A series of fake PSAs circulated on Facebook. (Facebook)

The Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General doesn’t make a habit of investigating memes. But when those viral images appear designed to suppress votes in an election, the AG takes them seriously.

That’s certainly been their reaction to an “online voting” meme that’s circled Facebook, Twitter and Instagram a lot in recent weeks. It’s an official-looking graphic that assures Pennsylvania’s Democrats that they can vote Tuesday by merely posting the status “Hillary” on their social network of choice.

This is not “American Idol,” of course — you can’t vote in any state using a hashtag. Which is why the meme has scandalized both Clinton supporters and the Pennsylvania state government.

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Little did they know, they’d all been had. Pwned, in gamer-speak. The meme was, according to its propagators, less a sincere attempt at election fraud than a bit of calculated adolescent trolling.

Would these dummies take the bait? Would they legitimize the gag with their reaction, and thus transform it into actual news?

“I saw it on Twitter, thought it was funny, and shared it for some laughs,” said Rick Barbee, one of the first to share the “online voting” meme outside of its inevitable birthplace, 4chan.

In other words, he shared it for the lulz — because we are living through the lulz election.

Lulz, as in that particular type of schadenfreude unique to our time — the sort of aloof, perverse pleasure one derives from causing someone else to get upset online. The term began popping up on 4chan boards and in IRC chats sometime around 2006, first as a harmless misspelling of “lol” and later as a shorthand for the sadistic joys of online trolling.

Why make a 9-year-old cry on YouTube, or plaster Second Life with racist imagery? Why, “for the lulz,” naturally. (In the words of the very lulzy Encyclopedia Dramatica, “doing it for the lulz on the Internets is a perfectly acceptable excuse to do anything.”)

But in one of the most politically polarized eras in recorded history, lulz have grown into far more than a juvenile excuse: They are the default means of engaging people with opposing views. Lulz are a worldview, an outlook, a political philosophy. They’re the deliberate foil of civic dialogue, rooted in cynicism, detachment and outright misanthropy.

Fake news and misinformation are part of that, as are the traditional griefing techniques of subcultural trolls. But lulz also fueled — and sometimes, explain — this year’s surge of racist, sexist and anti-Semitic discourse.

“The lulz have become prominent during this election in a way we’ve never seen before,” said Whitney Phillips, a professor of literary studies at Mercer University and the co-author of a forthcoming book on Internet antagonists. “But it’s dangerous to frame [lulz] as somehow different or separate from actual extremism. Whether or not you’re doing it for laughs, the message is the message.”

This is true on both sides of the political spectrum, of course: Certainly, lulz-seekers on the left have gotten a few good punches in this cycle. (Serial news hoaxer Paul Horner, who purposely deceives conservatives with his fake news articles, recently wrote on Facebook that he can scarcely contain his “joy and laughter.”) But trolls are scavengers, Phillips explains, and they’re drawn to the cultural fissures that will provoke the most anger. And in this election, those issues tend to skew to stomping grounds of the right: Think concerns about race, class, gender, sexual assault, sexual orientation and religion.

These charts show exactly how racist and radical the alt-right has gotten this year

From the earliest days of his campaign, Donald Trump has been buoyed by a contingent of 4chan devotees who pass around memes, swastikas and campaign slogans with the same winking irreverence. Their pursuit of lulz is explicit: They trend hashtags like #Repealthe19th and #DraftOurDaughters to “trigger” feminists; they juxtapose Stars of David with pictures of Clinton to — in the word’s of one troll’s Twitter bio — “offend you if you are Liberal, Politically Correct, Feminist, Democrat or Piers Morgan.”

The guiding lights of this crowd — people like the right-wing blogger Mike Cernovich and Breitbart tech columnist Milo Yiannopoulos — have become not only legends on their own hashtags, but leading figures in the offline Trump movement. Cernovich, an erstwhile pickup artist who is largely responsible for the rumors about Clinton’s health, encourages his followers to abide by the maxims “conflict is attention” and “attention is influence.” Yiannopolous, meanwhile, was famously suspended from Twitter for inciting the racist harassment of the actress Leslie Jones, which he defended on the grounds that he’s a “prankster.”

