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Someday historians will view the past election season as the turning point when social media finally revealed itself as a powerful tool in Philippine politics.
In the good old days until 2012 when the Reproductive Health (RH) Law passed, the social movement I belonged to looked at social media as a means to disseminate evidence-based information. It was for the RH struggle that I became a social media warrior and the victory achieved by that, threatened though it may be, seemed a reaffirmation of the importance of respectful debate in crafting social policy for national development.
Today, however, fake news thrives, memes are taken for truth and saying things like “Leni we intend to imprison you like Leila” are considered by some as contributory to national development.
The irresponsibility in social media and its capacity to harm and hamper the rights of citizens to evidence-based information and critical analysis is not new. There have been jerks and trolls from the beginning. But the tipping of the balance towards harm has finally arrived.
I am certain that someday we will find out who spent these tremendous resources and where those resources came from. And like Goebbels, the people behind this phenomenon shall be judged for the national traitors that they are.
But that is a long way off, and we cannot leave to history’s slow processes the correctives that we need today.
What is a troll?
So here are some tips on how to diminish the effect of trolls, based on my own experiences as a social media warrior.
First, we must note that there are several types of trolls. There are of course trolls who do this for a living. These people are employees of companies. Their job is to put out whatever propaganda line is on the day’s menu. Their job is also to put out an impression of a certain demographic. Thus they can handle several fake accounts ranging from the articulate millennial to the hardly intelligible jejemon. They are paid by the volume of their output and the reactions they are able to garner.
We must also discuss “bots” which are really just computer programs and not people. Be cynical these days of the number of followers and likes a particular person or post garners. With the inflation in numbers caused by these trolls and bots there is really no way to know who agrees with a certain pundit, who they are really reaching and therefore, the real reach of their influence.
Time was when people earned adherents to their causes because they presented good data and logical arguments. Time was when the elegant use of language and the capacity of a writer to give us deeper insights into the human condition would be the basis for admiration. Time was when a person’s integrity also counted as something. These still matter, but people will need greater skills to find them.
To a certain extent, I suppose this is good. How many generations of parents have told us that “popularity isn’t as important as integrity.” Those who are still immature enough to seek admiration or seek to admire someone so that they can be part of an “in crowd” are warned that there can be no real warmth and acceptance from fake accounts and computer programs.
But trolls need not always be paid hacks or inhuman computer programs. They can also be real people. The internet has allowed everyone the capacity to express themselves. And some people think that they are so wonderful they can broadcast their unedited, unexamined and uninformed selves at anyone else. Time was when to get to Plaza Miranda you had to at least get dressed and get informed if you were not to be considered a crackpot. These days people sit in their homes, in whatever state of deshabille suits them, and rant.
Again, to a certain extent this might be positive because we are now seeing the endpoint of all that “you are wonderful as you are” psychological pap. No, dear people, do keep aiming to constantly improve yourselves. And by the way, when you come to a social occasion like your friend’s party or someone’s social media account, do not be yourself. Put your best foot forward, please. We have a mutual responsibility to each other that includes not imposing the ugly parts of ourselves.
How to detect a troll argument
Let us, therefore, look into how trolls argue and how this cheapens democratic exchanges. It is also a way of detecting a troll, though I will add that sometimes people who are not trolls make these mistakes though with far less consistency and much less vileness.
The argumentum ad hominem. This is a logical fallacy where the troll attacks the motive, character or attribute of the opposing party instead of rebutting the substance of the argument. There are so many forms this argument takes but the constraints of writing allow me to take just one example.
I list below attributes ascribed to me by various trolls:
- yellow or liberal party advocate
- intellectual, University of the Philippines mandarin, ivory tower professional
- elite woman who doesn’t know poor communities
- voted for Mar Roxas and Leni Robredo and cannot accept the results of the election
I think you get my drift. The last thing one should do is to react to an argumentum ad hominem by defending oneself. That allows the troll to side step the substance of the debate especially when they have lost the point. It also effectively puts the onus on you to prove yourself while they sit back and laugh as if they were themselves such paragons of impartial purity.
