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.”