An unstoppable tide of trolls

If you’re even occasionally dipping in to the skeptic/atheist/whatever blogosphere, you’d no doubt know that there’s plenty of lines in the sand being drawn. Much of it is rather embarrassing, in that some folk seem so desperate to cast their vote in favour of one camp or another that any pretence of looking at evidence, and making careful judgement, is completely out of the question. Because this round of infighting dates back to Elevatorgate (arguably before, in that elements of previous internal conflicts have also resurfaced), I’m not going to even try to get you up to speed if you haven’t been keeping up.

Here are some examples, though. After the Lehrer resignation, Sam Harris decided to give away free copies of Lying, seeing as that book expressed much of what he’d have otherwise liked to say. PZ Myers announced this on his blog. If you look at the comments on PZ’s blog, it’s only from comment 31 onwards that anyone tries to avoid caricature of Harris’s arguments (on issues unrelated to Lying, note – the fact that he said or didn’t say various things about torture and profiling are treated as relevant to lying).

Russell Blackford then tries to express a few thoughts in defence of Harris, which make it back to PZ’s post in the comments. The comment deals with appropriate and inappropriate uses of the word “racist”, and – whether wrong or right – is expressed in a measured tone. But the immediate response to the comment is: “Incidentally, citing the misogynist shitbag Russell Blackford isn’t going to impress many people here.” There’s a history there too, of course, which you can find out about if you choose to. The only reason I mention it here is to draw attention to the fact that commenter A, who linked to Russell’s post, might have had no idea what commenter B was referring to. Commenter A can’t be assumed to be a veteran of these “debates”, and was perhaps referring to Russell’s post in isolation.

But now, of course, commenter A might never read or comment on Pharyngula (PZ site’s) again. Or, s/he might forever be known as being part of camp X or faction Y. Perhaps, s/he is now a “rape apologist”, and will get shouted down the next time they try to say anything (if they ever do) on any site that is on PZ’s side of these squabbles. In other words, commenter A has perhaps been exiled from a certain community, on the basis of no good reason at all.

I’ll be saying more about tone and the slur of “tone-trolling” in a guest post at Martin’s place (on August 13), so won’t get into that much today either. Suffice it to say that when abuse and insult take the place of debate, nobody wins. I’ve dared to comment on Pharyngula three times, and twice been shouted down for reasons I couldn’t fully comprehend. That’s fine – perhaps I was being dim on those days. But sometimes you’d like to know why, and the problem is that a mob quickly forms, and it seems pointless to try and engage unless you’re already an insider. Clubs, cliques or orthodoxy are inimical to skepticism, and there’s certainly the feel of one there, and on other sites.

Sam Harris pointed this out last night, and PZ has subsequently responded. The comments are again what you’d expect, or have come to expect – you either mock Sam Harris, or you ask a question that’s critical of Harris-mockery. And then you get mocked. Those are by and large the only two options, and as far as I can tell, there’s little room for debate. If you instead want to read a comment thread that encourages debate, go back to the Blackford post in defence of Harris – there’s plenty of deliberate reasoning there, and also telling of people that they aren’t contributing usefully when they resort to insult. Now, both Blackford and Stangroom are philosophers, as am I, so of course I could be expected to have a bias in favour of a certain kind of discussion. The thing is, I’d think – and hope – that all of us in the skeptical community have a bias in favour of communication, and against caricature.

There was a post on Pharyngula a couple of days ago, billed as an open thread wherein people could speak openly to PZ, and make suggestions as to possible changes to the site, comment policies, and so forth. The thread was always going to be deleted after 24 hours (I think it was 24 hours). There were many thoughtful posts there, and one that I wanted to capture  for posterity is at the bottom of this post. You can guess for yourselves what happened to this commenter for daring to question the right of the horde to be abusive. And the thing is – why would the horde not feel they have the right (obligation?) to be abusive when a) PZ very seldom tells them to stop and b) sometimes creates threads where that sort of thing is encouraged.

