The three key weapons of trolls - Mara Naile-Akim

For those who seek dialogue across echo chamber boundaries, the challenge is being able to easily call out those who oppose such dialogue and who see opponents as irreconcilable enemies to be overcome. Trolling tactics, ways of sidetracking conversations, are important in defending the core beliefs of any echo chamber, in particular, although not exclusively, online. Not all those who troll do so intentionally, many end up perhaps unwittingly attempting to shut down discourse that clashes with the dominant narratives in their minds — or to give any discourse a framing that they are comfortable with. Yet, the outcome is the same: a breakdown in constructive dialogue and a lack of intellectual curiousity in the beliefs held by people of a different political persuasion, a total denial of a rational basis for opposing views.

It pays to understand the key tactics involved so that one can briskly call them out and move on. These broadly divide into three categories: the use of exaggerated emotion & feeling, conspiracy theory style allegations of dishonesty/hidden plots and personal attacks. All serve to drag the conversation off-topic onto the issues that they feel they can win on or into mud-slinging.

Emotion. Firstly, a disclaimer: politics is an emotive subject and so emotion has a big part to play in discourse. But it needs to be justified and this justification has to always be able to stand up to scrutiny and to be open for debate.

The implicit assumption behind the use of deliberately excessive emotion is that sufficiently strong feelings are an argument in themselves. Failure to accept the validity of those feelings, challenging the justification offered for them, is presented as an attack. The notion that people can be misled, scared, misinformed is never entertained. ‘How can you ignore the way they are feeling’ or ‘are you accusing them of lying’[1] or ‘how can you dismiss their concerns’ becomes an argument, with the speaker going on to describe the said strong feelings in greater and greater detail, focusing purely on the reactions, on the emotion in order to sidetrack the conversation away from the validity of the reasons for that emotion.

A different approach is rooted in victimhood: the speaker makes it seem that he/she is a ‘brave dissenter who is speaking out against the acolytes’. Whenever you see people on social media preface their words with ‘I know what I will say will not be popular’, this is a classic example of one acting as if they are under attack. They might further assert that they are ‘going against the grain’, ‘a voice of sanity attacked for merely straying from ‘the party line’’, ‘telling home truths to people who would not listen’. Of course, they can then use any disagreement, no matter how polite, as ‘proof’ that people ‘aren’t liking what they are saying’! If multiple people disagree, the speaker will complain of a ‘pile-on’. And even if a small percentage of those who disagree are openly hostile, the speaker will label the whole group as ‘condoning abuse’ and lay the blame directly at the door of the leadership. Different such ‘dissenters’ will go on to commiserate with each other in shows of solidarity against the ‘abusers’. Furthermore, they can then position themselves as a ‘typical’ voter/man of the people who are likewise ‘not being listened to’ or ‘lectured’ or ‘talked down to’.

A more common approach is to use emotion to change subject. Suppose the speaker knows that they cannot win a debate on the NHS but can on terrorism. Yet, far more people die in the UK as a result of NHS underfunding than from terrorist atrocities. So, they use over the top emotion to make stopping terrorism seem vitally important.[2] Politics is about compromises and priorities, and the speaker wishes to maximise the priority and the relative importance of the issue they feel they have the upper hand on. They are hoping that the displayed strength of their feelings will be, on its own, enough to convince people.

An extreme (but often attempted) version of this tactic is to focus on one specific issue, often illustrated by one specific incident — perhaps the most common example being the grooming scandal in Rotherham — and emotively assert that the crucial importance of this issue beats absolutely anything else. Until this issue is resolved, nothing else matters from their point of view. Of course, it often goes hand in hand with a simplistic and highly draconian idea of what should be done to resolve the problem.

Finally, one can directly use emotion for personal attack: the speaker goes on about their (negative) feelings towards the other person. The aim is to emotively convince people that the opponent is not worth listening to, usually through some appeal to ‘common sense’ and ‘normality’, trying to paint them as ‘not like normal people’. This ‘normality’ is a powerful weapon by the centre against the wings of the political spectrum — with ‘normal people’, presumably, being people who think like them. ‘Normal’ in this sense is interchangeable with ‘fashionable’ — with the ‘in’ ideas being given an easy ride and all others heavily challenged.

Conspiracism. This set of tactics consists of constantly alleging an ulterior motive behind anything the speaker disagrees with. They want to pretend every opponent talks in bad faith, every word they say is a lie and it is the speaker who will tell the world ‘what they really think’. Putin and Trump (‘lying Hillary’) have perfected this approach, creating a paranoid atmosphere in which ‘you just can’t trust anybody’. There is now, it seems, a ‘go-to’ conspiracy theory for everyone: for the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn it is ‘a Blairite plot’, for his opponents it is ‘a hard left Stalinist plot’, for the hard Right it is ‘a Soros conspiracy’ or an ‘Islamist plot’, for the supporters of Putin a ‘Western plot to destroy Russia’ and so on. Every other opponent apart from the main conspirators is ‘an unthinking cultist misled by the conspiracy’, drunk on the kool-aid, worshipping their scheming and devious heroes without a rational justification.

