Social media, and productive discourse on Twitter

A friend of mine once remarked that we can either have democracy or the Internet, but not both. Even if the point is perhaps overstated, interactions on social media, and omnipresent clickbait, certainly contribute to the perception that there’s far more noise than signal on the Internet.

While it’s certainly possible to have productive conversations on social media, those seem – in my experience at least – to have become increasingly rare. Charlie Brooker once listed Twitter as his top pick in the category of video games (in the 2013 show How Videogames Changed the World), and it’s easy to see his point – the platform should perhaps simply be thought of as entertainment rather than as an opportunity for an exchange of ideas.

Trigger warnings – Internet civility and the risk of infantilization

Those of you who frequent corners of the Internet that discuss prejudice against other human beings on the grounds of things like race, sex, sexual orientation, physical disability and the like would no doubt have come across the term “trigger warning”. For those who haven’t, a “trigger warning” is essentially an alert that the text that follows might contain words or ideas that “trigger” some negative reaction in the reader. For example, a victim of violent crime might be prompted to re-live their terror on reading a descriptive piece about an armed home invasion.

There’s no doubt that some of us can be insensitive to the needs and interests of others, some of the time. In fact, some people seem to take pleasure in being wilfully offensive, and might deliberately taunt others for some or other manifested difference (or even an imagined difference). Trolls are one example on the most egregious end of the spectrum, but more commonplace is the problem that for those of us – like me – who fit into the categories that have long been considered “normal”, it’s easy to find yourself offending others without realising it, and without intending to.

More worrying for us “normals” is the possibility that this social-baseline existence makes you blind (or contributes to blindness) regarding the privileged status you might occupy in life and social discourse. The relevant catchphrase here is “check your privilege”, and as I’ve previously argued, demands to “check your privilege” can sometimes be a complete nonsense, used to evade the responsibility of making and engaging with arguments, even if it is sometimes true that “privilege” can blind one to other ways of being.

But it can also sometimes be accurate, just as there might be – and are – situations in which we’d want to warn a potential audience that something they are about to read and/or hear could unsettle them. The concept isn’t an alien one – age-appropriate warnings for visual media rely on it, and news inserts are often preceded by a warning regarding graphic content.

Yet, we surely need to take some responsibility for ourselves, in that it would be unreasonably demanding to expect, for example, a support group for war veterans to precede every recollection of some event they witnessed with a “Trigger warning: violence” alert. Instead, the most obviously suitable place for trigger warnings (if we are to agree that they should be more prevalent, that is) would be on content or platforms where a responsible consumer of that content would be justifiably surprised to encounter that which they find triggering.

Take an unmoderated Internet discussion forum, for example – you cannot expect such a place to contain only things that don’t upset you. But you might more reasonably expect a discussion forum on how to raise children to not contain accounts of children or parents dying in labour – an unwritten social contract has arguably been violated in the latter case.

The broad point is that it’s impossible to protect people from all harms, and it’s also only morally expected of us to avoid causing foreseeable harms to others, and even then, it’s unreasonably demanding to expect that we take all such harms into account. I don’t want to explore the issue of which harms we’re obliged to take into account and which not (not today, at least), but for example, I know it might harm the feelings of a religious person to tell them that God is a fiction, but that shouldn’t prevent me from being able to say so.

In other words, both because the Internet is an unregulated place, and second because we can’t reliably predict what people might or might not be harmed by reading, the traditional distinction between what’s morally expected and what’s “nice to have” – supererogatory in philosopher-speak – needs to be maintained here. We might prefer for people to create a environment of type X, but might only be able to expect an environment of type Y.

Because the alternative – of always and only saying things that are guaranteed to not harm anyone – creates such a sanitised environment that it would run a serious risk of infantilizing us. We need to be able to tolerate different points of view, and that which we might find offensive, because that’s part of the way that we learn to cope with the slings and arrows of fortune.

Of course, this approach does advantage those whose points of view, or who – as people, are subjected to fewer of those slings and arrows. But at the same time, there are people who have endured traumas that prefer to talk about them openly, to not have them treated as a “special” topic that needs to be preceded by warnings, or confirmation that a certain conversation is permissible.