In other words, he harassed Jones as some sort of nihilistic joke — a metaphor for online culture, if I’ve ever heard one.

Just how offensive did Milo Yiannopoulos have to be to get banned from Twitter?

It would be a mistake, however, to pretend that lulz-seeking is exclusively confined to the Internet, when its symptoms surface so regularly in other parts of public life. Trump supporters have begun wearing T-shirts that scream “Trump that b—-,” apparently just to see which strangers will be upset by them. (“I’m just trying to be funny and get attention,” one buyer told The Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson in June.)

At a Trump rally in Phoenix on Saturday, a man wearing as “Hillary for Prison” shirt began chanting “Jew-S-A” in front of the press pen, then denied the chant was anti-Semitic. The day after that, at another rally in Las Vegas, a hype man for Trump transfixed the crowd with a grotesque story — there’s no better term — about Clinton dying in a fiery car crash.

The connecting thread among all these provocations is that none are necessarily sincere — or if they are, the sincerity is an afterthought, a distant second to the desire to deceive, offend or jeer.

Pennsylvania’s “online voting” memes are just the latest in the series: Trump-supporters who shared the meme often used the language of voter suppression and disenfranchisement, but there’s little to suggest that chatter was serious, like you might hear from more seasoned political operatives.

“It’s like the bullies who would do things in grade school for a laugh,” said Brooke Binkowski, the managing editor at debunking site Snopes. “There’s no endgame . . . but if something more happens, its even funnier to them.”

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Unfortunately for the grade-school bullies of the Trump movement — and counter to the promises of Encyclopedia Dramatica — no one seems terribly placated by the “for a laugh” excuse these days. There’s a growing understanding among Internet users that the harms of these stunts are quite real, despite their posters’ less-than-genuine intentions. And in the Internet of the alt-right, especially, you can never tell if “the lulz” function literally, or as a smokescreen for hardcore extremists.

The Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General confirmed to The Washington Post that it has recently launched a review of the online voting meme, in light of the fact that it was shared, at one point, by a city councilman. (“Virtually everybody understood it was a joke,” griped that official, Josh Lorenz.) Jeff Coon, a Clinton supporter who sounded the alarm about a similar “online voting” meme, seemed equally unmoved.

“I don’t believe that who ever created this meme or others like it were just posting it as a joke or to troll,” he said by Facebook Messenger. And even if they were: “It’s not a joke if [some] people are disenfranchised of their votes.”

And yet, despite mainstream condemnation of lulz-seekers, it’s unclear if anything will turn that tide back now. Both social media and the news media incentivize provocative online behavior: They shower views, and likes, and fame or infamy, on anyone loud or mean enough to inspire anger. As for the rank cynicism and alienation that fuel lulz politics, polls by the likes of Gallup and Pew suggest we’re growing more polarized and estranged from one another than we’ve ever been.

That gives Phillips, the troll researcher, a kernel of hope: If lulz are the antithesis of civic dialogue, maybe lulz politics could be vanquished through open, well-meaning discussion. What if, instead of antagonizing him on Facebook, Barbee sat down and talked to Coon? They’re different people but — if nothing else — they have their passion for the fate of the country in common.

“If there’s a solution to any of this, it’s sincere, earnest engagement with people we don’t understand,” Phillips said. “We need to be thoughtful and respectful and stop deflecting responsibility for the things we do and say on the Internet.”

This is why Phillips is deeply concerned about figures like Cernovich and Yiannopoulos — and, above them, Trump himself. For surely no one else has been so successful at cynically exploiting cultural tensions to get a reaction. Trump has sent Cinco de Mayo tweets after insulting Mexicans; he led the “hunt” for President Obama’s birth certificate. There’s widespread belief that after the election, Trump will launch a Trump TV channel, inspiring some pundits to wonder whether his whole campaign was just a calculated gambit for national attention.

You can bet he’s getting the last lulz — regardless of who wins next week’s election.

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