TED Conversations

Theodore A. Hoppe


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What are we to do with "Comment Trolls" here at TED?

Stephen Downs writes on his blog that I subscribe to, "OLDWeekly. He recently wrote on the subject of " comment trolls."
"We'll use the word 'science' a little loosely here, but meanwhile there's an interesting survey on the consequences of comment trolls: "it appeared that pushing people's emotional buttons, through derogatory comments, made them double down on their preexisting beliefs." The author offers an explanation, "the psychological theory of motivated reasoning," akin to Hume's dictum, but I think the interplay between thoughts and feelings (if they are even distinct things) is a lot more complex than that. That said, I can attest first-hand to the way comment trolls can drain the life out of a discussion, out of a website, out of living itself. Which, of course, if their intent."
The author Downes is referring to is Chris Mooney. His article in Mother Jones observes:
"In the context of the psychological theory of motivated reasoning, this makes a great deal of sense. Based on pretty indisputable observations about how the brain works, the theory notes that people feel first, and think second. The emotions come faster than the "rational" thoughts—and also shape the retrieval of those thoughts from memory. Therefore, if reading insults activates one's emotions, the "thinking" process may be more likely to be defensive in nature, and focused on preserving one's identity and preexisting beliefs."


Have a look at the article and share your thoughts.


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  • Jan 20 2013: Theodore, wonderful topic
    I set up a conversation, which became "featured" conversation on an idea to try to figure out how to improve America's education system and it was going great for a week until a new user and comment troll "Brock Hardwood" showed up and sabotaged the discussion with misinformation and spin -- "drain the life out of a discussion... [which is his intent]". I come to this website to try to start conversations to figure out how to improve America's education and within a week end up with some troll and grief commenter stalking me. He uses rhetorical remarks and even follows my profile spamming me, I'll bet he shows up and posts here because he monitors my posts. It's absurd. The simplest way for TED to deal with comment trolls is to hire more and effective comment moderators, which includes banning people who ruin the discourse such as Brock Hardwood (they often cry first amendment and censorship).

    They could also give comment moderating powers to exemplar regulars which seem to be yourself, Robert Winner, Krisztián Pintér, Fritzie Reisner, Colleen Steen, edward long, pat gilbert, and others. Another idea would be to give the poster of the conversation some moderating power to remove disrespectful and destructive comments from their conversation.
    • Jan 20 2013: Censorship is never the answer...

      from Petar: " I'll bet he shows up and posts here because he monitors my posts"

      What is truly annoying about you Petar, is that you edit your posts AFTER a response....As you just did. Oh well, I can accept that you do that...(Which I am willing to admit that I edit my own responses too, after you do yours.) It is a pretty devious practice if you ask me. You could have just responded, which would have been intellectually honest, but apparently you are just not capable of intellectual honesty.

      On to my original response:

      Petar, just because you posted a conversation, doesn't mean your idea is a good one. A conversation involves more than just one person. It is an exchange of ideas, or even a debate. You claim that I drained the life out of your discussion. That might be true. However it could be just as true that those who may have supported your position given information only from you, simply realized that they don't after being exposed to an alternative point of view. That is what debate is all about.

      You may hate that I oppose your position, but that doesn't mean I don't have a right to oppose your position. You have adopted a character assassination strategy which has failed miserably, and shame on you for your ad hominem attacks.

      I welcome anybody to read my comments (and Petar's for that matter, because I don't fear alternative points of view), and ask themselves if I am on topic and debating the ISSUE itself. That is what TED is all about.

      Petar, I welcome comments and disagreement, because I am not afraid of them. I have no secret agenda that fears being exposed. Can you say the same thing?

      Just because YOU started a conversation, doesn't mean that YOU are not the actual troll, Petar, nor does it automatically make me one because I refute your BS points again and again.
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        Jan 20 2013: The point that many seem to agree on here is that we can't change others, we can only change ourselves, and the way we response to others.
        TED allows everyone to have their say (within the rules) no matter how wrong or right we may be.
        This community generally gages for itself what is meaningful and what is not.

        My suggestion is to reply to question and not to the person.
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      Jan 20 2013: I fear this thread will become derailed if people begin to use it to name names of individuals they believe are trolls.

      What you two raise is the trickiest issue. What one person sees as aggressively defending a point of view consistently in a way that gathers attention for it, the other may see as obstructing discussion and trolling.

