Comment 59899

By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 17, 2011 at 09:07:34


If anyone had any lingering uncertainty over either a) the intentions of trolls or b) the utility of engaging trolls in any kind of debate, I hope this fustercluck of commentary lays those doubts to rest once and for all.

Z jones' impassioned rant (I just couldn't bring myself to vote it down - for all the language, it's nothing if not sincere), plays right into the trolls' hands. Outraged? Great! That's exactly what the trolls are looking for.

Likewise, Undustrial's calm rebuttal, however mature and reasonable, also serves merely to give the trolls more grist to grind. Arguments means debating points, and trolls love to debate.

The problem is that they have no intention of debating in good faith. They aren't interested in getting to the heart of an issue: they are only interested in mischief, and an interminable debate that drifts steadily farther and farther off topic is as mischievious as an outpouring of outrage - moreso, in fact, because it takes people longer to realize they've been had.

Debating is Futile

In a real discussion among authentic participants, it makes sense to address claims with arguments and evidence. Reasonable people can arrive at some kind of consensus by comimg to an agreement not only on the facts of the matter but also on the underlying norms of discourse, including a respect for the truth and enough empathy to recognize and value the humanity of the other participants.

Of course, we're all sensitive and insecure and dogmatic in various ways, but we persist because we presume that through respectful dialogue, it becomes possible to work through these issues and get to the heart of the matter.

That presumption breaks down when dealing with trolls.

Trolls don't care what the facts are. Facts are merely argumentative MacGuffins to be cited or invented as necessary to keep the lulz going.

As Harry Frankfurt explained in his wonderful philosophical essay On Bullshit, lying at least respects the truth enough to try and contradict it, whereas bullshit is indifferent to the truth. Trolling is concerned with truthiness, not truthfulness. (There's a great interview with Frankfurt that's definitely worth watching.)

Likewise, trolls don't care about norms of reasoning and well-formed argumentation. Go ahead and identify the ad hominem, straw man, red herring and other fallacies in the troll's arguments - it makes no difference to the troll because trolls don't actually care whether they make sense or not. Trying to squash a troll's argumentative fallacies is at best a game of Whac-a-Mole.

In the same way, it's futile to try and "prove" to a troll that he or she is a troll. Proofs only matter among people who value the process of becoming progressively less wrong through the honest exchange of ideas and information.

Trolls are perfectly happy to debate whether they are trolls - it takes the argument an order of abstraction away from the subject at hand, so it's a win for them.

You can no more "change" a troll into an honest participant than the victim of an abusive relationship can "change" the abuser by making ethical or normative appeals to a relationship value system that the abuser does not or cannot share.

Supernormal Stimuli

In a previous essay, I described trolling as an example of supernormal stimuli: a supernormal stimulus is an artificial stimulus that is more compelling than the natural stimulus it imitates.

In the mid-20th century, Nikolaas Tinbergen conducted a series of fascinating ethological studies in which he identified the stimuli for instinctive animal behaviours by systematically introducing artificial stimuli until he provoked a reaction.

In one of his more famous experiments, he studied songbirds that lay pale blue, speckled eggs to determine what triggered the mothers to sit on the eggs. He discovered that it was the blueness and speckledness of the eggs that triggered the reacion: the birds would pass real eggs to sit on big, bright blue, artificial eggs with black spots instead.

This and other related experiments led him to the general concept of supernormal stimuli, which turns up all over the place. In another experiment, Tinbergen established that herring gulls babies peck at their mothers' beaks because they are attracted to the long, thin shape with a high-contrast spot near the tip. Chicks would ignore their mothers' beaks and frantically peck a long stick with red and white stripes on the end instead.

A recent and fascinating book of the same title by Harvard psychologist Dierdre Barrett explores the ramifications of a human culture in which we have surrounded ourselves with supernormal stimuli - like junk food - that co-opt our instincts and pre-empt our desires.

Trolling as Supernormal Stimuli

I propose that trolling is another example of a supernormal stimulus: an artificial stimulus that is more compelling than the real thing it imitates.

The essence of sophisticated trolling is the ability to produce phony, bogus discussion that, like junk food, pre-empts real discussion.

Trolls post statements that are more provocative than normal statements. They reply with a persistence that goes far beyond normal back-and-forth. They shift arguments and evidence with amazing fluidity so that there are always more points to address. They press emotional buttons that weaken the rationality of their opponents. They feign reasonableness without ever settling on reasonable conclusions.

Good health requires us to find ways to choose healthy food instead of junk, and healthy communication requires us to find ways to choose to respond to authentic comments instead of trolls.

I know the saying usually runs, "Don't feed the troll", but along the lines of the junk food analogy, I'd like to propose an inverse:

  • Don't feed yourself junk communication by debating trolls. Choose healthy discussion instead.

Just don't engage the trolls at all - not in outrage, not in argument, not even in mockery and counter-trolling. As long as you're debating the troll instead of debating a real issue, the trolls win.

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2011-02-17 10:03:22

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