Archives For trolls

fable troll

Every internet community has them and many have been killed by them. They crave two things most of all: attention and a platform to broadcast whatever comes to mind, and every time they appear, you can safely bet that someone will admonish users engaging with them not to feed a troll as per the common axiom. But what if, just to propose something crazy here, maybe there are reasons to talk to them, downvote them, and otherwise show your displeasure because an appropriate amount of push back will finally solidify the message that they’re not wanted? They could either leave or give up on their trollish ways. Either way, it would be an improvement. So, following this hypothesis, a small group at a Bay Area college collected 42 million comments on huge gaming, political, and news sites with a grand total of 114 million votes spanning as many as 1.8 million unique users, to figure out once and for all if you can downvote trolls into oblivion or force them to productively contribute. Unfortunately, the answer is a pretty definitive no.

After creating an artificial neural network to gauge whether comments deserved an upvote or a downvote after using the actual discussion threads as a training set, the researchers decided to follow users’ comment histories to see how feedback from others affected them over time. They found that users who were ignored simply stopped participating, which seems quite logical. It’s simply a waste of time and effort to shout into the digital aether with no feedback. But when the computer followed the trolls, the data showed that even withering negativity had pretty much no effect on what they posted or how much. Their comments didn’t change and they did not seem to care at all about the community’s opinions of them. If they wanted to antagonize people, they kept right on doing it. We could say that not every person who provoked a flood of negativity in response is a troll, true. Some of the political sites used in the sample are extremely partisan so any deviation from the party line can provoke a dog pile. But by the same token, while not every maligned comment is trollish, most trollish comments are maligned, so the idea still holds.

With this in mind, how do we police trolls? Not feeding them does seem to be the best strategy, but considering how many of us suffer from SIWOTI syndrome — and yes, I’m not an exception to this by any stretch of the imagination since half this blog is a manifestation of it — and will not let trollish things go, it’s not always feasible. This means that shadow banning is actually by far the most effective technique to deal with problematic users. Because they won’t know they’re in their own little sandbox invisible to everyone else, their attempts to garner attention are always ignored so they get bored and leave. Of course this method isn’t foolproof, but a well designed and ran community will quickly channel even repeat offenders into the shadow banned abyss to be alone with their meanderings. In short, according to science, the best thing we can do to put a stop to trolling is to aggressively ignore them, as paradoxical as that sounds at first blush.

facebook like

Adrian Chen is somewhat of an expert on controversial social media content. After all, his most popular story was a damning expose of a forum moderator who posted all sorts of controversial and questionable content on reddit. But after sifting through the deepest and darkest dungeons of reddit and finding leaked content guidelines for Facebook moderators overseas, Chen finally got a shot at the big leagues and went to Russia to track down the HQ of the infamous army of internet trolls operated by the country’s intelligence services. The results weren’t pretty. While it seemed like a productive trip confirming much of what many of us already know, he fell for one of the oldest scams in the book and was used in a fake news article claiming that he was a CIA operative who was recruiting neo-Nazis to encourage anti-Russian protests. Which in Russia is about the moral equivalent of recruiting the pedophiles from NAMBLA to lobby states to change their age of consent laws. In case that wasn’t clear, they really, really hate neo-Nazis.

This is really par for the course when it comes to dealing with today’s Russian media which has been feeding its citizens a steady diet of conspiracy theories. The people who tricked Chen are the same people who use David Icke as a political science expert and interview him while he’s going on and on about American-driven New World Order-style machinations to quickly cut the cameras and microphones before he can go on to point the finger to a group of alien lizards in change of the planet. Just like the Soviet propagandists of the previous generation, they give it their all to make life outside of Russia seem downright hellish for the average person, and paint the world as being mostly aligned against Russia simply for the sake of keeping a former grand superpower down so they can easily steal nuclear weapons, vast oil and gas reserves, and lure impressionable, young, highly educated youth overseas with empty promises of wealth, luxury, and non-stop parties after work. I can’t tell you when it started, but I can tell you that is began in the Russian part of the web as Chen accurately describes, and gotten exponentially worse.