      The situation may arise most often when someone believes the premise or assumptions which people accept implicitly without careful consideration are actually wrong and that they can make a real contribution to the discussion by exposing that. Examples might be strongly held religious or anti-religious beliefs, prejudices about people of particular faiths, nationalities, or professions, or pseudoscience. Richard Dawkins, I believe, uses the term "infectious repetition" to refer to the way groups of people can start believing something just for hearing it repeated often enough and without critical scrutiny.
      This sort of aggressive drawing of attention to a particular point of view or to a possible great flaw in the premise underlying an argument can greatly alter the course of the thread but is different, I think, from discussion practices such as name-calling, ridiculing people for beliefs they don't even hold to, labeling people with a category meant to be demeaning or insulting, and so forth.
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      Jan 20 2013: I'd like to share my experience, if I may... I have participated in some forums where I was considered a troll and even banned. I apologize in advance for being judgmental. My intent here is to help people avoid these situations. As I read your discourse, I see some phrases that, in my opinion, need to be avoided. They are simply asking for a flamed response:

      "Brock, please stop lying. 1. Competition lowers prices because it takes away a monopolist's rent. Most everyone (except for you?) knows this."

      Nobody likes to be called a liar, especially for voicing their opinion. Generalizations are never true and can never be shown to be true (which, of course, is a generalization). So, "Most everyone (except you)..." is a no-no for me. "Every kindergartener knows that..." - another example of a rhetoric language I read in another forum.

      "What is truly annoying about you Petar..."

      I edit my posts too. I like this feature. Once in a while, we say something that we regret or wish we had said in a different way or simply see a grammar mistake in what we wrote. For example, I'm not sure if I should be writing this here. In general (speaking of generalizations), I try to avoid expressing my annoyance at other people (look at me, how smart and wise and humble I am and better listen to what I say!) :-)

      I don't mean to pick on you, guys. I just thought that you provide a great illustration of how we can deal with a troll inside ourselves.
      • Jan 21 2013: "I edit my posts too. I like this feature. Once in a while, we say something that we regret or wish we had said in a different way or simply see a grammar mistake in what we wrote."

        A grammar mistake is a perfectly reasonable reason to edit. However, changing the content of a post in a significant way AFTER someone has responded is shady. It is also time consuming. There are no TED notifications for edits, so it forces someone to reread every post, again and again, to ensure that they are not being made to look like a fool...

        Consider this example: If I posted the question, "What is 1 + 1" and you responded with "2," you would probably consider the question closed and never bother to visit it again...What if I then went back and edited the original question to now ask, "What is 2 + 2?" Your response would still remain "2" and it would make you look like an idiot through no fault of your own. Furthermore, you would never know I did this unless you went back to reread my question.

        A good solution to this would be to only allow edits for a limited amount of time... ie 30 minutes or something practical like that.

        After someone has responded to a post, the proper way to continue the discussion is to hit the "Reply" link. Even if you said something you regret... You can always apologize or correct your mistake in your reply.
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          Jan 21 2013: That is another ethical rule of mine. If there are replies to my posts, I only allow myself minor edits that do not change the point.

          Again, I don't want to judge here, but you seem to take this issue too close to heart. The best way not to look like a fool is not to say anything at all. Once I post something, I risk being misunderstood, misinterpreted, insulted, etc. I just always keep this in mind when I write in a public forum. As Rene Brown has explained, vulnerability is a part of our life (http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html).

          But my point was not about editing posts. It was about expressing annoyance at other people for whatever reason. I treat my annoyance as MY issue. I have no control over what others think or say. I think, I have a much better chance controlling my own actions than actions of others. I may still feel annoyed, but choose not to write about it.

          Also, I'm always aware of my own hypocrisy. I can say "I do not want to judge" all I want, but this is exactly what I'm doing here. So, if you choose to be annoyed at me lecturing you, you are fully justified to do so :-).
      • Jan 21 2013: "but you seem to take this issue too close to heart...."

        I actually don't, but the ability to edit after replies is a subject that needs to be addressed, and as such, it is worth bringing up and illustrating its potential pitfalls.

        "It was about expressing annoyance at other people for whatever reason." or "Nobody likes to be called a liar"

        Sometimes people actually do engage in shady activities, lie, or have hidden agendas in forums. It is naive to think nobody does these things. I believe in staying on topic, but sometimes you have to challenge someone on their motives in order to keep a debate honest. Of course, challenging motives isn't the same thing as petty name calling. That is always a bad practice.
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          Jan 21 2013: Although, I do think that motives are important, "challenging other people's motives" sounds a bit aggressive. It implies the judgment of the motives not being honest or worthy, a hidden disapproval - don't you think? What is your motive for doing that? This attitude quickly backfires, as you may see.