Striking a balance here requires empathy – and there’s no question that far more can and should be done by “normals” to be sensitive to the fact that they frequently win at life simply because they wrote the rules. But the solution isn’t to be found in swinging completely to the other end of the spectrum, and attempting to rule out all possibility that people might find themselves challenged, even hurt, by the things they encounter in the world.

The thoughts above were prompted by a worrying trend described in this New Republic article, namely that of college classes now carrying trigger warnings on class syllabi. If a class called “Histories of the Present: Violence” is expected to carry a trigger warning, then it seems clear that we’ve over-corrected – even if there’s a real problem at the heart of the motivation for that correction.

Caroline Criado-Perez, #ReportAbuse and Twitter

In a 2010 column on abusive comments posted below online articles, I wrote:

As Theodore Dalrymple reminds us in his “Thank you for not expressing yourself”, “The immediacy of the response which the internet makes possible also means that people are able to vent their spleen in a way which was not possible, or likely, before. The putting of pen to paper, to say nothing of the act of posting the resultant letter, requires more deliberation than sitting at a computer and firing off an angry e-mail or posting on a website.”

This, I believe, captures the essence of when it is permissible rather than gratuitously offensive to resort to abuse: Would you have said the same things in an old-fashioned letter to the editor? Would you say the same thing to the columnist in person, if you were to meet him at a dinner party? If yes, I say go ahead. But if not, perhaps you should do yourself and all of us a favour, and simply shut up.

But there’s no chance, or a vanishingly small chance, that the trolls will do us that favour. After all, their purpose is to (at least) provoke and offend, and telling them to shut up will do little but invite them to send some abuse your way. So what can we do?

imagesThousands of people have now signed a petition for Twitter to introduce a “report abuse” button, where this petition was precipitated by the numerous rape threats that Caroline Criado-Perez received after her campaign to have more women feature on UK banknotes. Notung has highlighted some of the issues in a recent post on SkepticInk, and I agree with his skepticism regarding implementing such a reporting mechanism efficiently.

For all the properly abusive Tweets and Internet comments that people somehow think it appropriate to send, this reporting mechanism will surely be exploited by those who want to simply censor things/people they don’t like – or just for mischief (think 4Chan or similar). So whatever else happens, I’d hope for there to be a human or team of humans assessing reports of abuse – carefully – before implementing any bannings or account terminations.

But it’s not as simply as a mere free speech issue for me, because asking the victims of abuse to simply “deal with it” doesn’t acknowledge the fact that some of us are more equipped to deal with abuse than others are – and that those who are less equipped to deal with abuse tend to attract more of it (getting a reaction being, after all, part of the point of being a troll).

It’s also not as simple as saying “don’t feed the trolls”, partly because that smacks a little of victim-blaming, and also because – thanks to the ubiquity of the Internet and a postmodern rejection of authority – everyone thinks that they are an expert on everything, and aren’t afraid to express their views, no matter how ill-considered those views might be. There’s seems to be an intolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty, which results in a default stance of dogmatism and hostility on many corners of the Internet.

Furthermore, as Notung points out, an unintended consequence of a “report abuse” button might be that those who are calling for the button get reported for abuse themselves. Not only because some “social justice warriors” can be rather brutal (in terms of using abusive language) in response to anyone who questions their point of view, thus perhaps meriting being reported, but also simply in retribution for perceived slights. (I don’t mean to generalise about social justice warriors, by the way. I’m referring to the subset of those concerned with social justice issues that appear to be ideologues, brooking little or no dissent).

Like Notung, I don’t have any answers here. But my two suggestions are:

  1. That more jurisdictions think carefully about implementing legal frameworks that are updated for the digital age, where every abusive twit has access to the means to cause distress to people like Criado-Perez. New Zealand is currently investigating how to go about this, and I think it’s important to work from first principles here. Existing laws on libel, defamation and the like would usually not take 21st-Century communicative possibilities into account, but if we did so, it might well be possible to eliminate much of the abuse without threatening free speech unduly.
  2. That we continue playing what part we can in discouraging trolls. I’ve written extensively about this before, in these two columns as well as numerous others – and a persistent fear for me is that if we don’t continue actively trying to provide quality content and commentary, blocking and banning trolls on our respective websites, the environment will become unattractive enough that some folk won’t even bother to read, let alone comment. Yes, the Internet is a free-speech zone, and should remain so – but you don’t have an obligation to allow any content on your corner of it. Just like you’d kick an abusive ass out of your house, do so on your blog, or your Twitter feed.

