Why Trolls Start Flame Wars: Swearing and Name-Calling Shut Down the Ability to Think and Focus

Internet Psychology 101

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

2 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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36 Responses to Why Trolls Start Flame Wars: Swearing and Name-Calling Shut Down the Ability to Think and Focus

  1. guest says:

    Thanks for an outstanding article. Ad Hominem attacks aren’t arguments. They can’t be responded to with reason. I’ve scene many on line discussions degenerate into 3rd grade playground level arguments, i.e., “you’re stupid”…” No I’m not you’re stupid”. The article did not mention however that there is another root cause. Many people who participate in these discussions have a serious reading comprehension problem and lack the writing skills to express themselves. Many such people are employed in the “news” operations of the major networks. They are real examples of Bertrand Russell’s famous admonition that “most men would sooner die than think and most do”. It’s a lot easier to call someone names than to present a logical argument in defense of your viewpoint. When Russell refused to fight in WW1 over some offended royal egos he was vilified with ad Hominem attacks. It took 6 million dead and millions more maimed and 4 years in flooded, rat infested trenches with nothing else to do but think, for most men to realize he was right. Unfortunately they all had short memories.

    • William Bowles says:

      Hmmm… I’ve been using email and online ‘chat’ since around 1979 (first on Compuserve and then bulletin board systems, BBS) and one the first observations I made about the the nature of the medium, was its transitory nature, made up as it was, of phosphor dots. Attention span is diminished, so rather than reading something on a screen, we scan it instead. Jean Baudrillard wrote an essay about it back then called Xerox to Infinity.

      In any case, flaming came with the medium from the getgo. As we scan the texts, we register ONLY what stands out. It stands to reason that if, as you scan a piece and a particular phrase or maybe paragraph grabs your attention (NAZIS), that the rest of the article remains out of focus and is thus ignored.

      This starts a chain of events that can only be broken by refusing to respond.

      I ran a BBS for around ten years and had absolutely no censorship whatsoever and because the BBS networked independent news and analysis, it got its share of nuts, nazis and what not who would attempt, through provocations, to acquire an audience. It was only by ignoring them and telling other users to do the same, that I was able to stop them. Without an audience, they soon found somewhere else to play.

      Once you understand the nature of the medium and its qualities and limitations, like any other medium (remember desktop publishing in its early days? 20 fonts to a page etc), ‘rules’ can be formulated. So from the very beginning, Flaming was pretty much outlawed across the digital domain.

      But with the entry of money and politics (not to mention litigation) into the Internet, what you say has taken on an entirely new dimension and an extremely depressing one. Who gives a shit what somebody says on Twitter about something or somebody? I’ve come across slanderous stuff about me on the Web and I’m sure anybody else who has published political work on the Web, will have too.

      What’s happening now is the corporatising and politicising of the Web, making all of us who use it, potential victims/targets?

      Unfortunately, those phosphor dots (of yore) don’t fade in the eyes of the securicrats or corporate lawyers.

    • clemans says:

      yes, they can be responded to with reason. Using critical thinking and reason is what proves that an ad hominem attack isn’t factual.

      Look up critical thinking and rules for making an argument online. Logic and reason are what one uses to disprove any of the fallacies in logic, not just the ad hominem ones.

      • Arcanek says:

        An analogy they can understand is the best method I’ve found, but you have to make sure the analogy is logically equivalent. KIt took me a long time to convince one zealot that he was being illogical with his concept of ‘democratic’ anarchy. It finally boiled down to his touting his ‘world class’ education, a false appeal to authority.

        • clemans says:

          I believe people can respond anyway they want to. I normally aim for logic and reason, but I am not convinced that conservatives can respond to reason and logic with either. Trolls are often paid to post scripts, they are not able to care about facts, logic or reason.

          • Arcanek says:

            Are you suggesting that idealogical zealots are able tocare about facts, logic or reason? That is illogical. And conservatives are those who tend to their own needs and do not interfere in the affairs of others. Wat is illogical or unreasonable about that? Liberals believe in no class distinctions, in other words, equality for all. They are not opposites. One can be both. You have confused conservatives with collectivists.

          • clemans says:

            No, I am saying that zealots and paid trolls don’t care about either, zealots THINK they care about facts and logic. Paid trolls don’t care.

