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Constructively dealing with trolls in science communication

Update (4/6/16): This has quickly turned into the most popular post on the site; it’s been so nice to hear from folks who have found it useful! If you have a minute after you’ve finished reading, please check out my other guides (and a list of pending topics). You can also sign up for my newsletter here

 What you’re getting into: a 3000 word guide to dealing with trolls in science communication, roughly a 10-minute read.

Trolls suck. They have a direct psychological impact on the people they target – from annoyance and vexation to frustration and anger. And they can make constructive online discussions on platforms like Twitter and Facebook nearly impossible. But dealing with trolls can be straightforward. Indeed, most public relations advice on trolling is consistent across industries and across topics: don’t feed the trolls, keep a level head, respond to more serious trolling on one’s own terms, and go back to dealing with reasonable people.

The advice is not much different in science communication, but trolls do have a unique impact in this particular field. First, trolls are irrational. But science-minded people are not. We tend to operate from the assumption that everyone else can and should act as rationally as we do. That’s a mistake, especially with trolls. Second, trolls attack people’s reputations and integrity in a way that is quite out of bounds in normal science-related discourse. These circumstances can feel so strange that scientists and science communicators often feel an urge to respond to trolls that would never occur to actors, musicians or other public figures who are targeted by them.

One of XKCD's best cartoons depicts the typical science communicator getting trolled.

One of XKCD’s best cartoons depicts the typical science communicator getting trolled.

Unfortunately, trolls are legion in some areas of science communication – especially climate, biotech and vaccines. And I’m honestly surprised to see scientists, science communicators and science journalists spend so much time interacting with and thinking and talking about their trolls.

The truth is that trolls are just bullies. They usually only talk to each other and no one outside their circles pays attention to what they have to say. But there are exceptions and it’s worth understanding why people troll and how scientists, science communicators, and even some science journalists who are targeted by trolls can effectively – and constructively – respond.

Recognizing trolls

Trolling had a slightly different meaning in the old, pre-digital-native Internet, but nowadays it usually means someone who posts nasty things online with the intent of provoking a reaction, usually emotional, from their targets.

Ideologues will often use trolling or troll-like tactics to target individuals with whom they disagree, including scientists, science communicators and journalists. They threaten people, call them names, twist their words, accuse them of believing things they don’t believe and sometimes even make mean memes about them if they’ve learned how to use a graphics program.

If someone works on an issue that gets trolled a lot, it’s easy to assume that any criticism or questioning of one’s work is coming from an unreachable troll. Most of the time that’s exactly the case: the only people motivated enough to complain are people who already have unshakable opinions.

There are exceptions, though. Sometimes, well-meaning critics will come along who simply aren’t aware that they’re stepping on well-trodden turf. Similarly, people who have been exposed to inaccurate and mean-spirited messages on a given topic may innocently make a point or ask a question not knowing that it comes across as trolling. 

The good news is that there are still many people who can engage in spirited, but civil disagreements, including online, without resorting to troll-like tactics. So it’s important not to assume that all critics or even all sources of scrutiny are trolling.

If someone is ever wondering about whether or not they’re being trolled, trolls will usually out themselves quickly, within just one to two interactions, in my experience. The hallmarks of trolling on science-related issues include:

  • Gish Galloping or creating straw men instead of responding to the points a target makes
  • Insisting they know what a target really means instead of taking responses at face value
  • Posing an endless series of questions to create more grist for trolling
  • A seeming inability to acknowledge that other people may have different, valid opinions
  • Attempts to score points with a perceived audience rather than engage in direct dialogue
  • Taking a target’s statements out of context by twisting single words and short phrases
  • Failing to cite sources or citing sources that don’t back up claims
  • Focusing on criticism and complaints to the exclusion of solutions
  • Quickly devolving into ad hominem arguments

Emotional responses to trolling

When a stranger insults us online, it can still feel very personal despite the fact that that person doesn’t know us. Our first instinct when trolled is to defend ourselves and to assert our own honesty, integrity or rationality. But the decision to troll actually says a lot more about the troll than it does about their target.

Consider the reality of the situation. Someone is sitting on one other end of an Internet connection “yelling” at someone else through their keyboard.

Why are they doing this? Usually it’s because they’re angry. Their political beliefs are so strong that they feel justified going after anyone they see as opposed to them. Or maybe they feel helpless and want to use social media to lash out at people they perceive as more powerful than they are. Some studies have found that trolls are psychologically much meaner than the average person, too, exhibiting traits like sadism and psychopathy, leading them to revel in the mischief they can create online.

Nelson

How most trolls feel on the inside.

Before someone reacts to a troll, if at all, they should consider what the troll wants a target to feel so they can better control their own reactions:

Embarrassment and shame – Trolls want their targets to think they are getting publicly shamed by a wide and influential audience. And social media platforms, especially Twitter, can make it seem like more people are paying attention to trolls than they actually are. Further, trolls will often tag or cc people they see as having influence over their targets, including institutions, peers, supervisors, and other powerful figures. That can seem daunting to a target, but it’s actually an indication that a troll is just flailing around to provoke any kind of reaction they can muster. Indeed, when we see other people getting trolled, we tend not to care that much and that’s the same way other people feel when they see us getting trolled. Trolls have a lot less power than we give them credit for.

