How trolls and extremists are damaging our public discourse

Update: New post on how to argue with trolls and extremists.

What is a troll? Basically a troll is a person looking for a response. They are looking to get noticed. Trolls are often distinctly inflammatory and extreme in what they express, and they do this deliberately.

Belief systems vary greatly, and the difference between a troll and someone who truly is an extremist can be indecipherable (see Poe’s Law). In fact, we claim that almost all of the ideas we are presenting here apply equally well to both trolls and people with very extreme beliefs. This is not to say that extreme beliefs are necessarily invalid. Our point is that the concepts presented here tend to apply very accurately to extremists as well as trolls.

Trolls tend to take extreme positions on things because they get noticed. Greater notice means more people are listening. Trolls can gain benefits such as:

  1. Selling their deliberately inflammatory books.
  2. Getting more hits to their websites.
  3. More views for their video antics on Youtube.
  4. Gathering a ‘following’ of people who like what they say.
  5. Get recognition from society because of the number of people they can reach in their following. This opens up greater opportunities to be noticed in the media.

So in short, by attracting attention, trolls can gain money, power, fame, and followers.

It can go a little deeper than that however. Trolls can also push an agenda by polarizing a debate.

Polarizing debates

Falsehoods

For instance, the death panel rumor that was created and popularized during the 2009 U.S. health care reform legislative process. The concept of a death panel seems to have been deliberately constructed and perpetuated by groups and people who are ideologically opposed to the Obama Administration and universal health care1.

This rumor is a good example of a meme created with the deliberate intention of skewing perceptions. In the case of the health care legislation, it was part of what I would call a meme war. The concept of ‘death panels’ was not intended to be accurate, it was intended to have a specific effect.

The goal was to damage the political standing of the health care legislation. The common person, being unlikely to read the health care legislation themselves, would hear this statement and consequently be rightfully afraid of the proposed legislation. This was an example of how a troll can polarize a debate with falsehoods.

Fallacy of middle ground

Another way is to utilize the fallacy of middle ground. This is the fallacy wherein two positions A and B are ‘extreme’, and position C in the middle is thus the correct answer. This is a logical fallacy because the truth of position C has nothing to do with the fact that it is between A and B; position C must be able to stand on its own merits.

Despite the fact that this is a logical fallacy, people are often susceptible to it for a number of reasons. Trolls can take a position so extreme that they slant the resulting discussion in their direction.

Fitting with both this fallacy and framing (which we discuss below) is the concept of the Overton Window. Consistently extreme treatment of an issue will eventually shift what is considered politically acceptable. The fact that Glenn Beck (who has all the characteristics of a troll, but might be just an inflammatory extremist) has titled a new book after this concept is not accidental. The FOX News Channel and Beck are engaged in a constant effort to push the Overton Window further to the political right. They use the techniques given here, and many others, to attempt this slanting of the public discourse toward their philosophy.

Going where rational arguers won’t follow

There are other ways that a troll can slant a debate. For instance, if the other side of a debate decides not to ‘follow the troll’ by not paying attention to them (or their arguments), the troll would accuse them of refusing to confront opposing views or arguments.

The troll might also claim that the other arguer doesn’t address these points because they demonstrate how the troll is correct. The troll may claim that other arguer is obviously running from arguments that they cannot defeat.

Framing

Framing is a well-known term in psychology. The way in which a question is posed can significantly affect the way people respond to it. When a troll enters a discussion, they will choose their words and ideas in such a way as to ‘frame’ the discussion in a way that is advantageous to their beliefs on the subject.

Skilled arguers know how framing works intuitively, if not academically. This means that a skilled arguer is unlikely to let a troll trap them with framing tricks. The skilled arguer will have their own frame for their arguments.

People who do not understand the concept of framing will be more likely to be taken in by the constructed arguments of the troll. While I learned the concept of framing in university, I think this is something that should certainly be part of primary education in the sense that citizens should have a right to know basic self-defense for their minds.

When the two sides of an argument are relying on a difference in framing, the battle will move to justifications for each side’s respective terminology and ideas. If trolls can argue the validity of their justifications for their terminology, they can often push the debate away from the actual issues at hand. This can also lead to false complexity.

False complexity

If a troll can complexify the debate enough, the average listener or reader might be satisfied with simply agreeing with which ever side they are predisposed to believe. Of course this happens a lot anyway (confirmation bias), but trolls definitely exacerbate the problem.

False complexity must be dealt with carefully and steadily. It is possible to untangle any mess of an argument. They problem is that non-experts may not be able to distinguish between the validity of the two sides. In this case it falls to those who do understand to help everyone else to understand for themselves.

Creating de-facto knowledge

People use the things they hear or read to create their positions on issues, regardless of the validity of these sources. Most people do not fact-check everything they hear. The more a troll’s word is spread around, the more it is likely to be used as de facto knowledge in an actual discussion.

This is one of the major reasons why giving a troll a megaphone is a bad idea. It is true that they might mess up and show clearly that they are trying to corrupt and control the discussion. The problem is, as long as they don’t mess up too badly, some people are going to believe what they say.

Even negative press feeds the troll

Arguing with a troll means feeding them some attention, which is exactly what they are looking for. They don’t care if they are right. They are not pursuing truth. As elaborated above, a troll will often attempt to polarize the discussion to the point that nothing constructive can come of it.

This is the major difference between a troll and an extremist. The usual definition of a troll is someone who is presenting arguments and ideas that they do not actually believe in order to gain attention. An extremist believes the ideas they are presenting.

Like a troll, an extremist is generally not looking for truth. They know it already. It may be that arguing with them will be as fruitless and damaging as arguing with a troll, and for similar reasons.

Even if the greater notice given to trolls is primarily negative in intent, they are still gaining a number of these positive effects.

  1. Free media coverage when people re-post a troll’s statements.
  2. Free media coverage when people write about a troll’s statements, even if it is critical and derogatory of them.
  3. We claimed at the beginning of this article that trolls gain money, power, fame, and followers when their work is being recognized and commented on.

So, even if you are pointing out a troll to your friends because they are funny, or you critique what they are saying, you are giving them more attention. This can lead to a substantial waste of your time, and your friends’ time.

The process of dissemination of media is sometimes more important than the quality or accuracy of the media itselfYou are personally responsible for some part of the informational discourse that is passed through or near you.

If you care about the quality of informational discourse in our society, you must do your part to help the quality voices be heard over the crowd. Additionally, it falls to each of us to help other people against these attempts to control them.

In short, if we care about the direction our society is going, we must propagate the voices we actually agree with. If we care about the intellectual well-being of others, we must do our part to teach them how they are being manipulated.

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  1. The New York Times: False ‘Death Panel’ Rumor Has Some Familiar Roots. Accessed October 29th, 2010. []