"They need us. We don't need them:" The fall of Twitter is making the trolls and grifters desperate

Elon Musk; Twitter; X Photo Illustration by Nikolas Kokovlis/NurPhoto via Getty Images
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The grifters that make up the troll-industrial complex are not okay.

One can see the sheen of desperation in the world of self-identified conservatives who make a living by "triggering" the liberals. The usual dose of outrage bait isn't working as well any longer, so the right-wingers are escalating the provocations. Tucker Carlson, for example, gave a glow-up interview with manosphere "influencer" Andrew Tate, who is being held in Romania on charges of sex trafficking and rape. Daily Wire anti-trans provocateur Matt Walsh is selling plushies of himself clad only in a diaper, which he encourages people to give to children. Daily Wire founder Ben Shapiro, on the other hand, made a nearly hour-long video tantrum about "Barbie," complete with setting the dolls on fire. The clawing need to get attention from progressives seems to be driving these engagement farmers a little nuts, as they up the weird-and-evil ante, hoping to get those precious clicks and plays.

And it's not just those who openly align themselves with the right who seem more unhinged than usual. The "contrarian" class of trolls is, if anything, acting even more frantic. These are the people who claim not to be partisan Republicans or MAGA sympathizers, but whose online existence is largely, often exclusively, built around baiting liberals with reactionary opinions or disinformation. Some, like former New York Times writer Bari Weiss and former psychology professor Jordan Peterson, pretend they are being canceled for intellectual independence that invariably reads like standard right-wing talking points. Some, like fake presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. or faux journalist Michael Tracey, repackage far-right disinformation as leftist politics. And some, like journalists Freddie deBoer or think tanker Matt Stoller, brand themselves as "socialists," mainly by discouraging people from backing Democratic candidates in elections.

Whatever flavor they come in, there are two things both Republican and not-a-Republican trolls have in common: First, their "professional" existence is defined by drawing negative attention from liberals. Second, by profiting off liberal outrage, they are giving Donald Trump and the MAGA movement a boost.

These folks, by design, are annoying all of the time, but lately, things seem to be getting worse. After being captured on tape spouting an anti-semitic conspiracy theory, Kennedy doubled down with an incoherent gripe about not getting Secret Service protection, which mainly appeared to be an excuse to dog whistle "14" and "88," which are understood as coded signals of support to neo-Nazis.

Tracey also leveled up the trolling over the weekend by repackaging Holocaust denialism as a "leftist" critique of the American military.

Less vile but still in the desperate-for-attention category: Stoller trying a "Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla. is a leftist ally because he hates Disney" troll at Politico and deBoer snatching eye rolls and dunks with "Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., is a traitor to progressives" hot take at New York magazine. Neither opinion was worth the electricity needed to publish them, but both no doubt succeeded at the main goal of generating traffic through hate clicks. Weiss' latest gambit for attention, meanwhile, is even more cringeworthy: A "debate" over whether "the sexual revolution has failed" between a group of fake feminists and faux-socialists titled "A Clash of the Female Titans." (Well, at least the word "female" is accurate.) Sure, all three examples are technically off-Twitter, but it's hard to imagine they'd exist but for trying to get those "look at these assholes" social media shares.

The escalation of shock value tactics, on both the right and the pretending-not-to-be-right political classes, are likely rooted in the same cause: The slow motion collapse of Twitter, now rebranded "X," under the leadership of Tesla CEO Elon Musk. While these folks have various outlets, both in the media and social media, ultimately their business model of trolling depends heavily on Twitter.

"Grifters need people to harass and a mainstream discourse to counter. As traffic takes a nosedive and Twitter becomes less a part of the conversation, it's going to be harder for these folks to make money," Melissa Ryan, a strategist who helps counter online disinformation, told Salon.

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"What Musk has proven through his actions and his statements is that he's committed to serving the trolls and the fraudsters first and the ordinary good faith users second," explained Brian Hughes of American University, who is the co-founder of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL). But, he noted, Musk is "blinded by his own ideology" and can't see how this is backfiring.

"As normal people, for lack of a better term, continue to leave Twitter, that's actually going to cause probably a reduction in the use of the platform by these trolls and these fraudsters. They don't have their audience of targets that they need," he continued.

All this, Ryan said, explains why the trolls "are getting more extreme and desperate." The pool of people available to get attention from is shrinking, so the only way to keep the engagement rates as high is to say wilder and nastier things. But eventually, there will be so few people on Twitter left to aggravate that even white nationalist dogwhistling and Holocaust denialism won't work.

Even before Musk, Twitter was, in sheer numbers, a relatively small platform, with a user base a mere fraction of what Facebook, TikTok, or even Reddit enjoy. But to focus strictly on numbers misunderstands why the troll-industrial complex relied so heavily on Twitter. As Hughes told Salon, "Twitter was very important for what we call 'agenda-setting' in media studies." Because Twitter was the favorite platform of journalists, politicians, and other politically important figures, getting attention on there meant getting your message amplified, even (and often especially) if only by people mocking or arguing with you.

Hughes pointed to Kennedy as an example. With the pandemic fading in the rearview mirror, it's much harder for Kennedy, who made his name as an anti-vaccination conspiracy theorist, to keep getting media coverage. But by dishing out regular provocations on Twitter, Kennedy can keep his name in the media. "Otherwise," Hughes said, "he becomes more irrelevant."

Musk may feign confidence about his strategy on Twitter, but there are strong signs he's worried that the site's reputational decline is driving off the everyday users he needs in order to keep his beloved trolls active. The New York Times reports that Musk has been threatening to sue the Center for Countering Digital Hate for reporting on the prevalence of bigotry on the platform. In response, the group's leader, Imran Ahmed, said that Musk wants "stem the tide of negative stories and rebuild his relationship with advertisers." It's a sign that Musk has run out of ideas. The reason people are leaving Twitter is not because they read a report on a non-profit's website. It's because they can see for themselves that Twitter is increasingly a ghost town dominated by a handful of trolls who get increasingly vile to make up for declining engagement numbers.

While it's a good thing to interrupt the supply chain of liberal outrage fueling the trolling-industrial complex, Hughes did caution that there are dangers from Twitter becoming the right-wing echo chamber. Some people get a "charge" out of "rallying against a scapegoat" or "getting high off of a sense of persecution or of persecuting others," he said. Pointing to QAnon as an example, he argued that these communities "don't need an audience of liberals to troll. They really just need each other." Trump's Twitter rip-off, Truth Social, shows that social media networks that cater only to this right-wing bubble may not scale to the point of profitability, but they are unfortunately good at radicalizing people.

Still, it's hard not to feel some joy, watching the Musk takeover of Twitter undermine the reach of the very trolls he was trying to empower. "It has to come as quite a shock" to "folks like Tracy, RFK Jr., and Weiss," Ryan said, "since Musk's Twitter was supposed to be a far-right paradise."

Hughes points out that some Twitter alternatives like Bluesky have revived that sense of joy some remember from Twitter in its days before professionalized trolling. "Political liberals, people on the left, centrists, moderates, people who are just hobbyists, they all have a lot more fun when the trolls and the propagandists aren't there to harass and defraud them," he said. Trolls, however, "can't have a good time at all if we're not there."

As Hughes notes, "They need us. We don't need them."

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about the right's reliance on trolling