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

Sunday, January 24, 2021
First Aired: 
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 (10)

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.

RepoMan05's picture


Tuesday, November 5, 2019 -- 5:31 PM

What we have here is an anger

What we have here is an anger caused by an incorrect assertion. You presume no one should express themselves if you find it offensive. Seems you can't do that in a format that's expressive in nature. How is it that anyone should think people shouldn't express themselves on the internet.

"Troll" is short for "control." see Billygoat's Gruff for details. Somehow tho, the authoritarians managed to subvert the original storyline completely. What they turned out to be was a west coast coalition struggling to gain a foothold on how cyberspace was used.

Artifacts of pure intellectual property were being pirated every where.

The latest pushed for "civility" on the internet is just a machination of this particular consortium. It's literally Hollywood that's trying to bring on the thought police in order to gain a governmental right to regulate the internet. Hollywood, the very people who cry loudest about censorship.

I think it's disgusting. I think anyone would find it disgusting. I think Hollywood should be put out of its misery before anyone should lose the right to tell you on the internet that you're a fucking goddamned douchbag.

RepoMan05's picture


Saturday, November 9, 2019 -- 1:18 PM

"Anyone's spirit can be

"Anyone's spirit can be broken with love" ~ The Other Mother ("Coroline").

"your spirit can't, however, be broken by anonymously calling your online persona a 'turdlicker' can it. And even if it could, should it then not? Grow up!!" ~ The Phantom of a Dropout. ("philosophy talk dot org")

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Tuesday, February 16, 2021 -- 6:40 PM

Certainly humility is

Certainly humility is possible everywhere and just as certain is growing more rare by the day. To achieve humility is to strive toward truth in the name of Habermas, in a world that supplies alternative facts.

So much of what we do comes from within. The best approach would be and is to question ourselves first. I'm learning that more and more as the unfathomable becomes fathomed.

If I am reading the science on this right it looks like the classical regions of the brain that map to language use, Wernicke’s Area and Broca’s Area are both double purposed to interoceptive control of the body. This is an indication that body budgeting, which is by far the more primal purpose of the brain can be greatly affected by words.

Here’s something else from science with bearing here… if you suffer from long term verbal abuse this actually warps your brain, reduces effectiveness of common vaccines, slows wound healing and in developing minds can lead to physical and mental illness.

One last thing from another study… that if you are exposed to social stress within 2 hours of a meal the relationship of language and body budgeting is such that this can add 104 calories to your meal. Which isn’t so much an argument for football coaches to yell at their offensive linemen as it is an explanation for chronic obesity in victims of abuse.

These studies were pointed out in a book I finished a couple months ago and only now am re-reading and thinking back to this show.

In the spirit of this learning and show… I’m going to be much more mellow in my criticisms going forward. I doubt I shall ever throw shade as lightly as I have in the past. I am amazed at the complexity of the world, my persistent ignorance of that complexity and the immense power of words.

I am humbled.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, February 27, 2021 -- 7:31 AM

My take on this now is

My take on this now is simplistic. I do not participate in social media, unless this blog might be so-characterized. I have also corresponded with the Sam Harris organization, inasmuchas they are of a piece with philosophy. As to the social folks, there are good reasons to avoid then, seems to me. Petty squabbles are a waste of time and rhetoric. Also, there are some who misunderstand on purpose, just to be contrary. I have only rarely read such ire here, which is why I choose this forum when exoressing notions/opinions about matters important to me. Constructive discourse trumps turmoil everytime.

alexseen's picture


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