Trolls in the Philosophical Blogosphere (Ought Experiment)

Trolls in the Philosophical Blogosphere (Ought Experiment)

Welcome back to Ought Experiment! We had ourselves quite the weekend, didn’t we? Well hang on to your armchairs, folks, because apparently it’s time for a Very Special Episode. After the heated conversation about professional cliques, a certain blog editor wrote in with a question about the role and consequences of anonymity in online philosophical discussion:

Dear Louie,

I run a philosophy blog. Usually I think it’s worth it—it’s good to have a public space to share news, hash out issues, have some fun, etc.,—but sometimes, Louie, sometimes….

Provocative topics are good blog material. People like to read and discuss them. But they are also bad blog material, in that they pull in a lot of commenters who like to spout off in intemperate, uninformed, and insulting ways. When discussion threads are dominated by these commenters, it turns off some others from participating. I think what would improve matters is more people posting under their own names. It makes contributors accountable for what they say. And I think that as more people participate under their real names, that will encourage others to do so, and the general tenor of discourse at the blog will improve.

I understand that people sometimes have good reasons for posting anonymously. I also understand that some people are worried that if they post under their own names, they risk others responding harshly to them. I moderate comments at my site, so I can protect participants from pointless insults and needless hostility there. But there is the rest of the internet, and the risk of being insulted, teased, or slandered elsewhere discourages some people from posting. The result of this worry is that a large number of thoughtful people with interesting and valuable things to say refrain from taking part in the public conversation. And that is pretty bad.

So, Louie, my question is: given that there will continue to be anonymous commenting at my blog (and elsewhere), what can I do to raise the quality of discussion threads?


Just Uncomplicatedly Solve The Internet, Nerd

Dear J.U.S.T.I.N.,

I was incredibly tempted to spend the entire column saying “I told you so,” but you rejected that draft. Along with the anonymizing handle ‘Terrible Boss’. So instead I’m just going to disagree with you a bunch. Partly because we do genuinely disagree on some important points. But mainly to confuse the folks convinced that I’m your sockpuppet.

Not all those who wander are lost, and not all those who bluster are anonymous. Still, the idea that anonymity emboldens the worst instincts and individuals is a compelling one. Would there be less vitriol if we signed our opinions? Would there be fewer accusations, punitive rumors, thinly-veiled swipes, and vague conspiracy theories about the misandrist oligarchy that apparently rules the discipline*?

The thing is, I don’t think that anonymity is actually the problem. Like almost any tool, anonymity can be used for good or for ill. The problem is us. A lot of us need to change why we use these blogs, and how we interact with each other on them.

My suspicion is that a norm in favor of posting with our real names would only serve to further segment the readership and community of sites like Daily N – errr, whichever blog it is that you run. Those comfortable enough to use their own names would primarily talk to each other there, and might pay anonymous comments less attention or assign them less credibility. Those worried about expressing themselves due to their vulnerability or the unpopularity of their concerns would increasingly talk to each other elsewhere. And those excluded by the institutional security that protects the first group and the moderation policies that protect the second group would take their suppression as further evidence of conspiracy, and talk to each other still elsewhere. All else being equal, I think that representative discussions are better than signed discussions.

Nor do I think the answer is further increasing the stringency of moderation in an attempt to prevent all offensive, marginalizing, and chilling speech from getting through. Moderators are embodied, socially situated individuals, and can’t have a perfect sense of what’s problematic. When they think they do, they can inadvertently grant legitimacy to a terrible statement by letting it slip through. Even if moderators could do a perfect job of protecting commentators while single-handedly determining which comments are worthwhile, it seems a little demanding to suggest that the responsibility rests with folks like you to block bad speech, rather than resting with folks like us to reconsider our speech. Besides, as we both agree, even ideally moderated blogs can’t protect commentators from being harassed elsewhere. And that’s where the real chilling effect comes into play.

So let’s talk about the unmoderated corners of the philosophical blogosphere. I suppose one could think that there’s a very narrow sense in which the existence of such sites improves the conversation everywhere else: people with a taste for the unbridled and the unsubstantiated gravitate toward a community where anything goes, freeing the rest of us to ignore their particular brand of anarcho-vileness. If someone there attacks us, we can either enjoy the bliss of failing to notice, or dismiss the rancor that finds its way back to us as the low-credence, ultimately harmless trolling that it is. But of course, this response is horribly mistaken.

