Trolling, Bullying, and Flame Wars: Humility and Online Discourse

Sunday, April 15, 2018

What is it

Open up any online comments section and you’ll find them: internet trolls, from the mildly inflammatory to the viciously bullying. It seems that the ease of posting online leads many to abandon any semblance of intellectual humility. So can we have intellectual humility on an anonymous forum with little oversight and accountability? Does current online behavior portend the end of humility in the public domain? How do we encourage greater humility and less arrogance in any public discourse? The Philosophers open up the comments section for Michael Lynch from the University of Connecticut, author of The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data.

Part of a six-part series on Intellectual Humility.

Listening Notes

Ken and Josh kick off the show by debating the merits and disadvantages of Internet Freedom. Ken says that he loves the Internet, even if its users must tolerate trolling and flame wars to freely use it. Josh holds a contrary view that centers the Internet’s disadvantages, pointing out that the Internet has changed the face of bullying and, through trolling, degraded discourse. He suggests that the Internet is inherently anti-social.

Michael Lynch, professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, joins the show. He offers that nothing is intrinsically good or bad — that what we have to take issue with in talking about the Internet are the online platforms that it houses, not the Cloud itself. He adds that anonymity is not intrinsic to the Internet either; websites and apps experiment with and make these decisions themselves. Ken asks Michael why he thinks online bullying happens and what specific features of online platforms encourage bad behavior. Michael suggests that platforms like Facebook give its users a false sense of immediacy; people often think that they are in a real conversation when they are not.

After a few callers direct their questions to Michael, the philosophers discuss how online platforms can be improved in order to encourage users to act more responsibly on the Internet. Although Michael acknowledges that online platforms have few incentives to make their websites more ethical, Michael concludes that changing norms on online spaces is the only way to reinforce humility and good behavior among Internet frequenters. Ken connects this point to Jurgen Habermas’s views around communicative rationality and the mutually constraining search for truth.

Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 6:43) → Holly McDede explores conspiracy theories on the Internet, including theories that grew out of the Parkland, Florida High School shooting and trolling as an online phenomenon.

Sixty-Second Philosopher (seek to 46:38) → Ian Shoales acknowledges that while human rudeness is not a new thing, even inane debates nowadays can trigger huge flame wars.

Comments (5)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, March 26, 2018 -- 10:12 AM

People who regularly spew

People who regularly spew vitriol, on whatever subject, have no sense of humility, seems to me.For a few years (before the advent of 'social' media) I had a notion that some among us actually believed in such outdated adages as: mind your own business; live-and-let-live; if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all; and walk a mile in my shoes. Sadly, the functionality and convenience of internet media, and the degree of anonymity these outlets afford appears to encourage miscreant and malcontent behaviors. Everyone's a bad ass.

I also noticed this, in some comments posted on this blog, in the earlier years of my participation (circa 2014-2016). But, having thick skin, and the ability to disregard the disrespectful, I let the snide remarks and buffoonery pass, while continuing to assert my two cents worth on a variety of topics/issues. To lay blame for this on social media alone would be simplistic. There are so many other contributing factors that entire books have been written on the incivility of modern society. No, there are what used to be called a TOTALITY OF CIRCUMSTANCES, a compendium of influences which are cumulative and accumulative, Individuals are no longer concerned with self-restraint: they cannot be easily traced or outed, and are mad as hell about ,well, whatever they personally are mad about. As for bullies (or trolls, or whatever other adjective one might wish to employ), I posit a two-tiered explanation: 1. They were bullies when they were younger, or 2. they were bullied themselves. Sure, this too is simplistic. So, I'll add a third postulation: 3. They've had some bad luck. So, join the club!

Gerald Fnord's picture

Gerald Fnord

Sunday, April 15, 2018 -- 11:49 AM


I generally approve of what's loosely called 'The '60s',but the anti-élitism and mistrust of experts jibed nicely with conservative anti-intellectualism to create an atmosphere in which people can't distinguish between 'I know more about this because I've worked and studied.' and a bald 'I'm BETTER than you…period.'. I'm mocked-surprised that people aren't demanding that their aeroplane pilot or cardiac surgeon be 'just a regular Joe'.

Gerald Fnord's picture

Gerald Fnord

Sunday, April 15, 2018 -- 11:53 AM


I neglected to thank you for the Professor Elemental cut…and me with a proper cup of tea brewing.

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Sunday, April 15, 2018 -- 5:17 PM

Professor Elemental

Someone actually knows the good professor!!

Gerald Fnord's picture

Gerald Fnord

Sunday, April 15, 2018 -- 11:59 AM


One last comnent:

Etiquette in bars was mentioned. In real life, there are neighbourhood bars, dive bars, biker bars, gay bars, cop bars, gastropubs…and much of the etiquette varies between them. Maybe we're waiting for and evolving clearer signals of which were which on the Web, and what will be tolerated in each, and with what sanctions enforcing those local norms.



Michael Lynch, Professor of Philosophy, University of Connecticut


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