            And I don’t feel you know conservatives very well at all. Conservatives are very much involved in trying to pass judgements on how others live and want to interfere with others on an almost daily basis. They just don’t want to pay taxes to help anybody…..pay taxes to control what happens in someones bedrooms…..the sky’s the limit. They will pay more in taxes to control others than they will to help others.

            Liberals believe in aiming for an equal playing field, so that everyone has education and equal rights to try to create a life for themselves. But liberals come with many different opinions. There is not one platform or one script that they get issued. They have their own faults, but are independent thinkers, not like most conservatives who need a group or pack to follow.

          • Arcanek says:

            No, those aren’t conservatives, those are collectivists. Liberalism is equality for all. Anything other than that is not liberalism. If you don’t believe in the inalienable rights of even those who would declare themselves to be your mortal enemy, you don’t believe in inalienable rights at all. It has nothing to do with everyone except that all are equal and have equal oppurtunity, therefore. It is not about eveyone having an education, if they don’t want one. Taxation is a collectivist notion. So is socialism, which is closer to your false idea of liberalism. Nobody has the right to tax anybody else. That is not equality. Just because someone is labelled a conservative doesn’t make them a conservative. Same thing for liberals. Who has the right to the fruits of anyone else’s labor. How is that equality?

          • clemans says:

            the Constitution gives congress the right to levy and collect taxes. People have the right to leave the nation if they want, staying is implied consent to follow the laws.

            And I don’t care so much about labels. I see myself as a progressive, but liberal is faster to write and I am fine with that label too. I don’t care what anybody else calls me. But there is no way possible for everyone and everything to be absolutely equal. It is not possible. I have not heard anybody calling themselves a liberal who has said they want everything absolutely equal. And I would think them silly if THEY said that.

          • Arcanek says:

            So if I write my own constitution, then I don’t have to pay attention to anyone else’s constitution? What gives them the right to declare themselves the right to rule over anyone? The supreme court recently ruled that the constitution is a contract between the federal republic and the states that the citizens are not party to. By what reason do you claim anyone can be bound to a contract they are not party to? Implied consent? What logic supports that? Why is it not possible for everyone to have equal rights? If you don’t believe in equal rights, you are not a true liberal. If words don’t have precise meaning, communication is bound to fail.

    • Arcanek says:

      Many ad hominem attacks are because you’ve stepped on sacred ground. Programmed beliefs like religious or political beliefs. They can be responded to with formal logic, but it probably won’t make a difference unless you can come up with an analogy thet is simple enough for them to understand.

    • Arcanek says:

      Many ad hominem attacks are because you’ve stepped on sacred ground. Programmed beliefs like religious or political beliefs. They can be responded to with formal logic, but it probably won’t make a difference unless you can come up with an analogy thet is simple enough for them to understand.

  2. colinjames71 says:

    Thanks for this… just wish i read it ten years ago! Took me a long time to resist responding to trolls, although I used to try and engage them for the most part. I will admit to devolving into name calling at times, but eventually realized it just wasn’t worth it. Trolls are a mind virus. Energy vampires. Finally, a tool to fight back.

    As far as paid trolls and government/corporate interference (an increasingly blurry line), it really does amaze me the lengths to which they’ll go to manage perception- I’m pretty sure they spend far more time, energy, and resources studying, planning, and implementing ways to deceive people, manage outcomes, and manufacture consent than they would just fixing a problem or changing a policy. And therein lies the problem- its like Nixon and his infamous “I’m saying when the president does it, it IS legal” writ large. The problem isn’t the problem- it’s the public’s opinion, their potential interference into their operations that’s the problem. It shows an utter contempt for the public, for the law, for the very principles upon which this nation was founded. It’s dishonorable. It’s unethical. It’s offensive. It’s disgusting. And it just keeps getting more and more creepy and Orwellian as the gap between the words and the deeds, the propaganda and the policy, grows into a chasm.

    • gozounlimited says:

      The public has laid me on my back. Having had a low opinion of the ‘Public’, I am astonished by the level of knowledge and desire for personal action innate in the ‘Public’; standing up and taking responsibility for changing the direction of this country and the world. The beauty is that as each person becomes aware of their passion, desire, talents they contribute, in their own way, to the tapestry. Becoming the warp and weft in the fabric of a beautiful life. I am impressed.

      • colinjames71 says:

        That second to last sentence gave me chills. A beautiful sentiment. Very well said.