However, Russia is not unique is doing this. It may perhaps be one of the best troll factories out there, but it’s far from the only one. You can probably safely assume that a third of pretty much everything you see on the web is fake, created by trolls, paid shills, or click-farm workers whose job it is to add fake Facebook likes and Twitter followers for corporations, think tanks, and even political candidates. With the anonymity of the internet comes freedom, but with that freedom is the understanding that it can be abused to present lies and facilitate frauds on a massive scale, and since many people still don’t take internet seriously enough, one can get away with lying or scamming for cash with no real consequence. Ban fake accounts or trolls? Others will pop up in seconds. It’s like trying to slay a hydra that can also regrow its heart. All you can really do when it comes to dealing with the fake web is to stay on alert, always double check what you see, and don’t be shy about checking accounts for something that looks or feels wrong. You might not be able to catch every troll and fraud every time, but you’ll weed out the vast majority who want to recruit you to support a fraudulent cause, or trick you into spreading their lies…

[ illustration by Aaron Wood ]


One would think that by now talking about Elevatorgate would go way past beating a dead horse and into the territory of savaging the bleached, brittle bones left as its only remains. But you’re severely underestimating the sheer amount of mileage Rebecca Watson is trying to get out of it by writing an article on Slate about her sheer bewilderment as to how sexist and misogynistic the online skeptical community supposedly really is. By the title alone, you’d think that her account about being propositioned in an elevator ending with a “guys, that’s creepy, don’t do that” just threw open the floodgates of rape threats. Really, at this point the cow has been milked until it’s bleeding from its udders and Watson yet again manages to summon the cloak of feminism to do what she does best and deflect the number one criticism of her handling of the affair by enlisting the help of internet trolls who sound as if they were called from the darkest corners of the web to deliver the kind of misogyny you’d expect from a rabid Muslim cleric on Saudi TV.

Rape threats, while horrible, cannot be simply attributed to the skeptical community at large and doing so is either trying to establish guilt by association, or by labeling everyone who can visit a wide open public blog as part of the skeptical movement. I find it very difficult to swallow that with so many skeptics out there submitting their critiques of Watson’s blanket declarations, only the most vitriolic trolling is featured and highlighted, especially since she has a very heavy-handed moderation policy on Skepchick. The trolls aren’t just being fed, they’re given a feast the likes of which would be hard to find outside Valhalla! Every time they strike in response to her claims of widespread misogyny among society in general and skeptics in particular, she raises them on a pedestal and uses their most unhinged threats and sexist smears as supposed examples of the criticism she gets, giving them even more fuel to send her vicious threats. Rinse, repeat, ramp it up, soak up the hits in a disservice to her fellow skeptics, both male and female.

By the end of the day, one would think that the only comments she gets are either from devoted, supportive fans proud of all the fine work she’s doing or threaten her with gang rape on her way from the grocery store with nothing in between. Indeed, the skeptics have been so bad this year that we’re now not allowed to have adult themed calendars as we’re all pigs and don’t know how to be mature about sexuality, we’ll just stare at women and drool because that’s what we were told to do by mass media and a patriarchal society. Seriously, there’s feminism and there’s just going too far and Watson has been doubling down on going to far at every opportunity. Instead of fixing the legitimate problems she complained about and moving on, this has become the year of the Elevatorgate for the skeptical community and the so-called leaders of skeptical groups are now mired in melodramas that happen in bars after skeptic meetups and blog networks. So much for teaching people about science and skeptical inquiry, right? After all, geek drama, angst, and gossip are so much more important and worthy of our time…

fighting a troll

Please excuse the lack of posts ladies and germs, it wasn’t exactly planned that way. In fact, the new posts for the weekend were supposed to have been scheduled but with some recent travel and moving, the posts never got queued up for publication. Again, sorry about that, my bad. But before we get back into a more normal post schedule, I wanted to address an odd news bit that appeared on my radar today. It seems that one of the founding mothers of Atheism+ and one of the targets of my post on the Great Atheism Schism, decided to stop blogging altogether. Citing abuse from social media and depression, Jen McCreight says that she’ll be pulling the plug on her blog, effectively saying that internet misogynists ran her offline. Being one of the people who disagreed with her, I have mixed reactions about how her decision will play out. One could say that if you start something, finish it and that virtual abuse is the price all bloggers pay for stating their opinions. However, there is a point where enough is just enough.