So I have no intention of telling you which of these “accusations” are true. Suffice it to say that if you put all the people in these categories together, what the trolls are saying is that the majority of the population have no right to make arguments because of their “bias”.
I reserve a red letter warning for those who say, “you have always been critical and you want to bring down the government.” These people completely misunderstand the crucial role of criticism in holding the powerful accountable. Such arguments allow the rise of authoritarianism because it essentially threatens the critic with government retribution.
One also wonders why such people bother to have a discussion and expect any sort of good outcome. You do not enter a person’s space only to accuse them of evil, except as a form of public self-pleasuring. One also wonders why someone (and these trolls can be real people) can despise someone whom they have not met.
The rinse and repeat argument. This is used when the trolls have to face incontrovertible evidence that what they have claimed is not true. They also use it when faced with the irrefutable proof of the lack of logic of their arguments. They nevertheless just repeat the same argument.
Here’s as an example:
Someone argues, “The Commission of Human Rights (CHR) has said there is no such thing as the Davao Death Squads.”
Person is given the direct quotation of the CHR resolution calling for further investigation of the Davao Death Squads.
The person answers, “see, the CHR only said further investigation.”
As you can see all this achieves is that you go over the same ground and provides no further light to the issue being discussed.
I think there are 2 reasons for this. For the paid troll, this is sure to infuriate people or at the very least people will think the troll has not understood and will try to explain it again. This will cause them to debate further and bring in more money. But it is a waste of time for everyone else.
For the unpaid person, it is probably because once a person has framed an argument it is very hard to fully grasp a fact that upsets that framing.
The “you should have condemned this too and if you did not, than you are a hypocrite” argument. A common example is the accusation that “you are upset at the extrajudicial killings today but not upset when it happened during the Aquino regime.”
This is often used against anyone regardless of whether the troll knows if you had indeed been placid about the killings during the Aquino regime. The likelihood though is the reverse. Those of us who understand the universality of human rights and the crucial nature of criticism to accountability are more likely to have been critical of it then, as we are now.
The reverse is also true: those who are not perturbed by these killings now are unlikely to have been bothered by them during the Aquino regime.
Having said this, the argument is illogical in and of itself despite the accusation of hypocrisy (here again the argumentum ad hominem). One does not excuse, rationalize or minimize a present evil by citing a previous or another one.
One of the most pernicious themes of the culture of corruption that I, as a government employee, has had to deal with is the argument that, “I can get away with this infraction because it is so minor compared to what is happening elsewhere.”
The outright insult or threat. And no, I won’t give you an example. I can’t because the things people say are unpublishable.
Women and other marginalized groups are esepcially vulnerable. Women have been threatened with rape. Fat shaming and slut shaming are a favorite recourse. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are vilified.
I have many disagreements with Mocha Uson for example, but I do not appreciate her being slut shamed anymore than I appreciate what was done to Leila de Lima.
The paid troll uses this method as click bait. If they manage to infuriate people enough to evoke equally angry responses they win.
As for the unpaid and real person who does this, that is the sad part of the internet. Any form of meanness can reach us through our computer screen these days.
Block a troll today
In conclusion, I will point out that these arguments are deplorable because of their overall effect on national life. It is through respectful argumentation that citizens develop critical thinking. It is through the encouragement of critical thinking that a citizenry is able to empower itself by finding the correct information that can help them make better decisions. When people destroy these practices they dumb down our national debates and dumb down the people.
Instead what we get is polarization where all we do is scream at each other in endless cycles of blame and recrimination. That serves only the purpose of the fascists and the demagogues. These are the people who trade on fear and anger. People who would never be happy to see people think beyond tribal loyalties. These are the people who have everything to lose if people really were allowed to think and disagree in an atmosphere of accord and civility.
So watch out for these types of arguments and do not use these yourself, whatever is your political leaning. And, if anyone uses them, consider them a troll worthy of being blocked (or blocked and reported if it looks like it is a fake account).
Don’t fall for the trap that in blocking them you have suppressed dissent. Legitimate dissent isn’t about insulting you and questioning your motives. There are limits to speech especially when it is done in your space on social media.
Blocking trolls is your patriotic duty. – Rappler.com