First, it ignores what creates these spaces in the first place, and how even substantively appropriate, well-meaning suppression can reinforce and intensify opinion. There’s a productive intervention point somewhere between growing grievance and the inflexible contempt of self-diagnosed victimhood, a point where direct engagement could potentially help. To be clear, I would never advise someone to feed the trolls, for the favorite dish of the troll is earnest intervention with a side of good intentions. But trolls probably begin their lifecycle as reasonable people (probably), so carefully airing some of the issues they purport to care about could prevent the merely confused, uncertain, and distraught of today from growing up to be the trolls of tomorrow**.

Second, the ‘self-selecting quarantine’ response drastically underestimates how far outside these spaces their fully-festered harm can extend. This stuff leaks out. Rumors and ‘common knowledge’ can be absorbed unreflectively or second hand, leading to damaged reputations and disastrous misinformation. A culture of hair-trigger resentment and disaffected aggression can become the norm in other philosophical settings. Raising controversial questions can end up doing little more than letting slip the dogs of flame war. Valuable conversations can get drowned out, or moved to private spaces where others are unable to benefit or contribute. And just as you worry, J.U.S.T.I.N., people with worthwhile things to say can decide that it’s not worth taking part at all. Which is to say nothing of the potential for serious threats and in-person abuse.

So if not signed comments, increased moderation, or exiling the trolls to their wretched hives of scum and villainy… what do I think could work? Working on ourselves.

As cloyingly naive as it sounds, when we’re engaging with the philosophical blogosphere, we need to remember that these are real people that we’re talking about and interacting with. When you create a rumor for the lulz, or mock a sincerely raised question, or indict the motivations of a group you’ve never met because your own situation is insecure, or crank up the volume in an echo chamber to reassure yourself that someone else is the problem, or take easy potshots from the comfort of untraceable perches, you’re not being subversive, and you’re not speaking truth to power. You’re just bullying someone to make yourself feel better or to briefly impress someone whose bitterness rivals your own. Being reflexively contrary doesn’t make you wise, issuing accusations that are equal parts loud and vague doesn’t make you a radical, and scoring points doesn’t mean that you’re winning. Somewhere along the way, the necessary aim of challenging prevailing norms and conventions gave way to pointing at a computer screen and crowing “Heh, look at what I said! That showed ‘em.” Somewhere along the way, we let go of our online empathy and concern because they were getting in the way of yelling to address our own needs to soothe our own egos. We sometimes lack basic consideration, and we too often consider that normal.

So part of my advice is aimed at those trolls that can still be reached: while taking part in a sincere conversation is a lot harder than issuing snarky and self-congratulatory jabs from the sidelines, it alone has a chance of changing things. Ask yourself what you care about more: fixing the problems you see in the profession, or becoming a fully self-actualized troll? By opting for the latter, you not only liquidate whatever righteousness you might have had, but you tarnish your cause by our own association with it. Nice job. (And if asking you to engage productively is too much, then at the very least follow this much easier guideline: don’t attack people in lieu of ideas. Employing ad hominems makes you an unmitigated poopstrudel.)

That said, hardened bullies already appreciate that their targets are real people with feelings. That’s why they’re doing it. So what about J.U.S.T.I.N.’s central question: how can we encourage people with worthwhile things to say to join a space where bullies lurk? I could hit you with platitudes: the more individuals help to improve the conversation instead of ceding the floor to trolls, the closer we’ll come to a positive tipping point. But I don’t actually believe that a genuinely open forum and a genuine safe space can coexist. I could try to rally you by appealing to your philosophical natures: philosophy is all about braving the fallout of our considered judgments. But that confuses withstanding critical feedback with enduring pointless hate. I could try appealing to pride: can you really live with being silenced? But philosophers already have many offline venues where they can speak. I could try to gloss over the dilemma with a disarming quip: no internet troll could ever say anything crueler or more misguided than what we already face in the average referee report. But I have no desire to minimize the risks of engaging online.

The answer, I think, goes back to why we even have online discussions in the first place. Because not everyone can read our articles, or attend our presentations, or enroll in our lectures. Because the internet is still the best way we have to reach out to one another, to exchange ideas with people we otherwise wouldn’t encounter, and to draw new voices into the mix. And because, quite simply, someone out there might need to hear what you have to say. You know how we often remark that a class was worth teaching if at least one student walked away changed? The words we say online can go anywhere, and linger forever. Think of the difference we can make.

We should have discussions on blogs because they’re valuable. I believe that value is worth the risk.

— Louie Generis

* Remember, next meeting this Thursday!
** Dibs on the band name Trolls of Tomorrow.

Do you want Louie Generis to tell you what to do? Send your questions to [email protected]! And in the meantime, continue the discussion in the comments below.

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