Internet Trolls Thrive On Attention—But Please Don’t Feed The Animals

Gary Nolan (and THE Scrappy Doo)
Gary Nolan (and THE Scrappy Doo)

Political and religious discourse are often anything but respectful. One sweep of social media feeds will reveal personal attacks that would lead you to believe evolution has spawned a human sub-species known as Homo-Internet-trollius—I raise my glass to them succumbing to natural selection. Sadly, professional writers and TV analysts aren’t often much better.

Internet Troll
Internet Troll

To support my blog, I have Twitter and Facebook pages where I invite people to engage in respectful debate—emphasis on respectful. Most people do exactly that, occasionally even swaying me from my original opinion in light of new information. But far too often, the personal insults fly in like birds on a newly seeded lawn.

I choose not to engage these people, I just block them—such debate is not worth my time and aggravation. People may say that this is not very libertarian of me; but I’m not asking for legislation to prevent them from spewing their hateful rhetoric, I’m just walking away so I’m not tempted to lower myself by responding to it. Proper debate involves exchange of opinions, ideas, and facts—nothing else.

A while back, I watched a panel of people debate the idea of a creator in-depth at Chapman University after seeing a similar debate on Stossel—Dinesh D’Souza, Deepak Chopra, and Michael Shermer among the participants. They were compelling discussions largely due to the nature of the discourse. The fact that reasonable human beings could speak about something as passionate as religion; yet be respectful towards each other despite their vehement disagreement was refreshing. It inspired me to strive for more respectful dialogue in my own debates going forward.

The reason for the respectful dialogue is pretty easy to explain however when you understand one simple concept; opinions versus facts. Facts are truths, opinions are interpretations of those truths based on one’s own environment and life experiences. The people involved understood the difference, and debated accordingly. While you are not entitled to your own facts, opinions will always vary from person to person.

For instance, if we look at opinions; conservatives believe higher taxes are wrong, liberals believe that the rich can hardly be taxed enough—neither is right or wrong. While it may be true that historically, lower taxes have proven to be greater economically, to someone who is uncomfortable with freedom or whom religion trumps economics, more government can often reduce their anxiety by eliminating personal responsibility. For those people, authoritarian rule is better, and they’re willing to trade opportunity and freedom for security and forced theology. You often see this in nations who move from an authoritarian system to a democratic one. Rebels act as if they are fighting for freedom, when they’re so often just fighting over which authority they wish to be ruled by.

As political opinion talking heads bring on guests, they frequently lose sight of the idea that opinions simply have no proper answer. You can watch liberals go on rants about evil corporations only to be countered by conservatives going off on the president in a polar opposite diatribe—neither citing facts; merely opinions, but both insisting the other is wrong.

The fact that Jerry Springer, Steve Wilkos, and Maury Povich make a living doing what they do has shown that we like to be entertained just as much as we like to be informed. If we’re lucky, they may actually kill each other on the air, right? People insulting each other is far more exciting than two adults respectfully agreeing to disagree. If any of you watched the Chapman University video above and didn’t finish it, you probably got bored; proving my point.

As long as the market desires violence, the art of proper debate will be left to the scientific community, and us political consumers and voters won’t be nearly as well-educated as we should be because we’re getting debating’s version of the WWE—rich on entertainment, low on substance.

Bill O'Reilly vs Barney Frank
Bill O’Reilly vs Barney Frank

So what are some signs of improper debate?

  • If anyone refers to you as a “So-called  _______”

When someone uses the term “so-called” in describing you,  there’s no point in going further. I see Republicans call other Republicans RINO’s (Republicans In Name Only) when they disagree. I’ve had people tell me I’m no Libertarian because I don’t believe in anarchy. I’ve seen liberals attack each other because they don’t agree on gun rights or the evilness of corporations. I’ve even seen religious groups attack their own for how they vary in worship.

No one person is the sole arbiter of what is a Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Christian, Muslim, etc. If you feel you most closely identify with a particular group, that’s likely how you’ll identify yourself. These aren’t private clubs you can be kicked out of, they’re names attached to a basic set of ideals. Someone referring to you as a “so-called” anything is simply displaying contempt—an ultimate form of disrespect where they feel you are inferior to them.

  • Inability to distinguish facts from opinions

If someone lays out facts that are incorrect, they should rightfully be corrected. If you really want to do it right; cite reliable sources. But when arguing opinion, anyone who tells you that you are wrong, laughs at your opinion, or cites opinion columns from someone else, are not debating respectfully.

