How life and politics evolved online can be divided into these two camps - virtue signaling and trolling. If one pushes too far to the extreme, you can be sure that the other side will rise up in reaction to it.
There have only been two US Presidents who used Twitter to maximum effect - Barack Obama, who revolutionized the platform by mobilizing the vote in 2008, and Donald J. Trump, whose use of it needs no explanation. Twitter, it could be said, made both presidents. Each of them exemplifies the two divergent paths users take on social media users: virtue signaling and trolling.
A virtue signal is a way to show how “good” you are, how decent you are, how woke you are, how environmentally conscious you are, how caring you are, how generous you are, that you vote, that you compost, that you do yoga, that you protest, that you think Black Lives Matter. It’s all thrown up as branding of one’s self as a good person.
By contrast, as virtue signalers used social media to brand themselves and to connect in like-minded hives, so too did trolls emerge as an underground army to do exactly the opposite - show how cruel they could be, how mean, how they could say things no one could or ever would say. Trolls say what they really think without regard to how someone might feel - or specifically with regard to how they feel, as in, making them hurt. Trolling is as much a part of the internet experience as virtue signaling. The more virtuous the signal, the harder the troll twists the knife.
Trump took to Twitter like your average troll and in fact, now there are plenty of trolls who use their real names because they have no problem “owning the libs,” especially the biggest virtue signalers. Left Twitter has cognitive dissonance about their virtue because they spend so much time exhibiting their goodness while ignoring how vicious they are on a daily basis. Therein lies the problem with virtue signaling: visible hypocrisy.
Obama’s “goodness” was in sharp contrast to Trump’s “badness” and perhaps some of that is the key to Trump’s success. How sick has the public become of the sanctimony on the left over everything. If trolls exist to avenge those who spend their days in quiet desperation hating the sanctimonious left, then Trump is indeed the ultimate troll. He’s the living embodiment of the ideology - say what you never should, make fun of those you shouldn’t and never pass up an opportunity to send the left into hysterics, which to be fair is not that hard.
Followers will go along with the virtue signaling for a while but sooner or later the mean comments begin to trickle in. Youtubers who spend their days making ASMR or how to videos routinely must give depressing confessionals about why their commenters are so mean and why their standards are impossible to meet. They’re only human, after all.
Did Obama invent virtue signaling? No. It’s been around as long as humans have been. It’s a way of identifying members of a tribe or a belief system. What is wearing a cross around your neck but a visible virtue signal, ditto wedding rings, driving a Prius, bringing your own bags to the grocery store. Social media, however, has taken virtue signaling and tribal affiliation to the extreme.
Trolling has also been around for as long as humans have been. What is graffiti if not trolling humanity. Some works of art can be considered trolling. In its own odd way it’s speaking truth to power, or puncturing a consensus, or being a disrupter. The last thing a troll cares about is your feelings. Social media, of course, has taken trolling to the extreme.
Both rallies by each of these men feel more like religious revival meetings than anything else. Their supporters love them with passion. The difference is that the media sees Obama and his supporters as “good” and Trump and his supporters as “bad” and “dangerous.” This is not something that can debated or even discussed.
At an Obama rally if the crowd boos someone Obama doesn’t like, Obama will quickly correct them - “don’t boo. Vote.” By contrast, at a Trump rally, booing is encouraged - and chanting. The chants of “lock her up” at a Trump rally has been misinterpreted by the media and the right as being a racist or sexist chant but in fact, Trump supporters will chant that about anyone Trump doesn’t like, it doesn’t matter who it is. It is all part of the ritual. They also chant “we love you” at every rally, to which Trump always says, “stop, you’ll make me cry. No one wants to see the President cry.”
While Trump rose as a troll, his supporters believe themselves, and him, to be virtuous. Even though they are united and energized in their defiance against the sanctimonious left (“f*ck your feelings,” “liberals tears,” etc) they believe themselves to be fighting the good fight against the left. In reaction to that, the left itself has become a troll army - just as vicious, maybe even more vicious than the right was under Obama. Spend any time on Twitter and the dehumanization and viciousness is on display. It is has gone far beyond trolling to overt hatred. Trolling is rooted in humor, that it’s all sort of a joke. But what happened to the left at the hands of Trump - when the virtue signaling side lost to the troll? Well, that has been something else entirely.
Rather than look at it like “bad racists vs. good puritans,” a more productive way of looking at it is imagining it as an ecosystem of squirrels and rattlesnakes. You can take the side of the squirrel and see them as the heroes of the story. Cute fuzzy little animals that don’t kill for food and simply exist. The rattlesnakes, by contrast, are scary and creepy and slither around and kill the cute squirrels for food. Placing these judgments on them prevents you from seeing the larger picture - what each side wants and needs for itself and why it’s forever locked in this game of war.
In the end, humans always want things to be “fair.” The problem is that in a divided country two sides disagree on how to define “fairness.” Online, the virtue signaling left believe they can decide who is a racist or a homophobe or a transphobe or a misogynist and there is no defense. On the right, they see the left as ridiculous and hypocritical - their values should be respected and not demonized.
Virtue signaling is symbolic. Trolling is an act of frustration. But as long as we have one, we will always have the other. We aren’t built as “all good” or “all bad,” not even Obama is all good, and not even Trump is all bad. We can still humanize those we don’t agree with. We can see the world from the point of view of the rattlesnake while also sympathizing with the squirrel.
Social media thrives on division - the more we argue, the better the traffic. It has given humans a way to hide our real selves while expressing virtue or cruelty. The danger is in not realizing that on the other end of the virtue signal or the troll is an ordinary human being stuck behind a keyboard, making yet another choice about which self to be.