The Lincoln Project: Is Trolling Communications’ New Normal?
by Nate Wolf
by Nate Wolf
One of the most unexpected entrants into the 2020 U.S. political maelstrom has been The Lincoln Project. Founded by a group of veteran Republican operatives, the organization has aired viral ads attacking Donald Trump—ostensibly a member of their own party—and garnered coverage in the nation’s largest publications.
The group’s ideology and objectives are simple: it dislikes President Trump and his allies and wants them out of power. Its tactical approach is even simpler and has a long and storied history in the internet age: trolling.
If the Lincoln Project’s meteoric rise to notoriety is any indication, trolling has some cachet in mainstream political communications. For those unfamiliar with the term, trolling is the act of intentionally goading or annoying someone to provoke a negative or flustered response. If you have someone in your group chat who intentionally derails discussions to push people’s buttons, that person is a classic example of a troll.
The Lincoln Project regularly pushes out content meant to infuriate Trump supporters and particularly the president himself. Its memes range from hilarious, to tired, to downright icky. Its ads evoke shock and awe. These tactics appear to be working, with the pro-Trump PAC Club for Growth using valuable advertising dollars to attack the Lincoln Project’s leaders rather than Trump’s Democratic rivals.
Communicators are right to wonder whether the organization’s newfound celebrity is a lesson for their own stakeholders. If trolling works for a group of disaffected Republicans, can it work for advocacy groups or companies? Is “going low” the new norm in a world of memes and Twitter arguments? These are fair questions to ask, but the answer is—as usual—it depends.
Trolling has its merits. The Lincoln Project has amassed 1.4 million Twitter followers in just seven months. That growth is even more impressive when you consider the organization’s lack of a natural constituency; most Democrats don’t want to cozy up to former GOP advisors and most Republicans still overwhelmingly back Trump, though that number has ebbed somewhat in recent months.
But in hewing to the logic that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” the Lincoln Project has used enmity alone to build a broad audience from across the political spectrum. Its Twitter followers include former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, multi-billionaire and one-time presidential hopeful Mark Cuban, and Kentuckian Mitch McConnell challenger Amy McGrath. By filling up the airwaves with provocative content, liberals, conservatives, and independents alike have had no choice but to pay attention.
The comms team behind the Lincoln Project has parlayed that attention into actual news coverage. You might call this tactic “stunt PR.” If an organization has the stomach to weather harsh backlash, they can pick a fight, provoke a response, and reap the benefits in the form of numerous profiles and mentions in major publications.
Trolling, for all of its attention-grabbing benefits, isn’t suited to telling a positive, forward-thinking story. As with all trolls, it’s much clearer what the Lincoln Project is against (Trump) than what it’s for. It isn’t using trolling to make a point; trolling is the point. At least until November rolls around, the outrage and distraction of its opponents is the key metric of success. Here’s some NSFW hate mail its communications director received.
Most communicators have more nuanced objectives. They have issues to advocate for, messages to amplify, and supporters to rally. All of these goals are difficult to achieve through outrageous ads and insulting tweets alone. In the internet age, starting an argument is simple, but arguments alone are only useful for a select few organizations. Wendy’s, for instance, has dunked on its competitors repeatedly on Twitter, but it also uses other, more conventional outreach tactics to get potential customers off their laptops and into its drive-thru lanes.
Communicators considering trolling as a strategy should think about their objectives. If notoriety is your only goal then by all means, get your memes ready and hire a social media manager who reminds you of April Ludgate.
But that strategy won’t lend itself to promoting a positive vision for the future or a broad coalition built on universal appeal. Successful communications strike a balance between breaking through the noise to make it into the discussion and guiding that discussion where you want it to go. If the latter is your goal, there are more traditional and more effective strategies on the table than trolling.
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