There are three approaches here. One is to openly allege an ulterior motive. This motive ranges from sinister plots — such as a ‘hard Left anti-semitic conspiracy’ — to mere allegations of ‘shameless self-promotion’ or ‘attention seeking’ on behalf of opponents. For instance, the speaker might assert Stalinism as the simplistic ‘true intention’ of Corbynism and treat anything Corbyn supporters say as an attempt to obfuscate or conceal this. This ‘true intention’ is motivated by a few cherry-picked quotes and examples that supposedly revealed glimpses of the opponents’ true nature during a lifetime of dishonesty and bad faith. Everything else is happily ignored. One of the best examples is the use of an article by Andrew Neather to allege a ‘mass migration’ plot in New Labour. The aim is to try to switch any conversation to a discussion of those cherry-picked examples: any attempt by the opponent to stay on topic should be ‘exposed’ as a ‘cover-up’.

The second approach is to colour things in language consistent with your conspiracy allegation. For example, talking of supporters of Jeremy Corbyn you deliberately use religious or Stalin-era language to make your point (for example, describing attempts to democratise the selection process as purges). Both these are textbook propaganda tactics: propagandists very often respect facts but lie about their interpretation and the intent behind people’s actions. It helps push away any and all olive branches by presenting them as lies, and thus perfectly serves the aims of echo chamber acolytes not interested in dialogue.

Finally, the speaker might scour the opponent’s past history (if available) for any ‘inconsistency’, to present them as dishonest, scheming manipulators using double standards to further their cause. This is especially useful with people whose positions are nuanced or evolve with time — if Owen Jones used to criticise Corbyn and now does not, it is taken as evidence that he is lying and dishonest rather than having an evolving position. With a simplistic approach, it is easy to focus on contradictions which disappear with a more refined analysis. The aim is to get opponents defending themselves, to sidetrack conversation onto them & away from the subject.

What of personal attacks? These are many and varied, but they all come down to undermining the opponent’s supposed ‘right’ to make a certain argument, irrespective of what they might say, to getting the conversation off the uncomfortable subject and onto the discussion of their supposed personal failings, to get them to keep justifying their right to speak.

One to note first is a type of political correctness in which the attacker would attach themselves to a single word or throwaway remark and use this to label the speaker (if you use word X, in any context, you must be an anti-semite/populist/islamist/etc). Or alternatively, they might get all offended and emotional over a certain theory or view being put forward. The aim in both cases is to sidetrack discussion and make the opponent defend themselves for merely using a particular term, invoking a particular argument or mentioning a particular theory. The underlying assumption is still that of dishonesty, of somebody not being brave enough to state their beliefs and instead dog-whistling: the difficulty is that in some cases this is true, but in others (in my opinion, the majority) it is not and dialogue requires a degree of good faith.

As everywhere else, the speaker here attacks and labels people by always interpreting their words in the most negative way. Chuka Umunna suggests calling off the dogs — he must be comparing Labour party members to dogs (actually, the problem with Chuka’s statement was his fallacious positioning of himself as a dissident who was being ‘driven out’ rather than an equal partner in an admittedly fractious debate). Aaron Bastani sends an ironic card to Joan Ryan mentioning trains — he must have been referring to the Holocaust (Ryan of course is not even Jewish: the whole stunt was unhelpful but hardly racist or threatening). By constantly inferring and alleging parallels with things that are offensive, the speaker is trying to get their opponents to police their language and actions to the nth degree and by doing this affects their ability to put their views forward, to use humour or certain arguments.

Shooting the messenger is another old classic. For any of the left-wing authors, journalists and politicians that the opponent might want to cite, the speaker thinks of a reason as to why they lack credibility and should not be listened to. This issue will typically be minor, years old and not relevant to the discussion at hand: but it will be used to distract attention. The right-wing blogger Guido Fawkes collects such minor issues, spun to sound like major events of world importance. It has been my impression that for the Right of the political spectrum, reputation is more important than content: you are deemed worth listening because of who you are rather because of the arguments you make: so for them it is doubly important to discredit the speaker. You might say Owen Jones is not worth listening to because he walked out of the Sky studio once, or that Polly Toynbee can be ignored because she champions the poor but herself has a house in Tuscany (I kid you not). Such ‘not seeing the wood for the trees’, or obsessing over one single fact or example is very typical of online trolls, but also of propaganda in general.

That retort about ‘the house in Tuscany’ relates to the notion that people of a middle-class background cannot stick up for the working class by promoting a Leftist view unless they renounce all their worldly possessions, send their children to a state school and live in a deprived area. This is nonsense — any argument should be considered on its own merit and not based on the identity of the person promoting it. Not practising what one preaches might reflect badly on the person doing the preaching, but in no way can it reflect badly on what is being preached, yet that logical implication is often made.

I really do think that by categorising and pinpointing the most obvious examples of trolling we can improve the political discourse. At the moment the big problem with the trolls is that dealing with them takes a lot of time. One spends a while addressing the same arguments with the same counter-arguments. Yet if we could come up with a set of simple one-word or one-line answers to deal with them quickly whilst continuing the constructive conversation, it would help a great deal.

PS: this is a shorter, and less Labour-focused, version of my earlier post.

[1] This reminds me of a famous line from ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.‘ “Then you say she’s lying boy?” Atticus was to his feet but Tom Robinson didn’t need him. “I don’t say she’s lyin’, Mr. Gilmer, I say she’s mistaken in her mind’’ ’. Mr Gilmer also uses the fallacy of ‘if you say someone is wrong, you are saying they are wrong intentionally’.

[2] This sort of scaremongering also feeds on people’s poor understanding of risk: for instance one is at a greater risk of death in a car than in a passenger aircraft, yet it is the accidents with the latter that occupy a more prominent place in people’s consciousness. People think a small risk of a bomb that kills ten people is more of a danger than cuts to disability support that kill individual people here and there, but that is not the case.

Gerry McCann