Opinion | Fighting with apathy is an effective political tool


Jacob Wargo

Rob Smith gives a speech about his journey from Democrat to Republican in Gregory Hall on Oct. 16. Columnist Joe advises people to approach trolls and clickbaiters with apathy instead of engaging them.

By Joe Dillier, Columnist

We live in an era of political trolling. Now more than ever, it is vital we remain civically vigilant and hold politicians accountable.

But trolls are one group that needs no attention. Their purpose is not to make actual political points but to make statements that elicit an extreme, and often irrational, reaction from people. The best way to fight them is through the power of apathy. 

We can see how apathy as a tool plays out in real life. Take the recent visit to campus by Turning Point USA representative Rob Smith. Smith was speaking on behalf of the conservative political organization that regularly hosts events on college campuses. At other universities, TPUSA speakers, and conservatives in general, have faced strong opposition.

However, at the University of Illinois, Smith faced very little pushback. Our campus affiliate of TPUSA found a single anti-fascist style poster rallying people to protest the event on a bulletin board on the quad. But, there is no evidence that anyone heeded its call — if there was even a single protestor, it is unlikely that TPUSA or Smith would not have jumped at the opportunity to tweet about it.

Additionally, the campus socialist organization, UIUC Young Democratic Socialists of America, went on Twitter to claim that the poster was a false flag to try and drum up controversy.

This saga leads to an interesting question: What do you do when you disagree with on-campus speakers?

Setting aside the fact that it is our First Amendment right to protest whatever or whomever we please, on the question of rhetorical effectiveness, protesting may not always be the way to go. Of course, protesting is an ethical and legal way to express your strong beliefs. But in the case of provocateurs and trolls — people who use inflammatory remarks to generate controversy and publicity — ignoring them is the best option.

I will concede that I know little of Smith’s work other than watching his Fox News interview and checking out his Twitter, but he has the effect of a political hack. His politics rely on unoriginal talking points and quick sound bites.

When I saw his poster on campus that read: “America’s Favorite Black, Gay Republican,” I wondered who gave him that title. It turns out it’s a  self-appointed one. The title is not only tacky, but it shows he relies on the same identity politics he criticizes as an ethos to justify points. His Twitter is filled with the kind of short, clickbait-like videos used by everyone from Al Jazeera to TPUSA that generate strong emotional appeal and say very little. 

Smith also tweeted a photo of one of his posters from behind a glass case in the Illini Union.

He claims it was there to be “protected” from leftists — even though that is where posters for all sorts of campus events are hung. He says these things to maintain the facade of a dangerous censored radical and hide the fact that he’s a D-list political celebrity on the college campus speaking circuit. Maybe it was just a joke, but people in the comment section — as per usual — seemed to believe him. The point of provocative hacks, on both sides of the aisle, is to do just that: provoke. 

Apathy as a strategy would be effective against TPUSA. Facebook data shows the organization uses its social media advertising budget not to attract college-age students to the movement, as they claim, but to fire up middle-aged and senior individuals. This is because those are the people who actually fund the organization.

TPUSA, for the most part, is an astroturf movement: It is not funded by its grassroots members but receives money from wealthy, elite conservatives to create flashy content and attract donors retroactively. One of the ways it motivates its donors to keep doling out checks is by showing them protests as proof that they need more money to fight the social justice warriors. 

In the case of provocateurs and trolls, whose paychecks stem from being edgy and creating self-serving controversy, the best advice for handling them is simply to ignore them. Hacks very rarely have anything substantive to say. Their real power comes from getting reactions out of people, so let them speak. This is best summarized by right-wing troll Milo Yiannopoulos: Leftists should “stop taking the bait.”

Joe is a senior in LAS. 

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