      • Arcanek says:

        I see it more as ‘every path leads to enlightenment.’ Some people take a shortcut, some the scenic route, some must pass through a war zone. Some people can’t tell the difference, some people don’t realize they are going the wrong way. Some don’t care. For some, the journey is the destination. For others, the destination is the train going off the tracks.

  3. TepcoSushi says:

    It’s good to also be on the lookout for all logical fallacies, of which Ad Hominem is one, and here’s a nice pretty comprehensive list of them; https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/

    Trolls routinely use logical fallacies, even allot of “news” sources out there alternative and otherwise use them constantly. It’s a safe bet when you encounter one someone is trying to propagandize or troll you, which as the article states to inhibit your thinking and waste your time, if not brainwash you.

    What’s real bad the government has been in on it for years, but it takes E. Snowden to draw peoples attention to it; http://therundownlive.com/new-snowden-leak-documents-expose-government-false-flag-internet-strategy/ More like a strategy of tension to disrupt and stifle all of us.

    • gozounlimited says:

      Did you see this?
      NY Times Cartoon Suggests ‘Climate-Change Deniers’ Should Be Stabbed to Death

      The cartoon, alluding to this year’s brutal winter, suggests U.S. Department of Commerce “Strategies for Dealing With the 2014 Icicle Surplus.” Among them are using icicles as “locally sourced hydration devices,” “temporary doorsteps,” and “brainteasers for dogs.” Then comes a
      suggestion that one immediately looks at again, in disgust and disbelief– icicles can also be used as “self-destructing sabers for dispatching climate-change deniers.”

      As far as cartoonists at the New York Times are concerned, if you are skeptical about climate change, you should die. Preferably in a violent manner. Turns out the Gray Lady’s got a mean streak. But you already knew that. See Cartoon: http://newsbusters.org/blogs/jack-coleman/2014/02/23/ny-times-cartoon-suggests-climate-change-deniers-should-be-stabbed-dea

  4. gozounlimited says:

    What happens when narcissists, who believe they have power, realize not only are they powerless, they are also pointless, irrelevant, misinformed …. so they resort to Ad Hominem.I enjoy using expressive language that transcends meaning and purpose, especially when reality becomes so transparent and ironic…. it has to be funny. Possessing enough narcissism to entertain myself, I beg your forgiveness for too much, and too colorful information, and even teasing you. But yes……I come here to get Jollies……with the intent of empowering us all.

  5. gerwingr says:

    From my years working in a Big City “Vancouver Ca” puzzle palace, i can relate first hand. BIG egos have made a supportive position on an undertaking , and only let in like minded people. the outcome being that when the direction a project is going is WRONG, the more name calling and personal betrayal occurs. Narcissists do not want to be corrected, to them it is seen as an attack on their assumed authority. When it comes about of an informative story telling on the internet, brow beating, name calling are used rather than substantive values. the errors that have occurred, by unchecked egos, wild ass dreamers, ” slightly condescending, example ” are in the hundreds of millions of dollars of poor, less than adequate, City structure, ” Safe Cities ”
    It looks to me, there is no answer to this, and the underdog will always be fighting this less than fare discourse. “” my area of knowledge is the wired, and wireless City. “”
    One example of recent on the National level in Canada, has been the join in bombing of Libya, and not cleaning up the mess afterwards. An international point of view was made by a heavy hitter, and Canada followed along, as if not offend, some smart logical thinking. ” which it wasn’t ” that in itself is still being yelled at on the internet.

    There is most likely some carnal, base reference , of i am better than you, you need to listen to me ” unchecked ego ” and i will Fuck you over, if you do not do , what i say. Good of us to put our thoughts here. Cheers readers, Teachers, wrap your heads around this, and get your students, to talk about it in class, “often”

  6. Big Dan says:

    You know what makes trolls/shills freak out? When you point them out by saying something like, “Do you work for the government?” They go ballistic and lose their cool and basically freak out into posting nonsensical comments.

    Or say, “When’s your lunch break?” or “How much they payin’ ya?” or if you see two posters you’re sure are the same guy backing up what each are saying, say “Having fun talking to yourself?”