More on dealing with trolls

As submitted to Daily Maverick

(Note to pedants: I realise that the previous post – and this one – uses the word “troll” atypically. This is both because I think the definition could usefully be broadened, and because it’s a useful, evocative word).

If you don’t believe that hostility (or sometimes, something more accurately describable as abuse) on Internet comment threads is a problem, then this post will be of no or little interest to you. I say this to let you know that you should cease reading, rather than skipping to the end to leave a hostile comment. You always have that option, even though people seem more and more reluctant to exercise it.

But if you do think this a topic worth discussing, you’d most likely recall that last week I discussed what appears to be a marked decrease in civility on the Internet. What used to be localised has arguably been generalised, and we’ve now got a significant chance of encountering a troll in the comments thread of Daily Maverick, never mind their ancestral homes of News24 and PoliticsWeb.

One thing that we can all do about this is to temper how we respond to provocation, whether perceived or otherwise. This is part of the remedy for situations in which we might be perceived to ourselves be the troll, or perhaps where we provide one of them with a useful provocation. The advice to not feed trolls remains sound, but it perhaps doesn’t go far enough.

This is because what I’ve always understood as not feeding a troll is simply not responding to their provocations. While mocking someone who seems deserving can provide pleasure – both to other commentators and to spectators – it’s mostly just a way of feeling superior. It usually won’t change anyone’s mind, and serves simply to affirm a group identity as one of the smart, sophisticated set (or so you might think of yourself), rather than the sort of person represented by the ingrate you’re now making fun of.

In other words, directing your scathing wit at a troll might be encouraging another sort of negative aspect of character, while doing nothing to modify the target’s behaviour – except for encouraging him (sadly, it usually is a him) to try harder. It’s perhaps these sorts of considerations, among others, that led Jean Kazez, a philosopher at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, to offer what I thought to be three quite useful prescriptions.

The first prescription she offers has already been addressed, above and last week, and calls for some reflection on appropriate uses of our time and energy – particularly for those of us who do act like trolls online. The second and third, however, call for a complete disassociation from those who do, rather than the more typical exhortation to not encourage them.

Kazez suggests that we should cease any participation in fora where significant bullying takes place, and also cease from interacting with people who do participate in those fora. In summary, both those who bully and those who enable the bullies need to discover that they will lose their “seat at the table” of adult debate.

In a local context, perhaps this could mean never even attempting to engage in a comment thread on certain sites, or promptly removing oneself once certain commentators arrive to hijack the discussion. If the chances are high enough (and sometimes they seem certain) that the usual race-baiting will ensue, what’s the point of yet another attempt to call for a nuanced consideration of how (for example) neo-liberalism is being used as a catch-all term meaning “an economic stance that I don’t agree with”, and is therefore not a useful contribution?

My primary concerns around the advice to disengage involve the potentially instructive role that more sober comments can play. Even if it’s true that engagement typically encourages, because trolls love being given attention, there are nevertheless some fence-sitters lurking who are potentially receptive to productive disagreement.

Withdrawing entirely from debate costs us those opportunities. Limiting or ceasing interaction with those who do participate is even more radical, and involves forsaking the opportunity to set an example, persuade or encourage others to be more reasonable. But perhaps this is the point – we are still too optimistic about how often such opportunities arise, and about how often there’s any reward from taking them.

As someone who has by now spent more than two decades at a university, it’s perhaps easy to accuse me of naiveté here – maybe this is just how people talk in the “real” world, and it’s the Socratic dialogue that was always the fantasy. If it is civilised conversation you want, in other words, have it with carefully selected friends or in a filter bubble you’ve created for that purpose.

Outside of those environments – which bring with them a limitation on our own capacity to learn from difference, and from debate – it sadly seems true that most of the time, our engagements with abusive elements of the Internet are doing nothing to stem the tide of anger and misunderstanding. In the meanwhile, though, they do give the trolls something else to scream about.

On dealing with trolls

As submitted to Daily Maverick

One of the things that the Internet has been good for is broadening the range of perspectives in any given conversation. Of course certain barriers need to be overcome: to participate, you need an Internet connection and a suitable gadget. Nevertheless, conversations have been democratised, thanks at least in part to being able to more easily discover who is interested in talking about the same things as you, and the fact that it’s relatively inexpensive to join in.

