Are You Trying to Get My Goat?

More thoughts from Science Online 2013

Another of the themes that ran through multiple sessions was how to deal with disruption in comments: what to do with trolls. My reason for attending these sessions was not truly blog related — I don’t get the level of commentary where it’s much of a problem. It’s my involvement with Science Forums (dot net!) that led me to the sessions. Some of the sub-text of one of the sessions included how to tell a troll from a cynic or someone who is simply disagreeing, while the other did not, and this inconsistency made the discussions somewhat less useful to me. I make a distinction (and mentioned this in one session) that in the forums there’s a distinction we draw: a troll is someone who is deliberately stirring up trouble by saying outrageous, contrarian things, but a crackpot (or crank) is someone who truly believes the outrageous things they say.

The common behavior of saying outrageous things can make the two indistinguishable at the outset; one possible distinction is the troll’s predilection to appeal to emotion, because an emotional response is what they are after. Lacking that, though, it’s only after some interaction that the differences can be seen: the troll comes up with some new claim to stir the pot, while the crackpot tends to stay on message. The crank, however, (I make a distinction) tends to react emotionally to being corrected and will whine about being personally attacked, but both the crank and crackpot are thoroughly convinced they are right. As an example, someone who shows up on a climate blog and claims that there has been no global warming for the last 15 years may be saying that because they know it will stir everyone up, or because they mistakenly believe it’s actually true (even if they aren’t George Will). After a rebuttal, the troll jumps to the next crap argument, but the true believer continues, on-target. They will not be swayed by mere facts.

In a blog setting it may not be worthwhile to make a distinction — disruption is disruption, and it’s probably best to shut it down so that cooler heads may have an actual discussion. But in a forum, one has an advantage: you can split some types of crackpottery off into its own discussion, and it can be fun trying to pick apart the subtleties of somebody’s pet theory, even though they will never admit to the contradictions you uncover.

There was some discussion about whether it’s better to shut comments off completely, or perhaps just ignoring comments altogether, and that really depends on the goals of traffic and participation. It’s not something I’ve had to worry too much about. Commentary I get is pretty well-behaved, for the most part, and I don’t have an issue with shills (paid trolls) showing up to repeat some message. Aside from Conservapedia, most of physics is pretty controversy-free from that perspective.

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