industry and got all sorts of friendly press—it didn’t translate into success. He wasn’t an outlaw anymore. There wasn’t anything to get excited about." (I'd like to point out that most of the publishing industry's top management/highest earners/decision makers are still (mostly white) men, according to a Publishers Marketplace survey, so there's more to be won in terms of feminist publishing leadership and popularizing books by women, people of color and queer voices.)
If there's anything to learn from Ryan Holiday's strategy, it's that all too many immoral people with dangerous ideas are using trolling more effectively than ever before. Both the media and the public have to constantly be on guard with countermeasures to fight it until the idea loses steam, or as Holiday suggests, until the troll is caught abandoning the hateful principles he rode in on:
"They say sunlight is the best disinfectant. But it is also what allows you to see whether the emperor has any clothes. And it’s this sad, and often pathetic reality, that the collective hysteria has beneficently covered up in those it’s trying to fight. What should be seen as farce somehow looks like real fascism."