Monday, January 4, 2010

Don't feed the trolls--I know it's hard, but don't feed them. Really. Don't.


My first experience with a troll was on an immigration forum, back when the NY Times hosted subject forums & not just comment threads on articles.

And she was a liberal troll. They aren't just right wing nutjobs. Any nutjob will do.

She seemed reasonable at first. Very collegial with other participants, as long as they agreed with her pro-illegal immigrant stance. But she was quick to call anyone who demurred a troll (and some were, to be sure), and if something fired her up she'd spam the thread, cutting and pasting in lengthy lyrics to pro-illegal immigrant ballads and so much other stuff the thread became nearly useless.

Things haven't gotten better. Now whenever an article on a hot button topic has a comment thread, it seems like 2/3 of the comments will be from trolls.

They're troll comments because they're usually rants filled with ad hominem attacks and raising red herring issues. The trolls always accept anything anyone on their side says at face value, while denying that anything said on the other side has the slightest credibility, and further claiming that it's the product of a vast conspiracy.

Usually trollspam is obvious, due to the level of invective and the semiliterate writing. It's usually offtopic as well. For example, trolls flooded a recent Washington Post op-ed piece advocating more involvement of scientists in public forums to combat disinformation campaigns about climate change, evolution and the like.

But there's a more sinister kind. These are usually long posts, literate-seeming, and seeming to raise plausible objections to climate change, evolution, atheism, abortion etc. I say "seeming" because the objections are almost always red herrings--things that have already been raised and settled within the valid community of thought/knowledge of the field being discussed.

These posts always draw equally long, literate answers from valid members of the community of thought who've gotten sucked into the trap. It's a trap because it usually diverts people's brainpower from the real issues to phony ones and diverts the comment thread into topics of the opponents' choosing--always variations of the "have you quit beating your wife? Yes or No." attack. Thus the climate change opponents want to divert climate change threads onto discussions of "Climategate"--a pseudoscandal with no bearing on the real issues.

Seems like most of the trollspam comes from the same cranky old coots who call into CSPAN talk shows and all those AM radio talk shows. In my stereotype they usually have a thick hick Southern accent and sound like they're red-faced and shouting.

We got to see them in the flesh at the congressional town hall meetings on healthcare.

And like those meetings, these attacks appear to be orchestrated to varying degrees.

Whether orchestrated or not, they fill comment threads with so much chaff that they make many of them nearly useless--as well as leaving average readers with a false impression of how representative these nutjobs are.

Even if you think there's no such thing as human-caused climate change, that we didn't evolve, that abortion is a mortal sin etc.--you shouldn't approve of dirty, anti-democratic tactics used in support of such stances. If you do, you're saying that your positions can't be defended honestly. What does that say about such positions?

As for the issue of whether these threadspammings are orchestrated...from the point of view of the far right, they do disrupt "enemy" communications and create misleading impressions. And they are diverse enough to give all readers something, from the literate-seeming to the thug shouters writing in all caps. It's not like the crude old days when a congressman would get thousands of identical letters. These are all different...they still say the same things, though.

The thing that makes me suspicious of orchestration is how many comments come from people who are obviously not real readers of the publication--and how quickly they come. Thus you'll have someone writing at a 5th grade level, commenting on an editorial on Scientific American Magazine's website--and doing so shortly after the editorial was published. I've been reading SciAm for decades. I know what the readership is like. These drooling nutjobs aren't part of it.

So where'd they come from? How did they learn about this editorial? Who told them? And if SciAm, why not the NYTimes and Washington Post and everything else. The issues involved generally have seriously big money weighing in--for example, energy companies like Exxon on climate change. Exxon has spent many, many millions of dollars campaigning against it. Just a few of those dollars would be sufficient to cover having a few dozen operatives tracking every relevant publication and communicating via websites with their simian shock troops.

It's what I'd do if I worked for Exxon and had no morals whatsoever.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Hey, I read your comment on David Brooks' Haiti article at the NYT. I'm glad you posted a link to your blog... it's awesome. Nice work.

The other day, watching Haiti related videos at YouTube, I was shocked to read some of the racist trolling in the video comment threads. I had no idea this was common at the major newspaper/scientific websites as well.

Anyway, great article and great blog. I will be reading on a regular basis!