America surely has any one of a number of problems caused by social media, but no one would know what they actually were from tuning in to Thursday’s episode of reality television, called the "Social Media Summit," broadcast live from the formerly austere White House. That’s because the nation — including many in the press corps — did not garner an understanding of why we should all log off and spend more time with real people. Instead, we got trolled by President Donald Trump, yet again.
The clickbait-of-the-day began with an array of formerly fringe — but now, by virtue of their invitations to hobnob with the president and White House officials, essentially mainstream — conservative and alt-right icons kicking it in the inner-sanctum of the White House. Their ranks were filled with the likes of conspiracy peddlers, including the guy who founded Gateway Pundit, a radio personality who has given love to QAnon, a woman best known for wearing Trump-themed sequined dresses on various occasions (she didn't disappoint), a former White House adviser ousted for unclear reasons along with many other people normal Americans would never have heard of. (That you would never have heard of them basically makes up the core of their concerns with social media.)
The conspiracy-theory-ridden summit eventually devolved to the point of a "Playboy" reporter and said former top White House adviser huffing and puffing their chests out at one another like chimpanzees, which freaked out one Secret Service agent, even as all other agents avoided becoming memes.
We all have a lot to learn from the agents who stayed away: They likely didn’t care about the chest pounding or they sensed that the whole thing was perhaps a made-for-TV trap pre-baked by the assembled media-savvy brain trust of conservative to alt-right antagonists.
But the ordeal raises the pressing question of our social media-stained era: If a troll is no longer shocking, are they really even a troll?
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This modern quandary never perplexed history’s greatest philosophers. But it is a question with which every self-proclaimed, 140-character philosopher needs to wrestle, because we may finally be in an era in which a 48-year-old former Trump administration official can stand in the White House Rose Garden and invite a 58-year-old reporter for "Playboy" to engage in fisticuffs and not a single snowflake melts.
That question brings us to President Donald Trump, who was practically giddy earlier in the day as he looked out over what he seemed to view as his personal troll farm. “Very special day. Very important day,” Trump said as an opener. “Many of you are friends, and many of you are friends that I don’t know what you look like, but I know what you sound like, which I guess is probably more important, right?”
And the president surely knows what they sound like, because the fringe right now seems to be the steadiest part of his media diet. That’s why Trump used the full weight of the American presidency — formal trappings and all — to explicitly attach himself to the assembled conspiracy theorists under the guise of highlighting social media companies’ censorship of "conservatives."
The remarkable thing about Trump’s ode to his most ardent social media followers was that he actually pulled the veil back and showed us all what’s really going on.
“The crap you think of is unbelievable,” Trump gushed to his assembled faithful (which included House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy) not even five minutes into his nearly 50-minute-long address. Then, after predictably labeling the press corps as “dishonest” and “corrupt,” Trump congratulated his social media influencers: “We’re getting the word out, and we get it out in a different way.”
But, actually, they're still getting it out the same way. CNN ran the story with the headline: “'Circus show' summit: Trump delivers meandering speech to his digital army of supporters at the White House.” More than that, the story was sourced by “one attendee” and “the second attendee” who talked “on the condition of anonymity because their employers had not authorized them to speak to the press.”
It seems the troll-in-chief won again: He got to bash the mainstream media and then bask in it. And almost nobody actually cared.
In fact, the only moment of real, made-for-Twitter drama was the will-they-or-won't they fight, which ended with the reporter yelling at the former adviser to "get a job.” That gave Trump’s conservative media machine an opening, and the true trolls came out, since they were already seated in the Rose Garden.
“I’m on the same team as you. We’re both journalists,” yelled the rabble-rousing James O’Keefe, best known for posting heavily edited videos designed to achieve political ends and whose era of influence ended when he attempted to trap a CNN reporter with him in a boat full of sex toys, to the assembled reporters. “We’re both investigative reporters. All I ask is, do your job.”
So, OK: I’m writing about them and you’re reading about them.
But to the larger philosophical question, I'm not sure I have to, or whether you do. Just as when a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, maybe it makes a noise but who cares. If a troll pokes at you every day but they can't really hurt you, at a certain point they’re not a troll, they’re just a gnat.
And you can't swat at every gnat, anyway. Just brush them aside and stay focused on the beautiful day around you. Let them buzz away until they buzz off.