My column in Daily Maverick today addresses some of these issues, in that it raises the question of how we can adapt to a word in which the immediacy of online communication amplifies the inanity, and makes it that much easier for a like-minded collective to protect their prejudices against any form of challenge. Besides the (very real) issues that have been rending the community (mostly around misogyny), it remains true that there are many thoughtful people on both “sides”, and there is still value in listening to each other. Instead, I suspect that more and more, people will feel compelled to pick sides, and also to stop listening – perhaps in part through measures like eliminating comments altogether.

I’m not ready to do that yet myself, though certainly understand the impulse. Instead, I mostly choose to not respond. But there’s very little reward in that option, both in that I still feel the frustration when an idiotic comment lands, and also because the dialogue can sometimes be very rewarding. Our online engagements with each other are unfortunately tending, at least as far as I can tell, to a victory for those who drown the others out by shouting. They get to stay prejudiced, self-righteous and so forth. And sometimes, perhaps, so do we.

Edit: I wrote a guest post for Martin Pribble’s site, dealing with related themes – read it here if interested.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

18 replies on “An unstoppable tide of trolls”

I think it’s quite sad when people close comments though I do understand why they may feel the need. Personally I usually don’t read comments on other people’s blogs or news articles because it’s often unintelligible. I’m not as fond of PZ Meyers now as I used to be mostly because of his, I’d say, overly aggressive tone. I still read his blog because it does often have interesting posts but I stay away from the comments there. I think comments should probably be moderated to remove personal attacks which are not part of constructive debate. I think Jerry Coyne does that and I’ve occasionally glanced at the comments he receives and they’re of a pretty good standard. He also doesn’t go for personal attacks too much and at current is my favourite blogger. So I think comments are useful but they should be part of constructive debate in that, for the most part, they target ideas and positions and not the people that hold them.

“The thing is, I’d think – and hope – that all of us in the skeptical community have a bias in favour of communication, and against caricature.”

There’s precious few bastions of this sentiment to be found in comments sections. I’ve found that sometimes the best way to understand why a position or view is wrong (if I don’t find the blog post’s reasoning to be satisfactory), is to defend said position or view in the comments. Unfortunately, this has gotten me booted from a decent chunk of the skeptic movement’s online environment, including a global at FTB from one encounter with one blogger, WEIT for reasons unknown (I think agreeing with Sober), and Choiceindying (a true tragedy, that). Probably Pharyngula as well, but I don’t comment there because I don’t really know where to begin on most of it.

I’m starting to doubt my own reasoning capacity, frankly, because some of the arguments in favor of stock positions are just bad…demonstrably. What baffles me is that so much of the other reasoning I find on those blogs is solid. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it, but the frequent leap to ridicule and moderation is unsettling.

With that track-record, it sounds like I should pre-emptively ban you! But yes, I agree with your sentiment that comment areas tend to be a contest between various misreadings and stereotypes.

I’ve stopped engaging on atheist/skeptic/feminist/genderissues blogs for the most part because of this. You read an article, read a few of the comments and you can tell it’s going to be another epic shit-slinging match between ‘us’ and ‘them’ instead of any kind of real debate. I agree that in some circumstances mockery of another’s person’s opinion or beliefs is the best way to highlight to them the incorrectness of that idea, but I think those circumstances are generally few and far between, and for the rest of the time, mockery is the worst form of argument. Especially in an online forum where the immediacy allows things to spiral out of control really quickly.
And yeah, I know we’re human too and therefore not exempt from our own faults and biases etc. but I can’t help thinking we should be able to expect more from the atheist/skeptic community.

Yep. Especially because our tendency is to dig our heels in when mocked or ridiculed, so the debate quickly escalates into increasingly unproductive territory. I focus on that in the guest post mentioned in paragraph 5, out next week.

My experience with PZ’s site are mixed. It used to be ok until the American Girlyban takeover. It was always a bit rough and tumble though. I pretty much avoid it and all the FTB sites now. At least DJ hasn’t let them totally take-over TAM yet. If those girls want to throw a public tantrum to gain exposure for women’s issues that is fine. Their purposeful misuse of Skeptic organizations for the promotion of their pet cause through constant and repetitive misrepresentations on the nature of the vast majority of it’s male membership should not be encouraged or supported in any fashion by the members they are slandering. As the issues have progressed, the claims have become even more ludicrous. If we don’t stand up soon, all the fake jewelry in the world will be Girlybanned and I don’t have the kind of money necessary to buy the “real” stuff. End the madness. Purge the witches. Enjoy.

