I ran across an interesting Mother Jones article about the impact that Internet trolls have on the perception of article readers. For those who aren’t aware, a troll in the context of the Internet, is defined by Wiki as follows:
Someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as a forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.
The name appears to root from both the word for a style of fishing (trolling) as well as the monster-that-lives-under-a-bridge kind of troll. Both are, of course, negative connotations of an evil haranguer who tries to bait others.
Some trolls are relentless. They stalk people on the Internet, constantly plaguing them with negative commentary, until they literally drive the victims crazy. We hear in the news about the impact this kind of behavior has on young people- it’s a growing contributor to the suicide rate. Among adults, at best, the behavior is extremely distasteful; at worst, it’s traumatic, cruel, and destructive. It can cause some people to abandon the world of online discourse, for lack of any constructive way to cope with trolls.
When I was in college, I took a delightful course on the philosophy of logic. It sounds fluffy, but it was actually a cool class that covered all the ways humans debate rational concepts. One of the concepts that has always stuck with me from that class is the notion of argumentum ad hominem, or “argument to the man.”
The idea is that when you want to erode another person’s position, but you don’t have any good logical ammo left, you can start attacking him as a person instead. For example, if I’m debating a tax increase with an opponent, I could throw this insult out to my opponent, “well, you’re a stupid, idiotic, dumb jerk who tortures kittens, and you have ugly hair!” These assertions may or may not be true, but they have nothing to do with evaluating the pro’s and con’s of a tax increase. They do not belong in the argument, they are logical fallacies. This tactic is a logical switcheroo, where the arguer attempts to sway an audience by linking a position to a negative trait of the positioner, even though they are unrelated concepts. The goal is to get listeners to unconsciously conclude, because this guy has ugly hair, you shouldn’t listen to anything he says. On the surface, we know this is ridiculous. And yet, people use (and fall for) this style of argument all the time.
Trolls (and politicians) especially. They turn the argument away from the topic at hand, and towards personal insults, either subtle, implied or outright. As the above-mentioned article points out, all this manages to accomplish is that people on both sides of the debate double-down on their positions. Both sides refuse to budge or to attempt to see the merits to the other side’s arguments, and intelligent discourse grinds to a halt. Debate participants allow themselves to become distracted by the insult, either piling on more insults, or trying to disprove the insults if they are on the side of the insulted.
This ugliness that so often emerges on the web reminds me of another Latin phrase, homo homini lupus; or “man is a wolf to man.” It is sad. I feel lucky that I don’t get too much troll behavior on my blog; but I certainly see it flourish on others’ blogs, on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media channels. The recently-fueled gun debate is ablaze on Facebook, with loads of comments that either say “if you think we should increase gun regulations, you’re an idiot” or “if you think we shouldn’t increase gun regulations, you’re an idiot.” Usually the messages are embedded in some kind of graphic, so that it’s easy for people to share the sentiment with a mindless click of a button. I detest these propaganda slogans, they do nothing for the rationale discussion we need to have over another very complex topic that lacks trivial answers. In fact, you really can’t even have a rational discussion Facebook, the text windows are too tiny, so why even try?
What we can do about this phenomenon, I don’t know. But it makes me think of a silly convention adopted by the Scrum software development movement: when in a meeting, if someone gets off-topic, anyone in the room may wave a rubber rat. This signals the distractors that they have gone off course, in a gentle, but insistent way. Perhaps if social media forums created a “rubber rat” button for the comments section, with the same functionality as the “like” or “G plus” button, readers could rate a comment on its trollishness. Then new readers would be forewarned to lower their emotional guns before reading comments with a high troll rating; and trolls could get some quantified feedback on their behavior.