Trouble with Trolls

Via Chris Mooney at Mother Jones, a study on the effects of derogatory comments on the perception of issues:

In a recent study, a team of researchers from the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication and several other institutions employed a survey of 1,183 Americans to get at the negative consequences of vituperative online comments for the public understanding of science. Participants were asked to read a blog post containing a balanced discussion of the risks and benefits of nanotechnology (which is already all around us and supports a $91 billion US industry). The text of the post was the same for all participants, but the tone of the comments varied. Sometimes, they were “civil”—e.g., no name calling or flaming. But sometimes they were more like this: “If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these products, you’re an idiot.”

The researchers were trying to find out what effect exposure to such rudeness had on public perceptions of nanotech risks. They found that it wasn’t a good one. Rather, it polarized the audience: Those who already thought nanorisks were low tended to become more sure of themselves when exposed to name-calling, while those who thought nanorisks are high were more likely to move in their own favored direction. In other words, it appeared that pushing people’s emotional buttons, through derogatory comments, made them double down on their preexisting beliefs.

The cause of the polarization seems to be the instinctual response to combative language:

Based on pretty indisputable observations about how the brain works, the theory notes that people feel first, and think second. The emotions come faster than the “rational” thoughts—and also shape the retrieval of those thoughts from memory. Therefore, if reading insults activates one’s emotions, the “thinking” process may be more likely to be defensive in nature, and focused on preserving one’s identity and preexisting beliefs.

So rude comments and hostile discussions push people into an intellectual “fight or flight” mode. They become less interested in absorbing information and more interested in defending their turf.

This study was performed with discussions of nano-tech, something which very few people have developed strong feelings about(*). What happens when you shift to something like climate change where many people have established identities as supporters or deniers?

When it comes to climate change, in contrast, “the controversy that you see in comments falls on more fertile ground, and resonates more with an established set of values that the reader may bring to the table,” explains study coauthor Dietram Scheufele, a professor of science communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. If commenters have stronger emotions and more of a stake, it stands to reason that the polarizing effect of their insults may be even stronger—although, to be sure, this needs to be studied.

So, if the logic is accurate, the more people have invested in the argument, the more polarizing the effect of rude comments, which has obvious implications for Patheos and the rest of the religious/atheist social web.

Both Libby Anne and Daniel Fincke have drawn a lesson about the need for civil discussion from this article. I tend to think that there are a few more questions that need to be asked.

I’ve found that the simple existence of atheism is frequently a challenge to many strong religious believers. Any direct statement of atheism will therefor be judged as rude by many in our society. How do we move the line between direct statements (“You’re wrong”) and rude statements (“you’re an idiot”) without polarizing?

This isn’t unique to atheism. There are many movements that had to face the fact that their goals were unthinkable and unmentionable in polite society. Perhaps it takes pressure in both directions. Maybe every movement needs its hardliners as well as its moderates in order to enact change.


(*) With the exception of those of us in the Hudson Valley, where government has spent a lot of money attempting to attract nano-tech businesses. We’d like you to know that if you aren’t very, very excited about nano-tech, you’re an idiot.

  • ctcss

    “How do we move the line between direct statements (“You’re wrong”) and rude statements (“you’re an idiot”) without polarizing?”

    One of the ways I like to use is to lead by example. As a believing Christian who is not bothered by the existence of non-believers (and being a non-mainstream Christian myself, I have often had to defend my own brand of Christianity to those who think my group’s beliefs are wrong), I find it best to calmly, good naturedly, and lovingly engage in a calm, thoughtful, and helpful dialogue. Unless there is an actual danger of physical violence being being used against a person (usually rather unlikely), it’s not that hard to get people consider a different viewpoint, even if they won’t adopt it themselves. (It very much helps to thoroughly understand one’s own belief stance, as well as understanding the arguments that might be offered against one’s belief stance. And it very, very much helps if one can view the other person with a genuine sense of love and respect.)

    I once spent about 4 hours discussing my group’s viewpoints with a Christian college student who had come to my church’s evening service to examine our “incorrect” beliefs as well as to challenge them after our service. I think he was rather surprised at all of the ideas that I was bringing up in response to his challenges. It wasn’t a heated shouting match, it was simply a discussion from two rather different strongly held points of view. My mother finally came looking for me at 1 AM, wondering what had happened. When she found the two of us still there and found that neither of us had eaten yet, she invited the two of us back to her house to give us a late dinner. He and I parted amicably and he never came back, but I don’t think he could ever again think of us as “those wrong-thinking Christians” anymore.

    When you come face to face with those you think are “completely wrong”, and then you have a chance to more deeply consider both them (as a person) and their views (as actual, carefully conceived of ideas, not as weapons), it’s hard not to walk away from such encounters with a good feeling, rather than bitter rancor.

  • JohnMWhite

    “How do we move the line between direct statements (“You’re wrong”) and rude statements (“you’re an idiot”) without polarizing?”

    What strikes me first is that often, the former is taken to be just as combative and rude as the latter. As vorjack points out, the existence of atheists is seen as an insult in itself, but it appears that with a good number of people, the existence of information contrary to their beliefs is also considered insulting. See the response to Lawrence O’Donnell and his description of the slavery endorsing bible as a book that endorses slavery. He’s right. He’s pointing out the way things are. And that makes him “sick” and all sorts of other terrible things, prompting Christian critics to salivate over the idea of him roasting in hell. Try to keep a gun debate civil the moment you mention what the words “well regulated militia” mean. See how long it takes for a pro-lifer to call you a Nazi eugenicist when you use the correct terminology for the developing stages of human offspring. Information just makes certain people mad.