I imagine you can make the same points without formulations like ‘girls’ and pet cause’ – and that choosing to avoid them might make the points clearer. Perhaps (probably) still not allowing for agreement, but perhaps at least for debate.

See what you did right there Jacques? You said “hey, strip away the ad hominems and straw men and there’s a valid point we can debate.” No, there isn’t. What’s left is an empty, unsupported dismissal of the opposing side: ‘My experience with PZ’s site are mixed. It was always a bit rough and tumble though. I pretty much avoid it and all the FTB sites now. Enjoy.’

What you’ve done is to lend credibility to a person who (to my knowledge) invented the pejorative ‘girlyban’ and has been actively working to slander and discredit a number of people with opposing views, in particular Rebecca Watson who he has suggested is an “attention whore” or “need[s] some psychiatric help”, and about whom he has written 8 articles ( and a bunch of tweets (!/search/?q=%40thetimchannel+watson&src=typd).

Now irrespective of your position on ElevatorGate and Rececca Watson, does that sound like a person who is interested in engaging in productive debate, or does it sound like a case study in cyber bullying (

Bullshit. I haven’t lent credibility to him (and I am not aware of the history you speak of). And no, he doesn’t sound like a person who is inclined to open-minded debate – but that’s what I pointed out in my response to him. If what you say of the history is true – and if I knew it when responding – I might have been more forceful in saying that.

But until knowing that, I was fully justified in supposing that he might have a point, if it were expressed more clearly. It might only be one good point amongst 99 bad ones – but to say he is entirely invalidated as a speaker for reasons I don’t know about would be daft.

(Sorry your comment took so long to appear – it was flagged as spam).

Lee –

“including a global at FTB from one encounter with one blogger”

That isn’t possible. Really. It’s not technically possible, and it’s sure as hell not personally possible (possible in terms of anyone’s willingness to be there).

Sometimes there’s a glitch that makes it hard for a particular person to comment on some FT blogs – and there’s also one that puts certain people’s comments directly into spam. Believe it or not one of those people was PZ, until very recently.

The problem with FTB, or a significant portion of it, is that it basically took the culture of the “feminist blogosphere” (Jezebel, Pandagon, I Blame the Patriarchy, etc.) and grafted it on to the atheist community with disastrous results. So not only have they imported in many of the problems that that particular subculture hasn’t really dealt with (notably a “callout” culture rife with bullying, self-righteousness, exaggerated claims of victimization, dogmatism, etc.), but also imported in a whole kind of hyper-sensitive discourse around gender into another subculture (the atheist/secular one) that hasn’t really dealt with these issues, nor had any introduction one way or the other to the approaches internet feminists take to those issues. It’s ended up pretty much polarizing the secular community, perhaps in ways that ultimately would have come up anyway, but often in ways that could have been avoided if both sides were willing to be a bit less dogmatic and entrenched in their positions and actually talked things out.

I started out with *mild* criticisms of the problematic language around “sexualized imagery” found in some of the proposed anti-harassment policies, as well as much of the kneejerk kind of anti-libertarianism at FTB, and have found myself pretty quickly demonized as some horrible anti-feminist and enemy of women’s participation in the secular community. What might have been small differences have been turned into chasms. Sad, really.

It’s pathetic at this stage. These people claim to be Sceptics and yet are defending positions like any religious fundamentalist would. It’s simply not possible to enter any kind of rational debate about certain issues, this of course been one of them. You’re either with us or against us seems to be the attitude of most.

We often talk about the religious and their world view and how logical discourse isn’t possible. Well here are sceptics acting in the same manner and they’re not even being polite about it. Instead preferring to immediately label anyone who questions their position as a troll or worse.

It occurs to me that blog Comments (and to a lesser extent Blogger Trackbacks) aren’t a tool designed by skeptics for commenting skeptically. Rather, a tool for online denizens to be commenting quickly. System 1 thinking: fast, not slow.

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