Comment 101023

By Borrelli (registered) | Posted May 06, 2014 at 09:50:43

How do we stop the trolls? I've been wondering the same thing lately as I've watched Ryan M. and others expend considerable time and effort engaging with trolls online (via this blog, Twitter, etc.). First off--big props to those intrepid souls, because I definitely don't have the patience necessary to repeat myself over and over to also-ran candidates, run-of-the-mill cranks, and dog-whistle pundits (as a rule, I avoid arguments with people who are paid by the word), but I am always impressed by how respectful these community members are in even the most frustrating situations.

But to Ryan Janssen's points, I think he identified a very key psychological trait:

Furthermore, consider social psychological research that shows the incredible power of collaboration in producing meaningful change. To the extent that we feel that we are working with (rather than against) each other, we almost invariably see higher motivational investment, resilience to impediment, and better performance outcomes (Bandura, 2000).

Working together is so important, and in my experience working with diverse groups of residents and stakeholders downtown, physical proximity and a well-developed, goal-based exercise is often enough to break down many of the ideological walls between citizens.

New media has succeeded in bringing these important conversations out from closed doors, to be sure, but I'm not sure if the virtual anonymity and physical distance of the web helps us resolve conflicts any better--it's much to easy to just stick to your ideological guns and view compromise as a betrayal. As a result, well-meaning citizens all-too-frequently get gummed up in non-productive discourses with trolls who are probably laughing at the consternation they drum up.

But one thing is really interesting is witnessing troll-like behaviour in person: it's really, really hard to keep up. The jack-assery and intractability of these individuals often melts away when dozens of pairs of eyes are trained on them, evaluating what is being said and feeding back body-language and verbal input.

Trolling in real-life is also made more difficult because of the nature of the medium: in-person meetings require effort on the part of participants to show up and constructively contribute, so attendees tend to view real-life trolling very dimly because it wastes everyone's time, kills the buzz that Bandura's research describes, and begins to tickle our fight/flight as well as mob-behaviour impulses that only really occur in scenarios where a group of people are in a room together.

So what's the point of this long comment? Basically that committed citizens should move these productive conversations back to the real-world where anti-social behaviour elicits the hard-wired social-psychological responses that can't be laughed or sloughed off by a virulent troll.

We all know online discourse is the breeding ground of the troll, and we also know these buzz-killers tend to stay anonymous because they have an inkling of the social consequences if they actually expressed these opinions in "real life". By recognizing the limitations of atomized, computer-mediated discourse, perhaps we can more highly value those opinions expressed by citizens willing to stand up, state their name, and genuinely interact with their peers and neighbours.

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