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Media complicit in the rise of political trolls

  • 02 February 2018
There's an arresting moment early in Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury in which Steve Bannon explains the mechanics of alt-right politics.

Aides are nonplussed by the timing of the Trump administration's immigrant ban, imposed on a Friday night, a moment of maximum inconvenience and exposure; timing that all but guarantees emotionally charged chaos and a hostile press.

'But Steve Bannon was satisfied,' writes Wolff. 'He could not have hoped to draw a more vivid line between the two Americas — Trump's and liberals' — and between his White House and the White House inhabited by those not yet ready to burn the pace down.

'Why did we do this on a Friday when it wold hit the airports hardest and bring out the most protestors? almost the entire White House staff demanded to know. "Err ... that's why," said Bannon. "So the snowflakes would show up at the airports and riot." That was the way to crush the liberals, make them crazy and drag them to the left.'

Here we have a quick demonstration of a new political method. It's not designed to advance any particular policy position, the routine of conventional politics. The point of this new politics, this politics of the social media age, is trolling: the simple art of using rhetoric and political acts to provoke a reaction.

Suddenly a lot makes sense. Tony Abbott makes sense. Donald Trump makes sense. So much of social media makes sense.

The politics of the new right is a deliberate, calculated provocation. This is strategic of course, playing to an angry base while upping the ante of political rhetoric, marginalising opposing voices by pushing them to greater extremes.

"Just as politics now stoops to empty — but cynical — emotional manipulation, the media who campaign in parallel are doing something equally cold and calculatedly opportunistic."

This is a political position only made possible by the acquiescence of a media class caught between worlds, a media that trades on its historic reputation for fairness and a pursuit of objectivity while acting often to push a political line, either because of its own political convictions or purely for populism and profit.

Is that good enough? In this new moment of wilful political cynicism, is media acting as we might expect the fourth estate to act: to advance the cause of truth as a social good? How should media respond to political rhetoric tailored specifically to inflame? It can hardly ignore what is