Scientific Skepticism and Internet Trolls
If you are a scientific skeptic with any kind of enduring online presence, you have surely come across many Internet trolls. These are individuals that are not particularly interested in discussing the issues or presenting evidence for their claims. Instead, their goals are something much more sinister. They want to cause disruption of conversations and websites, get people angry and irritated, provoke emotional responses, inflating their own sense of self-importance and so on.
In this blog post, I will describe some of the most common types of trolls that a scientific skeptic can come across and discuss a couple of suggestions on how to deal with trolls.
Different kinds of anti-skeptical trolls
There are many different kinds of trolls out there, so consider this to be a description of some of the more common anti-skeptical troll archetypes that many skeptical activists online deal with on a regular basis. This list is by no means exhaustive and only covers the kinds of anti-skeptical trolls that are most familiar to me.
someone who has an uncontrollable compulsion to spread their assertions that some aspect of mainstream science (evolution, quantum mechanics, general relativity, modern medicine etc.) are fatally flawed and let others know that they have the solution. This kind of troll typically misunderstands the scientific background to the area and so cannot comprehend skeptical refutations.
this kind of troll posts posts or comments containing almost nothing besides a long list links to videos or articles attempting to demonstrate their favorite pseudoscience. A classical example of a link spammer troll is certain 9/11 truthers who think that if they can just post enough links to Youtube videos containing grainy pictures and slow-motion clips, then they will finally be seen as suppressed truth-seekers rather than obsessed and irrational.
: these individuals usually come across as very passive-aggressive as they are often incredibly arrogant and condescending in their treatment of science, skepticism and their critics. However, when someone takes the time and effort to point out the flaws in those assertions, this troll acts like he or she is the victim of a targeted campaign and tries to appear as an innocent victim of cold-hearted skeptics.
: this is the kind of troll that never ever gives up. It does not matter how many thoughtful replies and rebuttals you provide, the attrition warfare troll will counter by repeating the same old canards over and over again in order to tire you out. This troll will never change its mind and will never entertain counterarguments.
trolls of this sort take every opportunity to insult, demean, threaten, blackmail and hurt other people online. This is accomplished by posting hateful and discriminatory comments or gathering and spreading sensitive information about people.
The goal of many trolls is to disrupt productive conversations and cause people emotional harm. Presumably, both of these outcomes gives the troll a lot of psychological satisfaction. So it is very important to pause and take a moment to think things through before responding to a troll: is it worth it? If responding to a troll has no benefit for you (and perhaps will only prolong both the disruption and your irritation), yet gives the troll the satisfaction of having pushed your buttons (and perhaps spurs him or her to continue trolling), it is worth asking yourself if really is such a good idea to make a public response or if it is a better idea to avoid feeding the troll.
Ignore, delete, ban
If you decide that it is not worth it to confront the troll, there are a number of tools available to you depending on where the trolling took place.
If you come across a troll on a forum you frequent, start by adding that troll to your account ignore list so you never have to see anymore posts written by the troll. Also consider reporting the troll account to the administrators or moderators of the forum, either by sending a personal message or by reporting the posts written by the troll. If you are on a social media site like Facebook or Twitter, you can block the troll user and report comments made. If you post comments on a blog, you can use the contact form to get in touch with the blog owner. If you are a blog owner, you can remove posts by trolls, ban them, turn on comment moderation, require registration to post and so on.
This way, you can shield yourself and your community against the harmful effects of trolls. It can also be satisfying to remember that you have thwarted the troll’s plan and so the troll will not get an emotional reaction out of you.
If you have chosen to engage a troll in the open instead of applying the techniques discussed above, there are a couple of things that you should keep in mind:
First, will the beneficial consequences of a public confrontation outweigh the negative consequences of satisfying the troll, giving him or her a reason to continue, prolonging your irritation and the disruption the troll has caused. Make sure it is really worth it before responding to a troll.
Second, is the response just a way for you to get revenge, or is there a productive reason why a response could be beneficial? If the troll makes assertions that you think could be useful to refute, then stick to making counterarguments. If you want to show how the troll behaves in an effort to illustrate the debating tactics of some of your opponents, do so without letting yourself sink to the same intellectually bankrupt level that the troll inhabits. It is absolutely crucial that you act in a manner suitable for a scientific skeptic: be civil and focus on evaluating the reasonableness of the assertions made. Respond by asking what the evidence for those assertions are, point out logical fallacies and provide calm and reasoned counterarguments. This will not only prevent the troll from getting the psychological satisfaction of provoking you, but also show that scientific skeptics can keep their cool under intense provocation.
Distinguish trolls from critics
It is also worth pointing out that while you should be on the lookout for disruptive trolls that attempt to provoke or criticize you unfairly, not all forms of criticism qualifies as trolling. There appears to be an increasing trend of dismissing critics as “trolls” because the arguments they bring up are difficult to respond to. Similarly, another popular trend is to portray critics as trolls by posting screenshots of a handful of troll comments and pretending they are representative of the entire population of critics. This is deeply dishonest tactic and should be avoided.
Trolls get off by disrupting conversations and by provoking people into emotional reactions. Common troll archetypes that many scientific skeptics face are cranks, link spammers, martyrs, attrition warriors and haters. As a general rule, don’t feed the trolls. They are not worth it. Just ignore, delete and ban. If there is a real benefit in confronting the troll, by all means, confront the troll. Keep in mind that you need to keep cool and not stoop to the troll’s intellectually dishonest level. Just present the arguments, rebuttals and implications. Also make sure that the person is an actual troll and not just a harsh critic.
References and further reading:
The HowStuffWorks page about Trolls: How Trolls Work.
Tim Dowling in the Guardian: Dealing with trolls: a guide
RationalWiki: Don’t feed the Troll