However, the filter-bubble remains a problem. Not only do the personalisation features of search engines like Google give you results that reinforce existing prejudices; we also like it that way – it’s called confirmation bias, and too few of us take active steps to combat its negative implications (if we’re even aware of the potential need to do so). There’s another concern though, one that I’ve mentioned in the past but would like to explore a little further today: the question of online abuse and the extent to which it might cause some voices to withdraw from the conversation entirely.

An example from a few minutes ago will serve to illustrate: “screw u, u doos, first of 90% of big business in S.A is owned by whites and top man is white, so cry me a river!!!” is what someone just told me on Twitter after I repeated an overheard joke about members of the UCT Senate’s prospects of employability at Woolworths.

Now, seeing as some folk have been calling me a racist for a few weeks now, thanks to my defending  Woolworths and SAA’s affirmative action policies, we can be sure that the grammar-impaired person who tweeted that at me is clearly unaware of this context. That’s fine – I’d expect most people to be. However, just in case there is some context, one might think a little tempering of the hostility is merited when (over)hearing something that offends you.

Not so for this person, it seems, and increasingly not so for those who comment in these pages and elsewhere. And then there’s the next layer of trouble, which is where the filter-bubble ends up resulting in a congregation of these hair-trigger folks into one “room”, as it were. At some point, all possibility for debate ceases to exist because of the mutually-assured idiocy of a collection of angry people, each paying less attention than the next.

Because there seems to be no chance of changing anyone’s mind, some of those who might otherwise try to do so eventually resort to measures like turning off comment functionality, stop engaging in comment threads, and eventually – stop engaging with certain pockets of the Internet at all. This has two consequences: the collection of trolls and angry folk are made more homogenous, and thus apparently stronger, and likewise, the collection of those who consider themselves “virtuous” is furnished with another example of why they are special, and right – and their homogeneity increases too.

So, one day we’ll end up with half the Internet grunting angrily at each other, while the other half recites passages from Plato. Unless we find some way to arrest this escalation of hostilities, or unless I’m wrong about the trend (and I hope I am). In a future column I hope to explore potential legal remedies for online bullying, such as those currently being considered in New Zealand and elsewhere. But because less regulation is always preferable to more, we should also consider what each of us could or should do, simply in our capacity as members of the Internet community.

First, I’d argue that we can sometimes be accused of placing too little or too much emphasis on history, and not enough on our own conduct. Too little, in the sense of the tweet I quote above where zero effort was made to see if an interpretation is the correct one. And then too much, in the sense that we sometimes expect new entrants to a conversation to know minute and technical historical details of that conversation – and then abuse them when they get a detail wrong. There’s sometimes too little patience for any kind of induction period, and so-called “newbies” need the thickest skins of all.

To remedy this problem, I offer one suggestion: that when a debate gets heated, we should try to remember that no matter what’s come before, we’re constantly at a new decision-point, where we – and only we – are responsible for what we say in response to something we find provocative. Sure, someone else has committed a wrong, and we can be inflamed by that. But essentially juvenile questions of “who started it”, while diverting, seldom help illuminate the question of how it can be ended. In other words, I’m suggesting that we learn (or remember) some manners.

(Reposted): Being Right Doesn’t Guarantee That You’re Not Wrong

Martin Pribble recently asked if I’d be willing to write a guest post for his site. I was, did, and have archived it below. Also of potential interest are two posts in reaction, first from Ophelia Benson, then from Stephanie Zvahn (thanks, both). Many of the comments on those posts are useful in helping to develop further thoughts on this, so thanks to many who weighed in. No thanks for comments like this, which seem generated by one of those PoMo paragraph generators. Sokal would be proud.


It’s not always necessary to be polite. Sometimes, being abrasive or rejecting diplomatic niceties is exactly what’s needed to get a point across. And sometimes, getting a point across is preferable to pleasing the crowd, a subset of the crowd, or even the person you’re talking to. For every person who has been disabused of some fanciful metaphysics by a self-styled “friendly” atheist like Hemant Mehta, you’re likely to find one that’s been persuaded by a firebrand like PZ Myers.