You can block troll after troll after troll, sure. But with enough trolls, it’s like trying to stop a tidal wave with an umbrella. Blanket bans on social media platforms are in the hands of admins, not users, and when enough enraged critics mark you as a common target, your screen will quickly fill up with hate. We could use McCreight’s decisions as a point to stop, state that skeptics firmly believe that no matter how much we disagree with someone, no one should have to be shouted off his or her soapbox unless the person in question is doing something unquestionably harmful, like say, selling snake oil, and naturally filter out skeptics with strong opinions but respectful of others from those who surf skeptical blogs with nothing but venom to inject into a conversation. Unfortunately, we’re more than likely going to see a wave of posts saying that the feminism wars are now out of control as one of its generals has fallen, and that this only emphasizes the need for Atheism+ to spread, fanning the flames even further and making more and more skeptics on the web disengage from mass coordination and back into smaller groups.

All this is just starting to feel like too much damn drama for a movement. We could attribute a lot of it to growing pains as people with very different opinions collide and use their blogs as their primary weapons in any confrontation, dragging matters we probably would’ve never even tried to hear about into the public square. But at this point, reading FTB is starting to seem more and more like reading TMZ: Geek Edition; "Found out what he said about her and what she said in a big blog post about it, and you’re not going to believe the fight between one of our top bloggers and a commenter about what happened at the last skeptic meetup in a bar they attended!" Ugh, no thanks. A little drama here and there is fun and like any human, I do find a public track wreck in slow motion oddly fascinating and do a bit of rubbernecking. But when a network of blogs what were supposed to highlight the struggles of science and secularism against political religiosity and willful public ignorance is mostly busy unloading gossip, they’re primarily going to get their hits from those emotionally invested in the soap operas more than anything else. This is one of the big reasons I like doing my tech skepticism bit. Few gossipy dramas happen in tech.

So many skeptics that I know are taking another way. They’re still staying skeptics and they’re not shying away about outing their atheism or agnosticism, but they’re not joining any local and national skeptical and atheist groups. Instead, they’re doing science and communicating about what they do and big news in their area of expertise, applying all their skeptical news dissection skills when the news they’re covering calls for it. They research, they write, they educate, and their primary goal is to make people think and question. Maybe that’s what’s really important? In skepticism, you have to train yourself to perform a balancing act between trusting testimonials or anecdotes from people around you, and overcompensating for human nature by reflexively and viciously rejecting anything new or speculative. The name of the game is to question and make conclusions based on empirical data. But what I’m seeing from people who decided to take the skeptical movement by the reins is less and less questioning, and more and more big and really passionate declarations of How Things Should Be™, using anecdotes and backroom gossip to guide how they want to shape the skeptics coming into the fold.

But that’s all right. Skepticism is just an approach to claims on which no group has a monopoly, and having grown up without religion along with many other atheists, I can assure you that with or without FTB or any other atheist blogging network, atheism will survive and thrive. I’m not worried about what will happen to either whether the current dramas implode on all those involved or if it all just blows over when people get sick and tired of it. And I’m not going to fret that I’ve been on the receiving end of blocks and bans on Facebook because I dare mention that I’m not a big fan of Rebecca Watson and some of her antics, or something similar. Like I said, the current leaders of the skeptical movement have shown they can’t lead. But luckily for all of us, they don’t have to since they don’t have an exclusive right to the ideas they say they want to help us espouse. And just like I concluded last time I talked about this, I’m just going to stick to my area of competence while they fight it out amongst themselves. McCreight shouldn’t worry about what will happen to Atheism+ if she’s no longer blogging either. No one can live with the media klaxon turned to 11.5 all day, every day, and despite the duress under which she made her choice, maybe it will give her time to find a new way to reach out and teach skepticism and science on her own terms.

