How to argue with trolls and extremists

We recently published a piece on how trolls and extremists are damaging our public discourse. Today we are going to talk about what each of us can do to stop them from hijacking the majority of discussions in our society.

Focus on people, not trolls

It is possible to address the issues raised by a troll while ‘feeding’ them as little as possible. They key point here is that it is wise to not try for the goal of convincing the troll (or extremist) to change their opinions. While they might not be interested in the truth of the matter at hand, we are assuming that you are.

If you can’t convince the troll, what is the point? The point is, there is a world full of people who are being misled and confused by the trolls. If you are a person empowered with the knowledge necessary to fight a troll, you can change the discourse of our society.

Orient the discussion towards the audience, while addressing the points that the troll raises. In the following sections we discuss how to deal with some of the specific weapons used by trolls. It is true that the troll wields some powerful ideological armaments, but we believe that steady rational discourse can trump all misleading tactics.

Thoughtfully crafted responses can sometimes manage to do more good than harm. Careful and deliberate critiques and answers are necessary in order to clarify exactly what is going on. If an outside observer is following the debate on both sides, it should be made clear to them that the troll does not have any rational or factual base to stand on.

Trolls often rely on fear, false emotions, personal charisma, and deliberate falsehoods to create their positions. False emotions (such as being able to cry at will) and charisma can add weight to their claims, but they are weak tools on their own. The core of a troll’s power is fear and deliberate falsehoods.

Dealing with fear they propagate

The leverage of fear is well understood in public discourse. It is possible to spin anecdotes, falsehoods, and rhetoric together to paint a fearful picture. These techniques have been refined over the centuries and continue to work to this day.

Fraudulent fears are usually attached to real-world concerns. What this means is that a troll will often rely on a tenuous basis in real fact for the construction of their fear-mongering. While this can appear to lend them some substantial credibility, it also makes the basis of their arguments susceptible to factual criticism.

Vaccine Example

For example, if someone is expounding about how the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism, you can show that science took this claim very seriously in the past and dealt with it. The facts are that the MMR vaccine does not cause autism and some of the people who originally published on the topic had large conflicts of interest.

The people who published the original study had investments in competitors to MMR and were taking money from lobby groups against MMR. These people have had their medical licences revoked due to their actions. The factual basis of this argument is clear, so even a troll would have a hard time continuing this line of attack.

Politics and economics

Political and economic fears can be more difficult. While these subjects can appear simple (everyone thinks that they are an expert), they are often quite complex. The manipulation of fear in such socially-charged subjects can be problematic and time-consuming to deal with. The confirmation bias is especially strong for these common subjects because people are convinced of their own knowledge and correctness.

The Shock Doctrine

The leverage of fear and shock in today’s political and economic discourse was discussed deeply in Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. In it, she goes into great detail about the techniques of using fear and shock to get people to either believe what you say or become complicit in the face of actions that take away some of their wealth or freedom. This book has elsewhere been called the principal narrative of our time. We believe that it is a very worthwhile read.

Dealing with falsehoods they create

Simple falsehoods can be fought using trustworthy data sources. Different people trust different sources, so if you have to fight a troll, it can be valuable to have access to as wide a variety of trustworthy sources as you can acquire.

More complex falsehoods can become harder to fight. As we discussed above, trolls can complexify the underpinnings of their arguments enough to make them very difficult to untangle.


The phrase “Lies, damned lies, and statistics” gets a lot of mileage today in different contexts. It is often used to refer to how people use statistics to support their arguments. It is possible to purposely mis-represent statistical facts, and unfortunately this has been done a lot.

Defeating statistical lies at their source would require access to the data sources and statistical methods employed. Since the claims are often based off proprietary information, this type of disclosure rarely occurs.

Another way of defeating statistical lies is to demonstrate an opposing set of statistical facts, and show your sources and methods to people publicly so that they can see for themselves what the truth of the matter is. It is true that only a fraction of the population might understand the depth of statistical arguments even if shown in full. There are, however, people who would understand and would hopefully have the intellectual honesty to side with the arguer who has the better facts supporting their points.

Fight your own confirmation bias

When competing sets of evidence are complex, humans unfortunately have difficulty objectively assessing the accuracy of the claims. Generally one data set has more sound assumptions, better data taking techniques, and a more thorough methodology. It is necessary to carefully find these facts and analyze them before assigning a judgement.

Humans tend to automatically view the arguments and assumptions of people we disagree with as being shaky, inaccurate, or poorly founded.1 We humans are capable of grinding through these issues with a high degree of objectivity, but this does take dedication and time.

What we call a genuine debate or discussion must include disclosure of data and arguments by both sides. If both sides are actually interested in finding or demonstrating the truth of a matter, they have a strong reason to want to share the details of their data and reasoning. This creates  a context in which each side has the opportunity to deconstruct the other side’s data set and logical arguments.

This public style of argument acknowledges the importance of the third-party observer. The general public might not be able to easily understand the nuances of a discussion, but the details will be there for them to find out if they want to. This does not eliminate the need for debate or experts or peer-review. We do believe that focusing on common ground (shared understanding) will make it possible for both sides of a debate to acquire and analyze data on mutually agreeable grounds.

The confirmation bias deeply affects even people who are intellectually honest. Figuring out the right answer usually takes discipline and a dedication to finding the truth of the matter.