Different approaches work on different audiences. And as so many of us have pointed out over and over again, atheism is not a religion, a cult, an organisation. We’re united in our disbelief in god(s), not in our politics or strategies. So whatever approach one of us takes – no matter how large their blog or Twitter following – it’s a mistake to think that they define atheism, whether old, new, Gnu or one that eschews these categories altogether.

But we (and there, the dangers begin to lurk, as soon as I speak of a “we”) pride ourselves on not believing in the same highly implausible proposition (that gods exist). This means, at the very least, that we share some minimal commitment to reason, in that we want to be guided by the evidence rather than superstition or dogma. And if that is the case, it doesn’t seem much of a stretch to suggest that we should apply the same critical mindset to propositions beyond merely the god hypothesis.

So, when we speak of social justice, equality, freedom of speech and so forth, it’s reasonable to expect some similarity in approach, even if not in conclusions reached. To put it plainly, an approach in which we listen to the evidence, in other words to each other, without pre-judging what someone is going to say, what they believe, or what ideological faction they belong to. Their arguments are assessed on their merits, rather than via knowing which websites they frequently comment on.

Nobody can deny that some participants in these conversations are not honest brokers. Some are simply unreconstructed trolls, others trolls of the sly sort, mimicking critical reflection while subtly distracting – and detracting – from the real issues that others are trying to address. Another set of “others” aren’t trolls at all – and it seems to me that the community of sceptical and/or atheist activists and bloggers sometimes have a difficult time of it in distinguishing between these sorts of contributor to the debate.

The trend on the Internet generally – at least according to my anecdata – is for increasing hyperbole and hysteria, perhaps especially so when we can comment anonymously, with no fear of reputational harm. Those who shout the loudest think that they can win, or end up thinking that they’ve won once they have drowned out the opposing view. And even though our community might (hopefully) be more rational than any randomly selected group, we’re not immune to the same trend.

On emotive issues, this can be particularly worrisome, and is also more likely to happen – simply because the stakes are higher. And here’s the thing: I think we forget that a concern for tone does not automatically mean that you are a tone-troll (broadly, someone who is attempting to shut down legitimate criticism on the grounds that it’s expressed in a rude or hostile fashion).

To put it another way: you can grant that Francis Collins (for example) has some pretty confused ideas about which propositions gain epistemic weight via waterfall observations, yet still think that it’s a bad idea to call him some abusive name. You might think it’s a bad idea because you think it rude, or you might think that (on balance) he does more good than harm for science, so let’s not alienate people who we might reach through discussing him politely.

When the space for saying that (“that” being something like “Collins is wrong, but it’s not helpful to call him a moron”) disappears, we’re not having a rational conversation anymore. Yes, I did use the phrase “not helpful” – sorry, but it fits. And what it means is “not helpful to a certain strategic goal”. You might not share that goal, or you might share it, but think it should be achieved through different means. All of which are questions that we can discuss, if we’re still listening to each other.

We’re not, though – at least not consistently. And right now, the debate on misogyny in the sceptical community has escalated to such an extent that there’s a lot that can’t be heard over the screaming. Yes, there is certainly plenty that doesn’t need to be heard because it genuinely is sexist, or excuses sexism. But simply labelling someone a “rape apologist”, for example, doesn’t magically transform someone into actually being a rape apologist.

A problem here is that we could mean different things by a phrase like “rape apologist”. Coming from a position of privilege, most men might well be unaware of how that privilege biases them against seeing various threats, insults or instances of being demeaned or trivialised that women experience. This blindness might make them too tolerant (in other words, at all tolerant) of sexist language, or stereotypes around what it means when a woman dresses in a particular way.

To be clear, this blindness is bad, and needs correction. It’s certainly bad if we create, endorse, or fail to combat a climate of hostility to any poorly defined (and heterogeneous) group like “women”. And the fact that some women believe that such a climate currently exists is a problem in itself, whether or not you’re complicit in creating that climate. In fact, it’s a problem whether or not such hostility even exists – unless you want to claim it’s a complete fabrication, the perception most likely finds inspiration in some forms of behaviour or speech that we could modify at little or no cost.