As those of you familiar with running websites or using analytics packages may be aware, webmasters know not only how many visitors they get, but from where those visitors come, both geographically and online. Just for example, I know that over the last year to date, almost 19% of you came to WoWT directly, while 25% of you found it when running a search, and 55% of you clicked on a link to get here. And yes, I can usually see which ones as well as what browser you use (more than twice as many of you prefer Firefox to IE). Why do I bring it up you may ask? Because the same analytics software that helps me find out how readers get to my articles alerted me that someone’s been copy/pasting my posts critical of Ray Kurzweil’s predictions to his site with a link back to the original. In the words of my generation, not cool. Seriously. It’s one thing if you want to use my posts in a debate as a reference. In fact, I’m glad when they’re used this way. But please don’t use my work to basically troll an online community with which you don’t agree. It misrepresents this blog and only ticks off the forum you went out of your way to disrupt rather than accomplish anything of value.

As an oft repeated and generally unattributed expression goes, everything comes to an end eventually. In this case, it was my streak of non-stop daily updates for more than a year, and it was felled by a really bad case of strep throat. My apologies for the unplanned hiatus everybody, but sometimes an organism a trillionth of your size can wreak havoc on a consistent blogging schedule. And while I was trying to recover, I was thinking of a recent rant by Gizmodo editor Joel Johnson which used a number of colorful words to tell some of the blog’s more obnoxious and trollish readers to take their criticism and cram them wherever their species traditionally crams things, to quote Futurama’s Hermes. On the one hand, as any blogger will notice, this is handing trolls a victory because now they’ll get to gloat how they got a major site to lash out at them. On the other, trolls and their complete disregard for even the most basic rules of human interaction on the web must be addressed.

True, I’ve said that civility is either overrated or dead in many of today’s debates, but these statements can only apply to the media’s recently invented rule that any disagreement or criticism harsher than a kind of romantic comedy style befuddled tut-tutting, is a complete and total lack of civility at best, and callous viciousness at its worst. Sort of how Hawking’s statement about the lack of need for any deities in his calculus were equated to the proclamations of the Taliban by a British airhead. That’s just stupid, and it’s a convenient cover for the hordes of over-pampered, over-exposed quacks and cranks infesting today’s television sets. But if we were to leave these faux civility battles behind and just look at some of the comments being left all over the web, we will find gigabytes of abuse and vitriol hurled at someone every day, even about the most inane and narrowest of topics. So you, writer of a tiny blog about vintage computers don’t think this chipset from the 1970s was the absolute best chipset of that technological generation? Well, get ready to suffer the kind of abuse that most of us would probably expect to be hurled at genocidal racists. It’s ridiculous and out of line.

And that’s what so irritated Johnson. After years of being pelted with enough abuse, his patience quite clearly gave out. Unfortunately though, there are some readers who replied politely and in detail, but obviously didn’t get it, insisting that as a professional blogger, Johnson should tolerate every abusive comment out there as a part of his job, because without readers, there’s no Gizmodo, and turning any blog into an echo chamber is an unappealing and intellectually dishonest proposition from an editorial standpoint. My take? He doesn’t. He’s a writer and an editor, not a professional punching bag, and just like any other human, he has a right to ridicule readers who seem incapable of grasping basic rules of civil discourse, howling like apoplectic banshees the instant he writes anything with which they disagree. These kinds of readers contribute nothing to the blog but their venom, dragging every thread down into a flame war. I’ll just delete out of context, obscene outbursts that seem to have been written by someone with very poor to no impulse control and carry on and I would suggest the same course of action for any blogger. We don’t have to deal with trolls’ crap. That’s not our job.

Furthermore, there’s nothing that kills sites faster more than tollish dreck in the comment section because all new readers who want to discuss a topic, or interact with the writers now have to face being called something childishly stupid or pathetically obscene just for daring to voice an opinion. After enough times, pretty much all those readers will say “you know what? screw this place,” and go elsewhere, leaving the trolls to fester in the decaying blog or forum. So we’re not afraid of offending trolls’ sensibilities, or making them feel unwelcome in our online communities. In fact, we know we’re better off without them and encourage them to do something a little more productive with their day than to pester us with the online equivalent of flashing their crotches which will be deleted quickly enough. Maybe get a hobby that involves actually interacting with other humans…