We believe that arguers that are interested in finding the truth of a matter will eventually come to some shared conclusions. Certainly interpretations and conclusions can still be quite different. We are not claiming that there will be unity of beliefs once we figure out the ‘truth’ of a matter. Humans can view the same world, and the same facts, very differently. We at Vision of Earth believe that if both sides of a discussion have a dedication to finding the truth, they will gain some measure of shared understanding through their debate.


The entire field of science holds that publicly verifiable evidence as the primary source of the validity of scientific claims. That is, in theory someone else can conduct the same experiment, or analyze the same data that you did, and come up with extremely similar results (barring the occasional human mistake).

Scientists are trained to be able to assess the validity of statistical arguments. These specialized skills are not shared with most of the population. Our primary and secondary education does not teach people sufficiently in the areas of statistics. This is strong argument in favor of teaching statistics and science in primary and secondary schools.


In his TED talk about math education, Arthur Benjamin says that we should orient high school mathematics towards the attainment of a deep knowledge of statistics rather than preparing students for introductory calculus. I am a person who has learned a lot of calculus because of my interests in physics and mathematics. However, as far as what is directly useful in everyday life, statistics wins by far. I believe that an educational revolution of this sort would help staunch the spread of false statistics in our society.

Perhaps the transition towards statistics could be augmented by teaching argument and logical fallacies in schools. We should try to inspire learning and critical thinking in children, and give them tools to accomplish these ends, rather than leaving them unprepared for the psychological manipulation they face in a world that is increasingly full of people trying to control them. If you doubt this last sentence, consider what advertisers and political campaigns are trying very hard to do.

Lastly on this topic, we want to point out that we can all benefit from a fact-based debate with people who we disagree with, regardless of their political, religious, or economic orientation. Even very extreme disagreements can be valid. Disagreements can contribute to the richness of our culture and public discourse as long as the arguers are not employing unscrupulous tactics in an attempt to win.

Be a better arguer and person

Strengthens your arguing and assessment skills will help you gain more justified confidence in your beliefs, or it will aid you in the creation of more factually correct beliefs. In our opinion this is a win-win situation for the truth-seeker.

In terms of argument, having a working model of an opposing viewpoint helps you to predict the actions of your opponents and to deal with them. This is useful for two important reasons:

  1. You are more likely to ‘win’ debates because you understand logical and factual basis for the opposing side and you are thus empowered to address their points.
  2. Building shared understanding. By understanding how the opposing side has built their perspective, you are well-suited for showing them where they might have been led astray by a logical fallacy or misrepresented data. Understanding a viewpoint brings with it some degree of intellectual empathy. You identify to some extent with their perspective, allowing you to more honestly and meaningfully address their concerns because to some extent you have the same cares and worries.

Dealing with your own anger

Anger is a natural reaction when a troll is trying to undermine a discussion that you care about. We recommend that you keep anger in check at all times in arguments. It is one thing to be full of passion about a topic, and quite another to be red-faced and shouting.

Try to use your anger as inspiration to defeat the troll in a calm and collected way. Cold anger works better than hot, especially in this case. Trolls will deliberately try to anger their opponents with inflammatory claims and language. Do your best not to give them their victory in making you enraged publicly.

Labeling trolls

Ad hominem

Labeling someone a troll, and discounting what they say for that reason, is a form of ad hominem attack on that person. In some special cases it can be a valid argument against what they say, but in general it is not logically valid.

If you have to deal with a troll’s arguments in a public setting, it doesn’t generally help your cause to start calling them a troll. Use your arguments to demonstrate the invalidity of theirs. Remain calm and collected, and deal with the actual issues at hand, rather than trying to follow and squish every outrageous claim the troll makes.

Not seeking truth?

You might never know if someone is an actual troll or if they just hold firm and extreme opinions. The problem is that many of the techniques used by trolls are used by extremists who are trying to polarize a debate. It seems to us that extremists who are not interested in finding truth, and who spend all their effort trumpeting their ‘truth’, act almost identically to trolls.

Extremists often end up appearing as trolls when they begin to push their agenda above all other considerations (such as truth, morality, and intellectual honesty). Without intellectual honesty, a debate becomes a performance intended to snare the attention of third parties and the general public.

Undermining discussion

Due to their inflammatory and attention-seeking nature, real trolls will be trying constantly to undermine your efforts to create a genuine discussion. If someone is consistently trying to undermine the quality of a fact-based discussion in the ways we have laid out here, we believe that they can be considered a troll. It bears repeating however that publicly labeling someone a troll may not be helpful. We believe that clear demonstrations of their inaccuracy and their lack of dedication to truth are probably more useful.

Argue well, be rational and truth seeking

Our perspective is that if someone exhibits enough characteristics of a troll, you should be aware of the fact that they might be one. All of the suggestions we collected here should apply well to almost any type of argument, so we feel it is a good idea to use these techniques regardless.

In the face of an onslaught of the outrageous, it is necessary to be stoic and centered. Keep in mind the goal of meaningfully contributing to the debate at hand, regardless of the antics being pulled on the other end.

Yes we are appealing to the rational nature of humankind. We believe that patience, determination, and genuine truth-seeking can eventually do away the hyperbole and misinformation propagated by trolls and extremists.

  1. When the scientific evidence is unwelcome, people try to reason it away. Ben Goldacre. The Guardian. Accessed December 9th, 2010. []

Ben Harack

I'm an aspiring omnologist who is fascinated by humanity's potential.

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