How Libs Can Stop Owning Themselves Online

The Right has mastered trolling as a political communications strategy and Dems have to stop falling for it

In the last few weeks, Senator Ted Cruz, no stranger to Twitter controversy, has

  • Retweeted a Russian propaganda video while calling the U.S. military “emasculated.”

  • Falsely claimed that H.R. 1 would allow millions of undocumented immigrants to vote

  • Accused “The Squad” of supporting Hamas, and

  • Claimed Joe Biden was “destroying America” due to a temporary shortage of some Chick-Fil-A sauces.

These tweets are so mockable that it seems Cruz’s social media staff might be dealing with personal shame by trying to steer the ship directly into an iceberg. Democratic politicians, liberal activists, and celebrities rushed to dunk on all these tweets. Some replied to Cruz’s tweets to call him stupid. Others used the quote tweet function to show their networks why Cruz is stupid.

I understand the impulse. Ted Cruz is incredibly annoying. He is one of the most transparently cynical human beings to walk the planet. If the two most annoying people in your high school class had a child, that child would be Ted Cruz. But every reply, quote tweet, and clever dunk aids them and gives them the thing they strive for most: attention. Every time someone yells at Cruz online, it makes him happy because it means his strategy is working.

Whether it’s Cruz, Ben Shapiro, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, or the handful of Trump relatives who remain on Twitter, we must stop playing their game.

It’s time for liberals to stop being owned and start using their attention as a weapon.

Owning the Libs as a Political Strategy

Cruz’s tweets are so mockable that it is easy to confuse his online communications strategy with Sideshow Bob in a field of rakes.

But Cruz’s tweets are intentionally mockable. Cruz, or his staff, write these tweets for the specific purpose of baiting liberals into Twitter fights. The more angry, biting replies, the better. It’s not only Cruz who employs this strategy. “Owning the libs” by weaponizing liberal anger into online engagement is the primary Republican political strategy of the Internet Age. It’s how we got Trump, and it’s how we will get the next Trump if Democrats don’t figure out how to properly respond to the antagonization.

Here’s an oversimplified version of how this works: Social media platforms don’t show you everything the people you follow post. They show you the most engaging posts because their goal is to keep you on the platform as long as possible, to show you as many ads as possible, and vacuum up your data to sell to their advertisers while they’re at it. Facebook et al. define engagement as the sum total of likes/dislikes, shares, and comments. Every time we comment in anger, dunk via QT, or register our dislike or anger via emoticon, we ensure that the offending post receives more engagement and is seen by more people.

Breitbart, the billionaire-funded alt-Right publication formerly run by Steve Bannon, pioneered this strategy. These are real headlines from Breitbart stories before 2017:

  • 'Hoist it high and proud: The Confederate flag proclaims a glorious heritage.'

  • 'Gay rights have made us dumber, it's time to get back in the closet.'

  • ‘There's no hiring bias against women in tech, they just suck at interviews.’

  • 'Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy.'

The White nationalist nihilists that ran Breitbart realized sparking outrage among online liberals led to more engagement and grew their audience. The greater the bigotry in the headline, the greater the engagement. Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump, who had spent his whole life being an unrepentant asshole, took to this strategy like a duck to water.

Marjorie Taylor Greene, a junior member of Congress who has been kicked off her committee, grows in political power by fighting with liberals. Her Twitter feed is a non-stop stream of liberal rage bait. She stalks Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on and offline in the hopes of picking a fight that will garner her attention. In one sense, Greene’s strategy is working. She is a junior member of Congress who sits on no committees. She has barely the political power that you do, but her star is rising in the Republican Party. No one should know — or care — about her, but according to a February Morning Consult poll, Greene’s name ID was nearly as high as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s. Even more disturbingly, after Greene became the focus of attention for her racist, anti-Semitic, unhinged views, her favorable rating among Republican voters increased by 11 points. She hijacked our attention and reaped the rewards.

Charlie Warzel recently wrote the following in his newsletter about Trump’s new “blog” that applies to Cruz, Greene, and the rest:

I don’t necessarily think he’s playing 12-D chess but that doesn’t matter if the rest of us take the bait. And it will be so so easy to take the bait. I saw it today: The mere mention of Trump’s garbage Twitter clone evoked some vintage rageshare engagement (2009-2021, RIP). People love to get mad online about Donald Trump! But this engagement is a trap. And I think it’s worth considering whether or not we want to walk into it for a second time.

In addition to spreading their message and building their brand, Right-Wing trolls want to use liberal outrage as proof of their conservative bona fides. Last year, we all laughed as Seth Rogen destroyed Cruz in a Twitter fight. But a Hollywood star repeatedly telling the Texas Senator to “fuck off” was a huge win for Cruz. For Republican politicians, the best way to be liked by the folks in their party is to be hated by the folks in the other party.

When we fall for the bait, we empower the troll. We enable their political strategy. And we inadvertently spread disinformation and conspiracy theories. This is what the Right wants. And doing what your opponent wants you to do is always a bad strategy.

Allocate Your Attention

“Don’t feed the trolls” is an easy thing to say and a hard thing to do (just look at my Twitter feed). It’s easy to get mad online and react without thinking. But it’s always important to remember that your attention is your greatest weapon. Think strategically about how you want to allocate your attention. Many of the worst people on the Internet wake up every morning to hijack your attention. They want to use your outrage to build their brand and amass political power. Denying them the engagement they so desperately crave is how we fight back against the politics of “owning the libs.”

Anil Dash, a very thoughtful leader in the Tech community, shared very good advice on how to think about online engagement in a Twitter thread last year:

A reminder that may not be obvious: amplification on social networks has monetary value. Twitter’s algorithm counts it as engagement even if you shared a tweet to criticize it or mock it and uses that signal to amplify the tweet further. Only RT what you would pay to promote … Do not reply to, retweet, or quote a tweet from a fascist unless you would give them your money. Apparently, some people would rather make that gift than change their behavior online, and I don’t know what to do about that.

In other words, quote-tweeting or hate-sharing Cruz's content is the same as contributing to his campaign. If you wouldn’t do the latter, don’t do the former.

Whenever I talk, tweet, or write about ignoring the trolls, people respond with some version of the Washington Post’s pretentious marketing slogan — “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” The gist of this argument is that the only way to stem the rising Republican tide of racism, authoritarianism, and conspiracy is to shine a light on it. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. The point is not wrong. We cannot ignore these dangerous trends in Republican politics. But how we shine that light matters:

  • Quote tweet your friends, screenshot your enemies: This is an online engagement rule from Dash: If you need/want to push back on disinformation or highlight a dishonest or dangerous statement, using a photo of the statement allows you to make your point without giving the troll the information they need.

  • Don’t spread disinformation: If you respond to disinformation for the purposes of debunking it, you are inadvertently instructing the algorithm to show the offending disinformation to more people. You can either use the screenshot trick above or separately share a fact check or article that debunks the conspiracy theory.

For more information on how to engage online in a constructive manner, check out my pre-election Pod Save America interview with Jiore Craig, a Democratic strategist, and expert in fighting online disinformation.

Resisting the urge to express our outrage at outrageous conduct is hard. I fail to follow my own rules at times. But we can and must do better. All of us liberals need to stop owning ourselves.