Furthermore (and obviously, one would hope), rape jokes and stereotypes about women (or about any hypothetical “group”) are bad things. But there’s still a significant difference of degree between a man who says that a woman who was raped was “asking for it” and someone who asks the question whether, empirically, there is any correlation between what women wear and whether that correlates with sexual violence in any way. That difference rests in part with their attitudes, and in part with how easy it might be to change their views.

The former sort of man can perhaps never be persuaded that he has Neanderthal attitudes. The latter one could perhaps be persuaded that that’s the wrong question to ask. But once he’s driven out of a comment thread by name-calling, we lose our chance to persuade. And this is a key thing: it’s not PZ (or whoever’s) job to control the people who comment on their posts. But we all need to be aware that we set the tone at our websites not only by what we write, but also by how we respond to those who leave comments.

So if someone doesn’t give someone else a chance to explain what might be an honest mistake, rather than an attempt at trolling or rape apologetics, before descending on them with abuse, that abusive reaction is also antithetical to the skeptical cause, and should also be called out by the blog owner or other commenters. If it’s not called out, we quickly become gangs who have chosen a side, and chosen our authorities or leaders, and who then defend our turf by whatever means necessary – whether principled or not.

This tribalism, and defending of a cause, comes naturally to most of us. What also comes naturally is to double-down when challenged, especially when others question your integrity or motives. This complicates the reactions that people have to being called out for language that appears – or is – sexist or insensitive to the pervasive misogyny debate. Being defensive in light of such accusations is normal, and it’s perhaps uncharitable to use this defensiveness as further evidence of the commenter’s ignorance, prejudice or malice.

Here in South Africa everyone will know what I’m talking about if I were to use the phrase “playing the race card”, and hopefully you do too. In case you don’t, it refers to a tactic that’s sadly common here, and is used for avoiding uncomfortable discussions and not allowing any facts to interfere with your prejudices. If a white man such as myself says something about South African culture or politics, it is often dismissed simply on the grounds that I can’t understand what it’s like to be black.

What this crude form of identity politics misses is that blackness or whiteness or whatever-ness is only one feature of identity. Sometimes a powerful one, to be sure, but nevertheless, I might have far more features in common with a randomly selected black South African than she does with another randomly selected black South African. The same principle applies with gender, and just as we shouldn’t use the race card, but instead look at the arguments and evidence, we should avoid using the gender card.

Yet, we have to make distinctions between well-meaning interlocutors and trolls, and we all want to keep our websites and blogs free of trollish pestilence. So patience cannot be infinite. But when the current tensions started escalating to the point of an apparent civil war, it started to appear as if – increasingly – some members of this community started making judgements before hearing any arguments.

If all we want is to feel self-righteous, and right, that’s fine. It is indeed good to know who the enemy is. But it’s also good to change the enemy’s mind, where possible, and it’s good to discover that someone you thought of as an enemy is actually simply a confused friend. Let’s be wary of making the latter two sorts of interaction impossible.

P.S. I apologise for the generality in this post. It’s a difficult thing to write about, for various reasons, and that accounts for the evasiveness. First, the vociferous responses to interventions in this area do play a censoring role (or did, in this post). Second, I have friends and “friends” (in the Facebook/Twitter sense) on both sides of the civil war, which serves an inhibiting role. Third, and most important, specifics might detract from the general and primary point I’m trying to make – that we should be careful to keep listening to each other, because the thing we (as skeptics) are arguably best at is remembering  that we can be wrong, and recognising when that’s the case.

Voracious and mostly dumb: Lehrer, Daly and the Internet audience

First published on The Daily Maverick

It’s somewhat of a cottage industry to point out yet another way in which something new in the world will transform our lives. Whether it be social structures, economic systems or modes of communication that are changing, it’s the stuff of pop-psychology, -science or -economics to point out what it is that we need to adapt to, and to make suggestions for how we should do so.

Some people make a living from making these suggestions. Or did make a living, until being discovered fabricating Bob Dylan quotes as Jonah Lehrer recently was. (If we’re lucky, a similar fate might soon befall Malcolm Gladwell, sparing us from “Slurp: What kitten’s tongues teach us about derivatives”.

Yes, of course I’m jealous. And also sympathetic, in the case of Lehrer, because it seems likely that he didn’t so much intend to deceive as simply to entertain. This isn’t to excuse him, because clear distinctions can be drawn between cleaning up quotations and simply making them up. The latter remains, and should remain, unacceptable in anything purporting to be non-fiction.

