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. The difficulty is, of course, that few people take the time to actually study the evidence, read peer-reviewed studies, and sort out in their own minds where the evidence leads. Instead, they read their “trusted sources” for a 2 minute primer, and feel they are educated enough to comment. But, they have a very shallow intellectual well to draw form, so they quickly resort to emotional language and responses, since those require only to feel.

    Both sides are guilty of this. Some sites work to keep the conversation in the intellectual realm, but the most accessible sources of news make no such attempts. Thus, most conversations quickly devolve into name-calling and other “emotional” responses, bringing no new information to the discussion (this site excepted, of course!).

    • Wes Says:

      I reject the false equivalency of “both sides are guilty of this” in comments because I’ve noticed that most people who are informed make an effort to be factual and informative. The deniers, on the other hand, go sarcastic and negative quickly. The discussion does often end up in the gutter, but it’s usually quite clear who started it on that path. Personally, I comment and leave before the trolls attack, having wasted far too much time already on paid shills for oil companies.

  2. I wandered over to Coby’s blog, there the trolls seem to be up to their tricks. Very nasty.

  3. I have to admit that after 30 or so years of arguing with ‘idiots’ politely, one eventually reaches the end of one’s tether. These days I am less than ‘polite’ with the deniers who refuse to accept the reality of hard data.
    As the climate actually changes (as it appers to already be doing, & doing more rapidly than years of ‘conservative’ estimates have suggested), the rantings & oft-repeated memes of the remaining ‘fringe’ deniers will look more & more ridiculous & as more people learn the truth behind the ‘memes’ the less they will be taken in by new ones. If it ‘polarises’ the debate that could actually be a good thing as the fringe deniers look more & more daft in super-storms & protracted droughts… by polarising people on the side of wamting to actually do something about it.

  4. […] 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 lim…  […]

  5. jimbills Says:

    I pretty much lost my appetite for engaging these folks when I came to the conclusion that truth isn’t the priority for them. It’s all about WINNING, and the ‘debate’ is really a matter of who has the best argumentative skills.

    The science itself isn’t that complex (although the forecasts, possible feedbacks, and full estimated effects are). The solutions are really the issue, and a lot of these trolls are completely writing off the science as a pre-emptive strike against any possible solutions that go against their own beliefs in free markets, governance, and national sovereignty.

    On engaging trolls, they have zero interest in changing their minds. The discussion is not about facts or a rational examination – it’s word games, manipulation, and intentional tangents and misdirection (and that’s with the intelligent trolls).

    But the reason to ALWAYS be civil with them is not for the sake of trolls themselves – it’s for one’s self and for the observers of these comments. For the commenter, descending into the madness as well is both denigrating and completely unnecessary. The truth is the truth when it comes to empirical data. For the observers of comments, there are many who are on the sidelines (but strongly leaning one way or another due to their own cultural and political influences). Rational and intelligent discussion is far more likely to influence them towards looking at the evidence with open eyes than name-calling or attacks (which is more likely to lead them in the opposite direction).

    On your particular trolls, Peter, I think I know the ones you are talking about. Frankly, I don’t think you had a choice. Omnologos here is a total saint compared to them. Unfortunately, I think they’ll just come back with other IDs or they’ll send a bunch of their friends after you, but that’s them internets for ya.

    • andrewfez Says:

      The trolls do have a pretty good strategy though: They argue from the point of perpetual ignorance. You can’t win an argument against someone who constantly trumps whatever you are saying with (more) baseless claims. You can try to stamp out the baseless claims, but more baseless claims are then unleashed to counter your argument. This then creates a situation where the number falsities on the table can exponentially grow at rates of 100%+, during each exchange. Once multiple falsities are on the table, the troll then can argue that you are not addressing his/her concerns, or other strategies that involve overwhelming the opponent with more information than one can casually argue against, without it becoming a full time job.

      Eventually, even the most patient person gives up against these guys.

      Some folks think the trolls are paid for their work. Most I’ve encountered are just folks without demanding jobs (or don’t have a job), are retired engineers, MD’s, etc., and are bored, lonely, etc., and have enough time to sit on these blogs/channels for long periods of time. Some just like to argue, and ‘win’ arguments – that’s their hobby; especially the guys that arrogantly believe their knowledge of science is superior to that of everyone else.

      Some, in their mind, find if they can ‘win’ an argument against a ‘warmist’, secondary to the warmist’s ignorance on the minute facts of climate change, then they are confirming that the ‘warmists’ are just blindly following a politico-religious movement administered within a socialist agenda. They repeat the word ‘zealot’ a lot. I’ve seen that word in multiple places, and often enough to wonder if all this stuff is coming from a central source. I imagine i could Google, “WUWT” and “zealot” and i would get significant hits.

      I’ve also seen non-scientific folks, that do believe in the science, making poor arguments against the trolls: I watched a geologist get slammed with name calling for pointing out a fact that ran contrary to a ‘warmist’s’ erroneous belief. The guy was just trying to correct a fact, and everyone assumed he was a climate denialist and circled the wagons around him.

  6. renewableguy Says:

    Bob Tisdale says:

    November 26, 2012 at 10:16 am

    renewableguy: Great job of hijacking the thread. Are you aware that people who do what you have done are called trolls?

    Have a nice day, troll.
    If you do a decent job of presenting the science, basically even the author gets in on the act. Things aren’t going the way he wants.
    Bob Tisdale says:

    November 27, 2012 at 1:38 am

    renewableguy says: “If you are an open science site for open discussion, then why call people names?”

    There was no name calling involved. The definition fits:

    I guess I can’t expect a WUWT moderator to be fair about things.

  7. Peter Mizla Says:

    the trolls will never give up- this story is a fire now- false as it is. in the end it shows how many in this society have descended into what the morlocks where in the classic 1960 film ‘The Time Machine’

  8. omnologos Says:

    Beware of those who explain dissent away with psychobabble. One day, you will be the dissenters.

  9. I’m far more worried about those who mistakenly consider denial to be “dissent.”

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