If you have a website, or post comments on blog sites or newspaper articles, you have likely run into trolls. Trolls are the bane of the Internet as their main goals are to shut down reasonable discussions or spread misinformation. Free from editors or peer review trolls can, and do, distort information for ideological reasons or because they are paid. Then, there are trolls who do it just for fun.
Paid trolls are often called “sock puppets” as their message is controlled by those who create them. Paid trolls are often given a target site, a set of talking points, and a program which allows them to set up a number of fake identities for additional sock puppets, to make it appear that many support their arguments . Sock puppets do not follow the rules of debate and are often uncivil, using personal attacks in an attempt to shut down reasonable discussion. Research shows that sock puppets, and even unpaid trolls, often enjoy what they do because of negative personality characteristics.
Trolls: A personality study correlated the activities enjoyed by Internet users with personality traits. The study explored whether Internet trolls’ behavior fell into the Dark Tetrad: Machiavellianism (willingness to manipulate and deceive others), narcissism (egotism and self-obsession), psychopathy (the lack of remorse and empathy), and sadism (pleasure in the suffering of others). The chart below shows the results.
It shows that the Dark Tetrad traits were positively correlated with self-reported enjoyment of trolling. Of the traits, the researchers found sadism stands out among trolls. The internet has given sadistic trolls, those who think that hurting people is exciting, a broader and more anonymous outlet to express their behavior. We have certainly all run across these trolls on climate change articles.
Trolling works: Popular Science shut down its comment section because of trolls, citing a research report which showed that even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story. The results of the study by Dominique Brossard and coauthor Dietram A. Scheufele was summarized by the authors in a New York Times article:
Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with a technology. Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought.
George Monbiot who covers environmental issues at the Guardian, wrote in Reclaim the Cyber-Commons, of the need to restore civility to internet discussions of climate change. In it he said:
“… two patterns jump out at me. The first is that discussions of issues in which there’s little money at stake tend to be a lot more civilised than debates about issues where companies stand to lose or gain billions: such as climate change, public health and corporate tax avoidance. These are often characterised by amazing levels of abuse and disruption.
The second pattern is the strong association between this tactic and a certain set of views: pro-corporate, anti-tax, anti-regulation. Both traditional conservatives and traditional progressives tend be more willing to discuss an issue than these right-wing libertarians, many of whom seek instead to shut down debate.”
His comments explain a lot about the motivation behind sock puppets and ideological trolls.
Trolling and Denialism: Trolls often use the same tactics as those who deny scientific evidence. A study by McKee and Diethelm titled, Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond?, describe the five tactics used by deniers (and trolls) as a means to identify them. Their five tactics were summarized very nicely on Rachel’s Blog which, with a few changes, are:
1. Identifying conspiracies. In climate science denial, people have argued that scientists are doctoring the temperature records to make it look like warming is happening when it is not. This idea must be incredibly hard to justify to oneself as it is ridiculous to think that thousands of scientists from lots of different countries could be in on some conspiracy theory which will not benefit them in any way and which all of us want to be wrong.
2. Using fake experts. This technique was employed by the tobacco industry which had a strategy of employing scientists whose views were at odds with the consensus in the field. The same tactic can be seen in climate change. From the McKee article: “In 1998, the American Petroleum Institute developed a Global Climate Science Communications Plan, involving the recruitment of ‘scientists who share the industry’s views of climate science [who can] help convince journalists, politicians and the public that the risk of global warming is too uncertain to justify controls on greenhouse gases’.”
3. Highlighting outliers. This happens in climate change when contrarians make a big deal out of research that claims figures for climate sensitivity lying outside the IPCC range. They are highlighting a few research papers that are outliers while ignoring the majority of evidence.
4. Placing impossible expectations on research. The repeated phrase that the “models failed to predict the pause” fits with this. No-one can predict the future exactly. Scientists do not work with ouija boards. Climate models – just like all models of physical systems – contain uncertainty and it is unreasonable to expect them not to. But although the model projections do a remarkably accurate job of making future projections of climate, contrarians still place unreasonable expectations on what they can do.
5. Using misrepresentation and logical fallacies. Logical fallacies include the use of red herrings, deliberate attempts to change the argument, and straw men, where the opposing argument is misrepresented to make it easier to refute. Other fallacies used by denialists are false analogy and the excluded middle fallacy (either climate change causes a wide range of severe weather events or causes none at all, so doubt about an association with one event, such as a hurricane, is regarded as sufficient to reject an association with any weather event).
To respond these tactics, the authors suggest it is important to recognize denialism when confronted with it. The normal civil response to an opposing argument is to engage it, in the expectations that the truth will emerge through a process of debate. However, this requires that both parties have a willingness to follows certain rules such as looking at the evidence as a whole, rejecting deliberate distortions, and acceptance principles of logic. They say, a ” meaningful discourse is impossible when one party rejects the rules. Yet it would be wrong to prevent the denialists having a voice. Instead, it is necessary to shift the debate from the subject under consideration, to instead exposing to public scrutiny the tactics trolls employ and identifying them publicly for what they are.” However, that may not work with trolls of the dark tetrad.
Dealing with Trolls: Exposure would probably work with paid trolls, as those controlling them do not wish to be exposed. Those who troll for the fun of upsetting people would likely enjoy the diversion off topic, deny being a troll, and heap abuse on anyone who even suggested their motives were not pure. A good strategy is to just ignore trolls. If one wants to confront the lies and distortions, it is more effective to write a separate article refuting their premises. Running up a large number of comments on a troll’s article is simply “feeding the troll”, giving them more opportunities to respond and enriching paid trolls. Clicking on trolls’ links only runs up the hit count of denier sites, making them appear more important than they are and possibly adding to their advertising value.
In most cases, ensuring civility is up to the blog moderators. Blog sites can discourage trolling with good policies and strong moderation. Comments from those who attack others or claim obvious lies as fact should not get posted. Repeat offenders should be banned or blacklisted. The trolls may claim violations of freedom of speech or censorship. If they do, invite them to resubmit their posts with valid references, in a civil manner, and without personal attacks. They will likely disappear. Don’t we wish?
(c) 2015 J.C. Moore