Worry – Trolls want their targets to feel hesitant to speak and write about their work. By creating a negative and nasty environment around a given topic, trolls hope to poison the well to the point where they are the only ones left drinking from it.

Anger – Trolls really love pissing people off. It makes them feel powerful – they got under someone’s skin! – and angry responses give trolls another round of grist to mill for more trolling.

How should targets feel instead?

Pride –  Trolls target people who they think have more power and influence than they do. If you’re getting trolled, you’re probably having an impact.

Amusement – Most troll arguments are pretty silly. Treating them seriously often gives them far more credence than they deserve. People who are targeted by trolls should imagine how they would react if they saw a tough-as-nails peer being targeted in the same way. Might they find it ridiculous and blow it off? Or even make fun of it?

Sympathy, empathy and grace – Trolling is honestly pretty pathetic behavior. As with adolescent bullies, it’s worth considering what sort of pain and anger is behind someone’s trolling. There’s surely very little one can do from afar to ease a troll’s suffering, but consider this: interacting with a troll can be unhealthy for the troll, too, because it encourages them to keep trolling, feeding into whatever negative emotion is causing them to lash out on the Internet in the first place.

Does anyone care? Trolls and their insular audiences

Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are built to make us think that everything happening on social media is super-duper important. (Notification! You’ve got a dozen favorites! Bing bing bing!) But just because something is on social media doesn’t mean that anyone cares, is paying attention or will even remember it seven seconds from now. The same principles largely extend to email, though that medium is more private.

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OMG A NOTIFICATION!!!

People who are targeted by trolls should ask themselves: Are other people liking, retweeting or sharing what the troll is posting? If they are, do I care what those people think? How many followers do the trolls have? Are they just following each other? How in the weeds would someone have to go to even follow what the trolls are talking about?

Most of the time, trolls on science-related topics are part of a loose, insular network of the same old folks. Their attacks are like a rolling bar fight that just keeps spilling over into new venues. And even when they succeed in getting short bursts of wider attention for their antics – for example, when a few racist idiots “boycotted” Star Wars – nobody remembers just a few days later.

When trolls actually do matter

Every once in awhile, trolls can leverage their online pestering into something more serious, opening the door to media coverage or attention from policymakers. That’s usually the point at which a target should consider some sort of robust, on-the-record response. Why then? Because it’s the threshold at which other people in one’s profession might start to pay attention and think that something might be amiss. It’s also the point at which trolls might affect the Google search results for a target’s name, especially if they don’t have much of an established Internet footprint already. Indeed, this is the one major long-term consequence victims of trolling campaigns have to deal with, as British journalist Jon Ronson has chronicled.

Another case is corporate and front-group-backed trolling, which is usually used to target public interest scientists and journalists. In those cases, it can be hard to differentiate between negative, grassroots-level troll sentiment and professional trolls who stoke that sentiment. Regardless, it’s worth calling out if it looks like an attempt by industry groups to warp public debates.

Finally, trolling doesn’t just happen with strangers on Twitter. It also happens in academia and in media when individuals and institutions violate professional norms by attacking people through innuendo, mischaracterizations, threats, lies and personal attacks.

Scaled responses to trolling

Responding to trolls can be straightforward and should be tailored to their persistence level and a target’s stomach for engaging.

Ignore: As with bullies, the best way to respond to a troll is to ignore them. It tells the troll they have no power or influence over their target and most of them will quickly move back under their bridge.

Block buttons exist for a reason: The other simple response to trolls is to block them. No, seriously, block them. Blocking isn’t censorship or an admission of defeat – it’s simply a filter, in the same way we install ad blockers on browsers or choose not to tune into shows we don’t like. It’s so disappointing when I see scientists and other reasonable professionals waste their time responding to trolls. Surely, we all have better things to do. Similarly, targets can auto-archive emails from trolls, report them for spam, and otherwise close off the communications channels trolls use to target them.

Minimize responses Arguing with a troll is like mud wrestling with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig enjoys it. Trolls thrive off provoking people, so ignoring them is usually the best way to get them to move on.

Hooray, the science nerds are arguing with me! Oink oink!

Hooray, the science nerds are arguing with me! (Also, to be fair to the pigs,this is actually not fun for them. It’s hard to find a picture of a pig that looks happy in this situation! Picture links back to source; Post-Crescent via USA Today.)

If you absolutely must respond to a troll, just make it a one-and-done:

  • “Hey – That’s not what I meant, but thanks for stopping by..”
  • “That’s certainly a perspective. Thanks for sharing.”
  • “I’ve heard that before. Here’s a link…”
  • “Haha. Good one.”
  • “Interesting. Thanks.”
  • “Hmmm.”

