Internet Trolls Study shows that, Like Influenza, Stupidity is Contagious.

January 14, 2013


Having recently booted a couple of particularly obnoxious and obviously increasingly psychotic posters from my youtube channel, I get this.  I try to have an open comments policy, but I do have limits.

Chris Mooney in Mother Jones:

Everybody who’s written or blogged about climate change on a prominent website (or, even worse, spoken about it on YouTube) knows the drill. Shortly after you post, the menagerie of trolls arrives. They’re predominantly climate deniers, and they start in immediately arguing over the content and attacking the science—sometimes by slinging insults and even occasional obscenities.

In a recent study, a team of researchers from the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication and several other institutions employed a survey of 1,183 Americans to get at the negative consequences of vituperative online comments for the public understanding of science. Participants were asked to read a blog post containing a balanced discussion of the risks and benefits of nanotechnology (which is already all around us and supports a$91 billion US industry). The text of the post was the same for all participants, but the tone of the comments varied. Sometimes, they were “civil”—e.g., no name calling or flaming. But sometimes they were more like this: “If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these products, you’re an idiot.”

The researchers were trying to find out what effect exposure to such rudeness had on public perceptions of nanotech risks. They found that it wasn’t a good one. Rather, it polarized the audience: Those who already thought nanorisks were low tended to become more sure of themselves when exposed to name-calling, while those who thought nanorisks are high were more likely to move in their own favored direction. In other words, it appeared that pushing people’s emotional buttons, through derogatory comments, made them double down on their preexisting beliefs.

The study did not examine online climate change trolls directly—but there is good reason to think that the effects of their obnoxious behavior will, if anything, be worse. As the researchers note in the paper, compared with climate change, relatively few people know much about or have strong feelings about nanotechnology. When it comes to climate change, in contrast, “the controversy that you see in comments falls on more fertile ground, and resonates more with an established set of values that the reader may bring to the table,” explains study coauthor Dietram Scheufele, a professor of science communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

28 Responses to “Internet Trolls Study shows that, Like Influenza, Stupidity is Contagious.”

  1. Jeremy Nathan Marks Says:

    I really appreciate that you shared this. I stopped engaging the “trolls” because I really do not see the point. I think that there are people out there who are looking to understand what is happening and can be persuaded by well-structured arguments which are empirically sound. Those are the people who deserve the energy, in my opinion.

    I think that everyone who is trying to raise awareness on any important issue needs to be able to maximize their productive efforts. Trolls really are a waste of that valuable energy.

  2. Most environmental blogs I see are populated by two types of essentially useless commenters. The trolls, of course, and the people who love to argue with them, who are the majority of everyone else.

    It is high time to stop arguing (with trolls) about the science. The science is clear. The consensus among qualified professionals is clear.

    We need to spend our time and energies talking about solutions.

    • heather.cann Says:

      What you say is true, but I’m not convinced once should stop arguing. I have no answers on what should really be done, and am searching for answers on how discourse really works in society. I’m pretty sure that that irrationality of it is quite natural, and for that reason, I’m not sure that one should walk away from the argument.

  3. andrewfez Says:

    I’d say the most dangerous troll on the Climate Denial Crocks Youtube channel is Y2KCIA. He has a pretty solid scientific background, has the will to read through whatever journal paper one references and the chops to be able to point out the weaknesses of the said papers. Let’s face it: each individual paper comes with caveats (usually acknowledged by the authors in their papers); it’s all the papers coming together like a jigsaw puzzle, complementing each other, that makes the AGW science solid. So when this guy comes in and starts making, what appears on the surface, legit criticisms, it’s tough to refute unless your one of those guys that has read hundreds of studies and has an expert knowledge on the topics.

    Vince and Real Old One were sort of annoying, as they would sit on the channel for months at a time, but they were relatively harmless, and often showcased the extreme opinions one can obtain from a rigid stance against AGW. Vince was actually a pretty likable guy, and held conservationist views, regarding the environment. But their replacements are going to prove just as bad, I think.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      Trolls, of course, would love to be thought of as “dangerous”.
      My take is, the only danger from trolls is that they offend or bore to death intelligent people who might otherwise enjoy and learn from comments.
      Of the two sins, being boring is by far the mortal one.

      • omnologos Says:

        In fact I have learned of the “danger” of my thoughts on a believer’s web site (in the sense that some commenters tried to gang up to shut me up, as it was too dangerous in their opinion to let me talk freely).

        But I’ve been lucky enough to understand the absurdity of the situation. If I can take down a tower, it’s when it’s going to fall on its own anyway.

      • j4zonian Says:

        I think here is one place the distinction between denialists and denying delayalists is crucial to understand.

        Denialists peddle denial. Denying delayalists peddle whatever is selling at the moment, usually all levels of delaying tactics at the same time–outright denial that it’s happening, denial that it’s human-caused, denial that it’s bad, economic arguments, waiting-for-breakthroughs, praising whatever is least likely to pass at the moment as a way to avoid consensus on whatever is most likely to pass at the moment, and more. Trolls blunt and sidetrack discussions, turn people off, plant tiny seeds of doubt and confusion even when their ideas are ridiculous and refuted, and even when they lose they win. They seem quite happy to go on losing and thus winning.

        The only ways I can think of to deal with them in reality are to heal them of the emotional dysfunctions that make them vulnerable to nonsense, and replace or remove the power the anti-life forces have through revolutionary political action. The only way to deal with them on websites at this point is to ban them.

Leave a Reply to Jeremy Nathan Marks Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: