Why Trolls Start Flame Wars . . .

Internet Psychology 101:  Swearing and Name-Calling Shut Down the Ability to Think and Focus


Psychological studies show that swearing and name-calling in Internet discussions shut down our ability to think.

Twi professors of science communication at the University of Wisconsin, Madison – Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele – wrote in the New York Times last year:

In a study published online last month in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, we and three colleagues report on an experiment designed to measure what one might call “the nasty effect.”

We asked 1,183 participants to carefully read a news post on a fictitious blog, explaining the potential risks and benefits of a new technology product called nanosilver. These infinitesimal silver particles, tinier than 100-billionths of a meter in any dimension, have several potential benefits (like antibacterial properties) and risks (like water contamination), the online article reported.

Then we had participants read comments on the post, supposedly from other readers, and respond to questions regarding the content of the article itself.

Half of our sample was exposed to civil reader comments and the other half to rude ones — though the actual content, length and intensity of the comments, which varied from being supportive of the new technology to being wary of the risks, were consistent across both groups. The only difference was that the rude ones contained epithets or curse words, as in: “If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these kinds of products, you’re an idiot” and “You’re stupid if you’re not thinking of the risks for the fish and other plants and animals in water tainted with silver.”

The results were both surprising and disturbing. Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.

In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.

Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought.

While it’s hard to quantify the distortional effects of such online nastiness, it’s bound to be quite substantial, particularly — and perhaps ironically — in the area of science news.

So why do people troll in a rude way?

Psychologists say that many Internet trolls are psychopaths, sadists and narcissists getting their jollies. It’s easy to underestimate how many of these types of sickos are out there: There are millions of sociopaths in the U.S. alone.

But intelligence agencies are also intentionally disrupting political discussion on the web, and ad hominen attacks, name-calling and divide-and-conquer tactics are all well-known, frequently-used disruption techniques.

Now you know why … flame wars polarize thinking, and stop the ability to focus on the actual topic and facts under discussion.

Indeed, this tactic is so effective that the same wiseguy may play both sides of the fight.

Postscript:  Fortunately, it’s not that difficult to isolate the trolls and stop their disruption … if we just point out what they’re doing.

For example, I’ve found that posting something like this can be very effective:

Good Number 1!

Or this might be better if the troll is a sociopath:

Isn’t that kind of “entertainment” more appropriate elsewhere?

(include the link so people can see what you’re referring to.)

The reason this is effective is that other readers will learn about the specific disruption tactic being used … in context, like seeing wildlife while holding a wildlife guide, so that one learns what it looks like “in the field”.   At the same time, you come across as humorous, light-hearted and smart … instead of heavy-handed or overly-intense.

Try it … it works.

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