Tag Archives: trolling

The Ring of Gyges

Image result for gyges greek mythology

For many years now, I’ve used the anonymity of internet comments as an example of the Ring of Gyges in the first book of Plato’s Republic. No doubt you’re familiar with the idea: given a ring of invisibility, would you be a jerk or not? The internet sometimes grants a kind of anonymity with regard to dialectical exchanges on the internet. If you don’t have to reveal who you are, will you write the uninhibited comment rich with all manner of ad hominem? The thought was that lots of people would.

Well, it turns out this thought was probably wrong. Research seems to indicate that internet anonymity does not contribute to debased debates. It’s (partially) something much more satisfying (to me): lack of regulation:

Clear social norms can reduce problems even when people’s names and other identifying information aren’t visible. Social norms are our beliefs about what other people think is acceptable, and norms aren’t de-activated by anonymity. We learn them by observing other people’s behavior and being told what’s expected [2]. Earlier this year, I supported a 14-million-subscriber pseudonymous community to test the effect of rule-postings on newcomer behavior. In preliminary results, we found that posting the rules to the top of a discussion caused first-time commenters to follow the rules 7 percentage points more often on average, from 75% to 82%.

This is somewhat heartening, I think. It holds out hope that people can channel their energies more productively in clearly regulated environments, like this one (so, no ad hominems, jerks).

Aristotle, On Trolling

This long-overdue translation (by Rachel Barney, Toronto) of Aristotle’s seminal, On Trolling, is worth a careful read. A sample:

Hence the modes of trolling are many: the concern-troll, the one who ‘sees the other side’, the polite inquirer into the obvious. For the perfected troll has no need of rudeness or abuse, or even of fallacy (this belongs rather to sophistic or eristic, and requires making an argument): he only makes a suggestion or indication [semainein ˆ ].

Read it. It’s only two pages.

This guy gets it kind of

Here's Michael B.Keegan, one of The Huffington Post's (sorry!) various bloggers, on Ann Coulter:

When you put Ann Coulter on TV, she may say something provocative. She is also guaranteed to say something offensive, tasteless, and meant only purely to provoke controversy. These are not the same thing.

George Stephanopoulos, host of ABC's This Week, appears to have forgotten the difference between provocative discussion and straight-up trolling.

Last Sunday, This Week invited Coulter to participate in a roundtable discussion for the third time this year. Reliably, Coulter managed to fit as many ignorant and insulting statements as she could in her time on national television while shamelessly plugging her latest book. She announced that civil rights are only "for blacks" – not for "gay rights groups, those defending immigrants, and feminists." She continued, "We don't owe the homeless. We don't owe feminists. We don't owe women who are desirous of having abortions, or gays who want to get married to one another."

We could spend our time countering Coulter's anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-feminist, anti-homeless rant, but that would be a waste of time. Her cheap attempts at provocation have kept her in the public eye for years but have never, as far as I know, led to a productive discussion. Her attacks on 9/11 widows, women voters, abortion providers, Jews and Muslims are not designed to start an honest conversation. Instead, they were shameless attempts at self-promotion at the expense of decency and civility.

Is there any other commentator who's invited to "mainstream" talk shows simply to hurl ignorant insults?

Coulter is the epitome of the false "balance" the mainstream media is trying to bring to political debate, treating right-wing conspiracy theories and animosities as just the "other side" of the news. Coulter's not presenting anyone's "side." She's just talking trash and calling it an opinion.

This sounds pretty much right to me.  Coulter's participation in our national discussion is completely unserious and only someone sadly unable to distinguish seriousness from sophistry could conclude otherwise. 

The problem, however, lies in trying to identify what's so bad about it.  Keegan here has argued, correctly I think, that Coulter isn't really trying.  There isn't any value, he implies, in refuting views she holds only as provocations.  What to do, however, with people who do hold these views.  The other day (I can't remember where), Alan Colmes said that Sean Hannity, a Fox News blowhard, holds his views sincerely, and that he admires him for that.  I'd still think that Hannity has no place in ordinary debates, no matter how serious he takes himself to be.  He's not really up to the task of critical self-evaluation. 

So, yes, Coulter's probably not serious.  But more importantly, her views have been decisively refuted already.  Why bother giving them more life?

Not sure if Troll, or just illustration of Poe’s Law part #1834

The other day I posted something on Senator Grassley's attempt to find a contradiction in Democrats' support for more robust child labor laws–it would keep children from being physically active, he said.  That sounded like a joke–but it wasn't.  Now comes Keith Ablow, of Fox News, arguing that Newt Gingrich's adultery makes him a better candidate for President than non-adulterers.  He argues:

1) Three women have met Mr. Gingrich and been so moved by his emotional energy and intellect that they decided they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with him.

2) Two of these women felt this way even though Mr. Gingrich was already married.

3 ) One of them felt this way even though Mr. Gingrich was already married for the second time, was not exactly her equal in the looks department and had a wife (Marianne) who wanted to make his life without her as painful as possible.

Conclusion: When three women want to sign on for life with a man who is now running for president, I worry more about whether we’ll be clamoring for a third Gingrich term, not whether we’ll want to let him go after one.

The people, by whom I mean three women who have been married to Gingrich, have spoken.  Clearly the nation as a whole will like him.  There's more:

4) Two women—Mr. Gingrich’s first two wives—have sat down with him while he delivered to them incredibly painful truths: that he no longer loved them as he did before, that he had fallen in love with other women and that he needed to follow his heart, despite the great price he would pay financially and the risk he would be taking with his reputation.

Conclusion: I can only hope Mr. Gingrich will be as direct and unsparing with the Congress, the American people and our allies. If this nation must now move with conviction in the direction of its heart, Newt Gingrich is obviously no stranger to that journey.

Hm. Not sure if Ablow means he hopes Gingrich dumps the US for a younger, sexier country, which he will carry on a secret affair with (Iran maybe).

Did it for the lulz*

For whatever reason, honestly and firmly believing what you argue seems to be a fundamental requirement in a critical discussion.  On account of this, a key challenge to an opponent is that not even she really believe what she's saying.  It's a kind of (non-fallacious) ad hominem scheme: "you don't believe what you're saying, so I'm not going to waste time with you."  Basically, it's an accusation of trolling.  Enter O'Reilly and Trump (via the Huffington Post–sorry, boycotting New York Times' pay wall):

O'Reilly said his show had looked into the claims about Obama's birth certificate. Once they found the two Honolulu newspapers which announced his birth, he said he "put [the issue] to bed," since "that is impossible to make happen" if Obama was not born in a Honolulu hospital. O'Reilly labeled Obama's mother a "hippie," and scoffed at the notion that there was a "sophisticated conspiracy" to smuggle Obama into the U.S. and forge his identity.

"What is he, baby Jesus?" he joked. Trump said that he remained convinced that there was something fishy going on. "People have birth certificates," he said. "He doesn't have one." He then repeated the speculation that had so angered Whoopi Goldberg—that something on the birth certificate must be so radioactive that Obama is covering it up. "Maybe it says he's a Muslim, I don't know," Trump said. "…If he wasn't born in this country, it's one of the great scams of this time."

O'Reilly finally said he didn't believe that Trump was serious in his skepticism. "It's provocative, I think it gets a lot of attention, but I don't think you believe it," he said.

This is an obviously legitimate employment of it–good for you Bill O'Reilly–but I wonder what you'd call the illegitimate use–should we just call it "trolling."  How might we identify it?  What might be the scheme?


UPDATE.  Can't believe I forgot the recent revelation from a Fox News personality that he advocated for an idea he found "privately" to be "far-fetched".  I guess he did it for the lulz.