          "Understanding other people's motives" - perhaps, I would put it this way. Would you agree?
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          Jan 21 2013: Just type the word "Edit" or "Edited" before the sentence or paragraph or adding to the post otherwise if someone picks up on this behavior and outs the person, that person becomes suspect but so does the person who was observant and all who get involved in the ensuing "battle"

          Typing "Edit" is a courtesy but not a rule and in no way am i conveying you must but it helps.
      • Jan 22 2013: ""challenging other people's motives" sounds a bit aggressive."

        A certain degree of aggressiveness can be necessary in debate. Consider the alternative: Standing by passively in the face of incessant misinformation. Sometimes a lie must be called out. Sometimes the liar must be called out.

        Motive is fair game. Take the voucher conversation I actively participate in as an example. Vouchers are about circumventing the 1st amendment and funding religion with tax dollars, pure and simple. However, proponents would never admit to that. Instead, they make absurd arguments about anything and everything except their actual motive. Even if their arguments are bad, even if THEY know there arguments are bad, they KNOW that the motive is even worse so they are forced to perpetuate the bogus argument instead. It is a con, it is misdirection, it is dishonest, and it is fair game to be called out.

        Think of it this way. If a used car salesman wants to sell you a car that, he knows, has engine troubles, does he show you the engine, or the vanity mirror and the stereo? In debate, it is vital that people demand to see 'the engine' even if that means being prudently aggressive. THAT is what makes debate useful and important.

        Note that I am not talking about it being OK to be a troll. I'm saying that we can't be afraid of a fight. Debate IS disagreement, and there is nothing wrong with that.
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          Jan 22 2013: Have you read the article in Theodore's link? It says that heated arguments are, in fact, counterproductive. They make people defensive and convinced in their preexisting beliefs more than before. Don't you think so?
      • Jan 22 2013: "It says that heated arguments are, in fact, counterproductive. They make people defensive and convinced in their preexisting beliefs more than before. Don't you think so?"

        That assumes that I am trying to convince the person I am debating with. I am not. Rarely would that ever be a worthwhile or even realistic goal. My focus is on making rational arguments for my position, and illustrating that their position is without merit. I do this for the casual reader who may or may not have made up their minds yet on a position.

        The person I am debating is only one person, one vote, and he/she may have an agenda anyway, so what would be the point in trying to convince them? - none! However, the people who read what I write, who haven't made up their minds yet, can be thousands of votes.

        People are smart. They can tell the difference between rational arguments and absurd ones. Especially after a thoughtful and full debate.
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          Jan 22 2013: There is a valid point raised here that is often overlooked. Unlike interactions or debates between two people on the telephone or a booth in a cafe, the goals or tactics in online interaction are often focused not on the person at hand but on third parties, a few or the many.

          Sometimes, as Brock writes, the goal may be to persuade others of a view rather than to persuade the immediate other person, who may be entrenched in his views. And comments meant to ridicule another may also be aimed at a listening/reading audience. The target may not really care what the perpetrator thinks of him or his views or reasoning but be very concerned about what those he respects may mistakenly accept about him.
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          Jan 22 2013: Re: "My focus is on making rational arguments for my position, and illustrating that their position is without merit."

          "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." -- David Hume.

          You simply rationalize your passion, your agenda. It's a very normal thing to do. But so does everyone else. Why do you believe that your position has more merit than the one of your opponent? Do you ever question your own motives or agendas?
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      Jan 20 2013: I like what you said in your second Paragraph but might i add that the term "Comment Moderator" has now taken on negative as well as positive pending on whether you have been moderated? before.

      How about an unofficial office that has no power other than an impartial "judgement" (for lack of a better word) upon the subject argued but this office must be respected by all in the community, it must be given gravitas and mana otherwise it will not be taken seriously. Who ever holds this office must be considered by most to be fair and relatively impartial and if this office is comment attacked by an individual then a moderator will step in.

      Basically all what you said with a bit more detail. How about "Post Mediator" One or both parties can call for a mediation as a quick exit out of a devolving situation.

      Edit This "Post Mediator" might choose not to participate if the calling has been deemed as a manipulation of said service
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        Jan 21 2013: This idea of "moderating" may work at other sites but TED is a hopefully more evolved community in many ways. It really does come back to self awareness and self regulation, a little bit collective consciousness within the group.
        Many that have commented here are frequent contributor to the discussions and it is in all of our interest to act as a community and demonstrate respect toward one another, and to be open to learning and growth.

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