Imagine reading these messages from the troll’s perspective. What are they going to do with that? Usually nothing because they’re being denied the emotional response they want. Of course, some trolls will take anything a target writes even a “hmmm” and try to twist it. In that case, if you have to respond, just send them an on-point link with no additional commentary. Trolls don’t actually read links – that would require genuine curiosity – and they don’t trust their perceived audience to read links either, so it’s usually a conversation-ender.

One link to rule them all: If a target is persistently trolled by one person or on a specific point, they should create a single link online that they control where they can respond. For instance, several scientists created a helpful FAQ on RealClimate.org when their paleoclimate research was attacked. Similarly, check out Frank Ackerman’s responses to Richard Tol, a notoriously nasty economist who publicly attacks other academics with whom he disagrees.

These one-link resources ensure that targets are able to respond on their own terms and it spares them from having to play whack-a-mole in multiple venues to knock down bad claims. It also creates a link of record that a target can share with reasonable people, including journalists, in response to troll attacks in other venues. 

Further, if a troll responds on a site a target controls, the target can actually debunk the troll’s points one-by-one, such as through embedded commentary. Doing so destroys a troll’s ability to obfuscate and Gish Gallop. Finally, such resources are also useful for exposing things a troll might be doing privately, such as emailing a target’s supervisor or spreading false information about them in person.

Brush your shoulders off, do something constructive instead

Trolls are depressing as hell. And kind of weird. Unfortunately, when trolls succeed, they drag other people down to their level.

It’s not only wrong but simply counterproductive to let trolls influence people’s actions, beliefs, or the frames with which they approach issues. For instance, I was once working with a peer on an online science communication presentation. She was worried about what an academic blogger might say in response to our event since the blogger had targeted her for criticism before. As we discussed the pros and cons of going ahead with the presentation, I realized that there are two types of people who do public communication around science: constructive people and destructive people.

We were trying to do something constructive for an audience of scientists eager to learn about communication. This blogger was attempting to do something destructive instead, tearing other people down in the service of his agenda. We went ahead with the presentation and it was very successful.

Effective science communication: 1 Troll: 0.

So when I hear scientists and science communicators talking about their trolls, I always wonder: what the heck would they be talking about instead if not for these trolly trolly trolls? Probably science! Or they’d be talking to other people who have their ears and eyes open.

I’d like to see science communicators find way to respond to trolls constructively. That largely requires recognizing that we can’t do anything to change the trolls themselves. They’re just out there trolling. Instead, I think we should use trolling as a trigger to do something constructive.

Consider this…What if every time a scientist or science communicator were trolled they:

  • Reached out to an old colleague they haven’t heard from in a while.
  • Posted something interesting about their field on social media.
  • Sent a journalist a note about forthcoming research.
  • Emailed their scientific society to ask about upcoming public outreach opportunities.
  • Went for a nice walk outside.

All of these are way better uses of our time than worrying about the trolls. (Also see a few more ideas below, including my inspiration for the above response.)

It’s like Taylor Swift says: haters gonna hate. You just have to shake it off.

Yes, I have cited Taylor Swift at a scientific conference.

A big note on gender

I’m from New Jersey. And my friends once gave me a robot-related nickname. So it’s probably a little bit easier for me to let trolling roll of my back than it is for other folks.

I’m also a dude. And I hope it’s fair to say that our society generally raises women to care more about other people’s opinions, including strangers, and puts the burden on women to make other people around them feel happy. As a result, it’s been my experience that men are more likely to blame trolls for trolling while women are much more likely to wonder what they could have done differently to avoid getting trolled. At the same time, trolling behavior directed at women is also a lot nastier than trolling behavior directed at men. That’s because sexist-bro dude-trolls feel threatened when they see women in positions of power, including in journalism, communications and science.

These trolling behaviors are closely related to sexual harassment, too. Harassers should obviously face scrutiny and punishment and it’s good to see scientific institutions finally,  haltingly start to deal with endemic sexual harassment. But when such harassment takes place online and is anonymous, it’s hard for women who are targeted by it – and other people who see it – to know what to do beyond reporting it as abusive behavior.

That’s why I’m so grateful to have read about an idea from biology student and Wikipedian Emily Temple-Wood. She creates a new woman-in-science Wikipedia entry when she faces online harassment. What a stupendously great way to respond! I love it. (And that’s exactly what got me thinking about other proactive ways to respond to trolls, as described above.)

You can contribute to the project here. I’ve done so a few times now in response to sexist comments I’ve seen directed at female peers. It feels great to be able to respond to something depressing and destructive and turn it into something awesome and constructive instead. Woohoo!

I’d strongly encourage others to contribute to this project or ones like it any time they see someone getting trolled, but especially when they see sexist trolling.

Always be proactive

Well, that was a long discussion about trolls, wasn’t it? I’m glad you made it this far and I hope this was useful. If there’s a TL;DR for this post it’s this: never let the trolls drag you down and always be proactive with your public communication.

Update (4/18/16 ): This post has been translated into Italian by CICAP, the Italian Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Pseudosciences. Grazie!

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