    • Spooderman says:

      surely most trolls are so desensitized to such things that they would not even bother responding…robbing the poster of the satisfaction of their antagonizing post(s)

    • clemans says:

      trolls LOVE insults and attention, so they win when you give them what they came for to begin with. They aren’t paid to be thinned skin but paid by each comment one makes to them and for each post they make……by all means, help them make more money. It seems very likely that anyone having to make their money by trolling, earns so little that whatever they get paid will end up in the economy. Something to really make the paymasters a bit uncomfortable over.

      • Arcanek says:

        They don’t love them when you are better at it and hit a nerve. You need to know dialect and linguistics to find the soft spot.

        • clemans says:

          the ones who troll for sport are like what you describe probably, but the paid ones don’t really care what anybody says…..the angrier someone gets, the more posts that it can generate and they get paid for the ones they write and for the ones they receive. They don’t care what they get, just so it is enough that they control the thread.

          • Arcanek says:

            Are you or were you one of these people? If not, what proof do you have. Are you aware of the experiments that SRI has done? Money is nothing as a motive compared to blind zealotry.

          • clemans says:

            what proof do you gave?
            I have about 3 years of personal experience dealing with trolls. And I have read several articles about trolls who have been found out and interviewed on the subject.

            And really, it does seem silly to be arguing about the motives of trolls. Many are paid to troll. They get money when they post and when they can get others to freak out and post to them. The scripts are usually old, outdated, not original, and very often boring repetitions of what other trolls say. They aren’t there to learn anything, to change their minds, and are not paid to care about facts. Most don’t care who wins, they just want their money….some don’t even vote and aren’t even registered to vote.

            There are people like you describe, the blind zealots….but they are so blinded by emotion, so convinced that they are right, that they are not going to have the ability to process any evidence that a rational person could respond with. Those people will not likely ever believe what they don’t want to because their mind is made up and closed off to anything else. They will be angry at anything that doesn’t agree with what they want to hear. The minute anyone offers different information, those people will be so wrapped up in telling you why it is wrong that they will not even understand what is being said.

            There are very few people who can change. Have you read any articles on the differences between the brain scans of conservatives and liberals?

          • Arcanek says:

            Experience is not proof. If you haven’t seen the payments, you are speculating.

          • clemans says:

            I don’t need to see the payments, that is just crazy on your part…..and I wonder if you are by chance a troll or a teenager? There are all kinds of things I don’t see that I know are real. I can’t see oxygen….and I really am not interested in batshit crazy talks about imaginary things. You need to find somebody else to play those games with. That was old after I wasn’t 17 anymore.

          • Arcanek says:

            Your responses indicate otherwise. You can quit this anytime you want to. I have no idea what your last sentence means.

    • Arcanek says:

      I usually chime in with, ‘who would pay such a fool?’ Or point out the mutual admiration society as a mancrush.

  7. Gil G says:

    A true troll is someone who start a flame war for no real reason using every fallacy they can think of. Having someone who disagrees with you isn’t a troll. So just because a debate about a controversial subject gets heated isn’t evidence of trolling behaviour.

  8. CarolynKay1 says:

    Trolls may be psychopaths, but many of them are PAID psychopaths. The new political reality is that some people are paid to disrupt logical thought and civil discussion about political issues.

  9. frosty dufour says:

    But how seriously can we take psychological profiles based solely on a person’s internet comments? It’s rather akin to judging someone based on how they behave while drunk, no? While it’s possible to surmise something about a commenter, it’s also necessarily a skewed judgment. Also, we are told, usually, that psychopaths and sociopaths represent a tiny percentage of the population; now suddenly there are “millions”?
    while I think it’s probably worthwhile to study internet psychology, it’s important to recognize that this field is practically in the fetal stage, and definitive statements aren’t possible.

    • colinjames71 says:

      A good point about the field of internet psychology, and any guess as too numbers are just that- a guess. But while psychopathy is exceedingly rare, sociopathy is not all that uncommon. Also depends on how you define it and diagnose it. I suppose there isn’t really a clear-cut line that determines sociopathy, but something more along the lines of a spectrum, like autism. That said, if there were 3.5 million sociopaths, that would be 1% of a population of 350M. I think that’s the population of America now no? And as I decided to search the numbers, I came across this link from this very blog, which probably is one of the links in the article but here ya go- experts give it from 1-4%, so 3-12 million people. But like I said. Sliding scale.


  10. Spooderman says:

    The wings on my shoes have shrunk and now the moths won’t eat my
    kidneys! When I shake my state capitol it only yields three fairy
    napkins but how??!!!!!!??

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