I see people citing Paul Krugman articles to prove their point on economics, when he’s not done any science, but merely advancing an opinion. I’ve had people cite Ron Paul and Ludwig von Mises op-eds to tell me I’m wrong on my idea of libertarianism. In doing so, they haven’t proven their point, they’ve only proven someone agrees with them or that my libertarian views are different from others.

  • Citations of the same person repeatedly

Science requires that all opinions be considered, respected, and evaluated in order to come to one truth. If a person constantly quotes a particular politician, economist, TV personality, or anything else, this person is not doing anything scientific, it’s the opposite of independent thought. While I personally prefer my opinion reporting come from organizations that are “libertarian-friendly,” I’m at least aware of my bias, and honest about reporting it. I do call my page the Logical Libertarian after all.  

On my RSS reader however, I follow 85 different websites of varying opinions and genres. I make the effort to research any opinion I put forth from several sources when possible, and I will reevaluate such opinions if anyone provides me with new information. Being part of a cult-like group-think crowd is the polar opposite of independent and intelligent thought.

  • All or nothing

Anyone who has agreed with you 95% of the time, but now this 1 in 20 instance where you don’t sends them into a tirade is exhibiting serious signs of bipolar disorder. It’s the underlying root of the word bipolar where there is only a positive and negative, nothing in between. They believe that if you aren’t 100% in agreement with them, you might as well be 0% in agreement with them.

People who take this all or nothing approach aren’t interested in the truth. They want to be the leader of a cult, and expect you to be part of it. That may seem like hyperbole, but think about every cult you know of—how many allowed for varying opinions? There is nothing proper about such behavior. The scientific method relies on varying ideas. Those who view any deviation from their ideology as an insult should be avoided.

  • Anyone using logical fallacies.

Brian Dunning at skeptoid.com has done an amazing job explaining logical fallacies here and here (It was a two-parter).

Skeptoid's Brian Dunning
Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning

 These include straw man arguments, ad hominem attacks, appeals to authority, special pleading, anecdotal evidence, observational selection, appeal to ignorance, non-sequiturs, post hoc, confusion of correlation and causation, slippery slope, excluded middle, small number statistics, weasel words, fallacy of the consequent, loaded question, red herring, proof by verbosity, poisoning the well, and bandwagon fallacies.

I implore you to either read at the links provided, or listen to the attached audio podcast version for explanations. Brian has done a phenomenal job comprising them; it’s worth your time; as are all Skeptoid podcasts.

The golden rule of debating should be this: Explain your position until your opponent understands you. Let them explain their position until you understand them. If at that point you still don’t agree, the debate is over, you must respectfully agree to disagree—emphasis on respectfully. But whatever you do, remember that internet trolls thrive on attention, please do not feed the animals.

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5 thoughts on “Internet Trolls Thrive On Attention—But Please Don’t Feed The Animals”

  1. I would recommend a short documentary called “Collision”. It is posted in full on Youtube. It chronicles two experts in opposition of their views on religion and it’s impact on society. The way they can debate each other so fiercely and yet still have so much respect for each other is quite refreshing and others would do well to model behavior in that fashion.

    1. I can see you’re only interested in the side of the story that others wish to portray. He responds here if you’re interested in both sides of the story.

      http://skeptoid.com/blog/2011/10/05/a-partial-explanation/

      But either way, this wire-fraud issue does not discredit any of his work in the skeptical/scientific movement, nor does it refute his work I cited here. It potentially shows a serious breach of business ethics, however, and he will likely atone for that. Unless you can discredit the work he submitted that I cited, I don’t see any respectable point in you bringin this up. If his science had been in question, then and only then, would you have a valid point.

  2. Regarding last commenter, you’ll notice he didn’t actually discredit Brian Dunning’s work, he merely tried to discredit the author. You’ll see a link to the explanation of what transpired on Skeptoid’s website. While he has pled guilty to a wire fraud claim with eBay, this does not invalidate any of his skeptical or scientific work. It is potentially a serious breech of ethics, and one I will be anxious to hear Brians side of the story on. However, I stand behing Brian Dunning and citing him as a reliable source for skeptical and scientific information. http://skeptoid.com/blog/2011/10/05/a-partial-explanation/

Drop some genius on me here.

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