    I have to question the methodology of the George Mason University study somewhat, because while it’s easy to write something that is quite clearly rude, it’s also easily to write something that is not meant to be rude at all but is taken to be so by somebody with a proverbial stick up their metaphorical anus. Or by somebody having a bad day. Or by somebody not paying attention. Or by somebody with such a strong persecution complex that any information contrary to their Deeply Held Beliefs™ is a scathing personal attack. It must have been difficult to avoid ambiguity and to make sure their subjects were responding to what was written and how it was worded, not their own perceptions.

    I’m also troubled at the potential for this kind of research to be used for the banal “both sides do it!” argument. Both sides of every issue has their members who don’t think before they react, but there’s only one side that wears this as a badge of pride.

  • Theory_of_I


    “How do we move the line…without polarizing?”

    “I find it best to calmly, good naturedly, and lovingly engage in a calm, thoughtful, and helpful dialogue.”

    True, if your responses take the form of a sincere effort to verify and explain your position using logic and evidence to promote a greater understanding of your beliefs.

    In the case of Christian v. Atheist, the problem of rude and polarizing dialogue is often the result of the frustration which accumulates in proportion to the perception that answers offered are neither thoughtful nor helpful in terms of logic or evidence, but rather, are given with the expectation that “because it feels that way”, or “because I believe what I was told and I don’t care what anyone else says”, or “if the bible says so, it must be so (except the parts I don’t want to hear about)” are equivalent to logic, and should be accepted as evidence.

    Healthy skepticism invites veracity and reliability as foundational precepts for dialogue, but disdains hearsay and feelgood sloganeering as insincere, uninformative and un-persuasive, and, depending on the context, may reasonably perceive the same as disrespect no matter how good naturedly and lovingly dispensed.

    • Schaden Freud

      Much of the frustration, IMO, comes from repetition. It’s not just that we atheists encounter Christians trying to convert us with terrible “logic”, fact-free Discovery Institute press releases, or arguments from personal epiphany, it’s that it’s always the same inadequate apologetics. Over and over and over again. I’ve seen a fair few arguments for Christianity in my time, but I’ve yet to see any that are either convincing or even vaguely novel. Instead, it’s just the same old stuff that every atheist with an internet connection has seen countless times before.

    • ctcss

      As I tried to indicate in my post, I have no interest in causing animosity or in boring or annoying someone else with information that they have no interest in hearing. I would much rather see such problem areas healed. We live in a multi-cultural world and I don’t see everyone somehow seeing eye-to-eye about every thing whether the subject is music, art, politics, or religion. Having the opportunity to quietly and respectfully explain one’s standpoint if asked (as opposed to forcing it down someone else’s throat) is all that anyone needs. I really have no interest in trying to convert anyone or to win an argument about God’s existence. I believe in God. I don’t really need anyone else to agree with me about that. Simply trying to put into practice what Jesus demanded from his followers is more than enough to keep me occupied on my own path of spiritual growth.

      I’m sorry that so many non-believers have encountered little to like about believers. (Given the aggressive and uncaring behavior of some believers, I’m not all that surprised.) But not every approach to religion causes problems. And the more everyone realizes that the “other” side (of whatever believing or non-believing stripe) is not necessarily evil, stupid, or a waste of space, the better for all of us.

  • kessy_athena

    I think that the problem of people taking “You’re wrong,” as a personal attack runs much deeper in the culture then just the question of religion. Remember Freedom Fries? I once knew someone I considered a friend, until I thought they were overreacting to something another person said, and said so. Suddenly I was a traitor, a backstabber, and an enemy. I find it both distressing and puzzling how many people seem to think that a friend is someone who never ever disagrees with you.

    • UrsaMinor

      Friends who never disagree with you aren’t much use.

      • kessy_athena

        Exactly – someone who never disagrees with you isn’t a friend; they’re a sycophant. And I’ve never understood the appeal of surrounding yourself with sycophants.

  • Kodie

    Many times, I don’t find nice people are all that civil.

    I’ve read about this article on a couple other blogs already and commented there too, such that it comes to me now, I think there is something to treating another person with due respect. That’s not a tone, but an attitude. It’s not just some nicer way to say something that may come off as not nice otherwise.

  • Hope

    Hi. I have a question. Do bloggers ever create their own trolls to get more comments? I frequent a blog that has many trolls. The blogger doesn’t seem to do much, if anything, about it, and I’ve noticed that when the troll patrol is out, the number of comments goes up drastically. Has anybody ever heard of symbiotic troll/blogger relationships?

    • Custador

      It wouldn’t shock me, but actual trolls get banned too fast to make a difference around here, generally.

      • Hope

        Yes, I can tell by the intelligent discussion of religion in the comments of this post that here you do not suffer trolls. That’s admirable. I think that, for all the discussion of the harmfulness of trolls, they might be tolerated in some arenas because they add to the numbers in the comments section and collect hits. It’s just a hunch I’ve got.

        Anyway, the subject of religion can really pull the ugly out of some people on both sides. Boy, have I seen it. I live in the Bible Belt, so some people think that atheists are devil worshippers or amoral beings. Some of them hate science because it interferes with their belief system. I would just think they are pitiful, but they vote, lol. I’ve also heard atheists say rude things like, “Do you believe in Santa Claus, too?” Both sides are unprovable, so they might as well respect each other… maybe someday, but not tomorrow.