But one of the things that has transformed and requires adaptation is the relationship between writers and readers, on at least two fronts. Even in the market for pabulum, where the likes of Lehrer and Gladwell often trade, the attention economy conduces to style becoming as important as substance if you’re looking to sell your books.

In the latter decades of last century, you could perhaps count the popular science writers worth reading on ten fingers, and “popular” was still compatible with “rather challenging”, at least for laypersons. Now the bookshelves seem packed – frequently with books from the discipline dubbed “neuroscientism”, in which Gladwell and Lehrer arguably both work. To have your books sell, rather than a competitor’s, you need to become a brand.

The need to become a brand is not new. Perhaps, though, what it means to be a brand these days is new, because brands appear to no longer be built on who has the best ideas, but rather on ideas that spark the imagination and can be captured in headlines and slogans. The aversion to complexity that many of us in the audience seem to have incentivises the sort of shortcut-taking that Lehrer is guilty of.

The changing expectations we have for what our “experts” should deliver, and how they might adjust their output in response to those expectations, was one sort of adaptation that was widely discussed over the past week, mostly in response to the Lehrer case. A second sort of adaptation can be found in (and is necessitated by) the fact that many of us seem to have forgotten what free speech is for.

As I argued in last week’s column, we can be wrong about what we believe to be true. Our prejudices and biases might stop us from realising that we’re wrong, and worse still, they might cause us to silence those who disagree with us. So, free speech is largely good for protecting vulnerable (but often valuable) speech acts.

What it’s not for is claiming protection from ridicule or criticism for saying stupid, bigoted or hateful things. So, just in case anyone missed or misunderstood last week’s column, in it I argue that Americans have just as much right to ridicule Chick-fil-A’s president as he does to express his homophobia, because the morality of both of these actions is a separate issue from their permissibility.

This background is relevant to the second adaptation because of the size of the market for opinion – both the producers of it and those who respond to it, increasingly on platforms like Twitter. I’ve previously asked the question of whether comment facilities on the Internet help to turn decent folk into raving loons (temporarily, one hopes), so won’t revisit that territory here. Instead, the question I’d like to raise is what we’re supposed to do about it.

To put it simply, as an audience grows, so too does the number of trolls. As any of you reading this will know, the troll is frequently louder and more persistent than any other contributor to debate. A common refrain on comment threads has for years been “don’t feed the trolls” – in other words, ignore them and hopefully they’ll get bored and go somewhere else.

But this attitude is starting to seem somewhat naïve. Not only because groups like 4Chan and LulzSec have been known to express their views through damaging hacks, but also because the idea of what free speech is good for is perverted when we start using it to justify the level of abuse that Olympic swimmer Tom Daley was recently subjected to.

In his explanation of why Rileyy_69 (the Twitter user who taunted Daley) is no free speech hero, Graham Linehan makes a number of good points. These two paragraphs are particularly worth reading, and clearly illustrate why we somehow need to adapt our norms – and even perhaps our laws – to accommodate the different ways in which people can and do engage in a world of electronic media.

Being able to locate someone–even on the other side of the world–who has suffered a bereavement, and whisper in their ear words calculated to break their heart, is a new chapter in our development, and I think we can all agree that the arrival of hyper-empowered bullies is far from being the most positive aspect of our current connectivity.

And “don’t feed the trolls” won’t cut it as a solution. That’s just victim-blaming. Often it comes from people who have never had to deal with the level of abuse that many in the public eye receive, and never will. New rule: If you don’t experience it every day, you don’t get to tell anyone who does to suck it up.

There are many more adaptations than just these two that might be necessary, and the two I discuss here might not even be at the top of the list. The Lehrer case is arguably an example of what one might call the “shortcut culture”; and Rileyy_69 an example of what can happen in a world where everyone seems to think they’re entitled to just any opinion, and who have lost the internal censor which might otherwise have told them that a given opinion was not worth sharing.

Linehan says, “the question of how we protect free speech is no less important than the question of how we deal with abusive behaviour online”. While that might be putting the case too strongly, the latter is certainly an important question. It is also a complex one, and this is where the two adaptations intersect. Complex questions require careful deliberation, but fabricated Dylan quotes might sell more books.

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.