The FtBCon discussion of the psychology of trolls was interesting, but one thing I think it could have used is some appreciation of effective trolling strategies. Look at what they’ve accomplished with wikipedia; they have driven some people off the internet, and the ongoing online harassment is at least a distraction to many of us. This is the real threat: that trolls are working to dominate the discussion, and sometimes they succeed.
Greg Laden is talking about one way trolls work: the Serengeti Strategy. He cites Michael Mann on this topic.
After the meeting, I joined a daylong expedition to see one of the world’s greatest displays of nature: Serengeti National Park. Here, zebras, giraffes, elephants, water buffalo, hippos, wildebeests, baboons, warthogs, gazelles, and ostriches wander among some of the world’s most dangerous predators: lions, leopards, and cheetahs. Among the most striking and curious scenes I saw that day were groups of zebras standing back to back, forming a continuous wall of vertical stripes. “Why do they do this?” an IPCC colleague asked the tour guide. “To confuse the lions,” he explained. Predators, in what I call the “Serengeti strategy,” look for the most vulnerable animals at the edge of a herd. But they have difficulty picking out an individual zebra to attack when it is seamlessly incorporated into the larger group, lost in this case in a continuous wall of stripes. Only later would I understand the profound lesson this scene from nature had to offer me and my fellow climate scientists in the years to come.
Climate change deniers went on to wage a public—and very personal—assault against my coauthors and me in the hope that somehow they might discredit all of climate science, the fruit of the labors of thousands of scientists from around the world, by discrediting us and our work. The Serengeti strategy writ large.
In short, if you stand out from the crowd, if you call attention to yourself by trying to popularize a position, the hyenas will notice and try to take you out. Where it differs from the Serengeti, of course, is that the goal isn’t solely to destroy the single target, but to intimidate everyone else and discourage them from similarly standing out.
Another difference is that the zebras don’t have a way to really fight back against the predators. We do. Greg has some suggestions.
In any event, there are probably things one can do to respond to this situation, mainly having to to with communication. Giving public talks, lectures, and interviews is part of it, Mann notes. Engaging on the Internet, such as through a blog (Mann was a cofounder of RealClimate) helps. Mann is a go-to guy for the press, which as he notes must be very satisfying. When denialists are circling and begin to howl, their very victim is brought in to provide a response. You don’t see that on the African Savanna very often. And, where possible, Mann suggests engaging with good faith skeptics in a constructive manner. But, when the good faith is not there, don’t engage.
I think also that the hyena’s attacks harm the target, but in the ecosystem of the internet, troll’s attacks can strengthen their target. Anita Sarkeesian is an excellent example: right now, gamergaters are howling in fury that their harassment has led to a profitable affiliation with Intel, and a substantial increase in donations. The strategies that are successful for trolls require low levels of constant harassment that never rises above a level that draws the attention of the media — because that does expose them as rather nasty hyenas.