Pat Sajak, Twitter trolling and the great game-show myth

Yesterday Pat Sajak, best known as the ageless, iconic host of “Wheel of Fortune,” provoked widespread ire when he tweeted that “global warming alarmists” — i.e., people who accept the scientific fact of climate change — are “unpatriotic racists knowingly misleading for their own ends.”

But it appears that Sajak may have done a bit of misleading, too. Whether or not he actually “believes” in climate change, the TV host made the statement not to communicate sincere information but to rile people up.

In other words, he was trolling.

Trolls are a frequent subject of online fascination, and not just for their drama. These disruptive, oft-anonymous Internet personas thrive on discord: They’re best known for writing inflammatory posts, starting arguments and disrupting online discussions — all merely to upset other people. That vaguely antisocial psychology has led some researchers to question whether trolling may correlate with personality disorders. It’s certainly led plenty of critics to question the fundamental decency of online discourse/humanity, given the malicious, sadistic bent of so many trolling narratives.

Whatever the ethics — or pathology — Sajak’s unabashed tweet about poking “a hornets’ nest” clearly puts him in the troll camp. In fact, with the notable exception of Donald Trump (he of autism-questioning, reporter-dissing, Obamacare-hating fame), Sajak may have become one of Twitter’s foremost celebrity trolls. As of this writing, the TV host has nearly 52,000 followers. And as the Wire unspooled last night, he’s made a habit of tweeting things seemingly engineered to anger or annoy a large swath of his audience.

The issue here, of course, isn’t that Sajak has a political agenda — or that it’s a political agenda plenty of people don’t like. Rather, it’s worth noting that Sajak is apparently on Twitter for the primary purpose of spreading that agenda in the most inflammatory way possible. (A review of the 3,001 tweets he’s sent since joining Twitter in July 2013 turns up a handful of missives on sports, lots of crotchety witticisms on modern life, and many, many political jabs.)

This seems particularly out-of-character because Sajak, who has hosted “Wheel of Fortune” since 1981, seems so level-headed and apolitical on TV — like somebody’s mild-mannered grandpa. In fact, in our hyper-politicized, caustically polarized modern culture, game shows are like a rare refuge in the storm: Maybe we can’t all agree on “Duck Dynasty” or “Modern Family,” but a conservative and a liberal should surely be able to plop down on the couch, choose some consonants and vowels, and solve a puzzle without coming to blows.

But maybe that’s all just an illusion — punctured, so nonchalantly, by modern technology. Chuck Woolery, the original host of “Wheel of Fortune” in the 1970s and the suave matchmaker on “Love Connection” in the  ’80s, recently tweeted that an honest debate with a progressive liberal would consist of two words: “Shut up.” (And that’s among his more calm and reasoned tweets.) Comedian Drew Carey, the current host of “The Price is Right,” hosted YouTube videos for the libertarian think tank Reason. And all this comes on the heels of revelations that “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek is, off-screen, charmless, drunk and politically conservative. (That, at least, came out the old-fashioned way: Trebek, who doesn’t tweet, made the comments to a reporter.)

In either case, it’s alarming to see those masks removed: to see that even at the core of picket-fence, white-bread, middlebrow America, there’s rage and rancor and feuding — and not the family kind. Already, thousands of people have tweeted at Sajak and @WheelofFortune, complaining about his tweets. There’s at least one online petition asking Sony to remove Sajak as the host of “Wheel of Fortune.”

It’s hard to feel bad for a Twitter troll, though. If you poke a hornets’ nest, you should expect to get stung.

Related:“I will get the people to buy into my works just to rip their hearts out.” A Q&A with a professional Internet troll.

Related: Online trolls are just everyday sadists, according to new paper

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey | May 20