The Troll ReportApril 19, 2017
Last week, there was quite a response to my post on The Rise Of The Progressive Trolls.
It’s worth repeating the main point of that post because many of those responding seemed to miss it. I gave quite a few examples of the new wave of trolls targeting traditionalists on education Twitter, as I assumed some would deny that it was happening. However, my main purpose was to appeal to non-traditionalists to distance themselves from these people and obstruct rather than encourage them. This was my advice:
- Like, retweet or follow people who are repeatedly abusive, even if they are on your side.
- Pretend that this is happening on all sides. Or, if you believe it is, don’t claim that without providing evidence. As things stand, the most “offensive” traditionalists are mainly getting told off for having the wrong tone rather than this sort of abuse.
- Treat accusations of fascism or far right sympathies as a normal part of political debate. It isn’t.
- Join in when schools or individuals are subject to criticism that could have been better made at the level of ideas.
- Blame the victims. Too often, progressives see this stuff and explain that traditionalists have brought it on themselves by being too arrogant, or for promoting their ideas, or criticising other people’s ideas or behaviour.
- Tell people that they need to debate with those abusing them online. Nobody loves a debate more than I do, but if somebody is being abusive or making crazy allegations, nobody should feel they have to answer.
- Have a go at the victims for how they react to the provocation. If people are being abused or stalked by somebody who they think is unwell or dangerous, then, if asked, they should be able to say that without being accused of being insulting to their troll. A disturbed troll saying “this traditionalist said I was a disturbed troll” is not the victim.
- Do not excuse trolling behaviour from people on your side, even if you think it is out of character. It really doesn’t help the victim of a personal attack to be told how the person insulting them is lovely or (and this is an odd one) “brave” and it probably doesn’t help the troll either, if it is only a lapse, to have it excused.
And on the positive side:
- Challenge people on your own side when they resort to personal attacks.
- Be careful to draw a line between disagreement/criticism and insults/threats. Too often these situations deteriorate because people imagine they have been insulted and insult back. Always check that you don’t confuse being offended by somebody’s ideas with them being offensive.
- Tell me if you are getting this sort of trolling back from a traditionalist. I’ll do what I can to support people being abused online whatever their views.
I’m not sure many progressives responding to the post got that far. I got a few people who are not traditionalists reacting positively, and others who promised to consider it, but the main responses were as follows.
- The trolls themselves complained that their abuse was taken out of context, true and/or the fault of the victims for provoking it. This defence was, of course, why I had included plenty of examples. No adult should be excusing this stuff.
- Progressives (not necessarily trolls) started arguing definitions. This happened in 2 ways.
- The definitions of progressive/traditionalist. Partly this is the usual tactic of debate denial. It was claimed that I should not have acknowledged the ideological stripe of the trolls or their victims, either because they do not acknowledge that there are sides in the debate, or because mentioning who was abusing who would implicate all progressives.
- The definition of trolling. The definition of “trolling” has changed over the years. It used to be somebody who deliberately provoked people online with controversial comments. So for instance, a troll would be somebody who’d appear on a Babylon 5 newsgroup to declare that Star Trek: The Next Generation was much better. In recent years it has come to mean somebody who is abusive online. I think this second definition is now the more common one, but I was amazed how many progressives suddenly dug out the older definition. Even worse were those who argued that insulting people you disagree with was just normal, acceptable behaviour and not abuse or trolling.
- Victim-blaming and lecturing. Any number of progressives wanted to explain how traditionalists had brought this on themselves through expressing opinions that were unacceptable. Many explained how our views made us the true trolls and if we didn’t want the abuse we should moderate our views. Others explained how traditionalists were just as bad (this was always assumed, never demonstrated). Some even explained how traditionalists react in the wrong way when abused online (apparently we should be nicer to those who call us names).
This was disappointing. Fundamentally, I wouldn’t have written the original post if I wasn’t describing something that was one-sided and unpleasant. There would have been no point ignoring ideology. Traditionalists are already blocking and condemning those was abuse them. They cannot do more to deter the abuse. I was hoping that the condemnation would be wider; that more people who were not the targets would challenge, or support blocking, the trolls. This was not the case.
Here’s how a lecturer in education at the University of Cambridge described the abuse:
A trad may put a tweet on twitter, something like “progressives ignore science and harm kids in school [link to related news article]”. To the trad this looks like a fair comment. “It’s evidenced-based, it’s true, there is no arguing with it. It’s fact.” To the prog this is first-order trolling. “Oh! Dear God! It’s more complex than that! Why would they be so reductive?” They tweet: “Trads are like fascists, they want everyone to do it their way. Idiots.” Or something of the like
Day-in-day-out, twenty-four-seven, you can find trolling and counter trolling….
…It’s generally good fun. No one really gets hurt. Each army usually consist of the same people. They all know each other. They are sworn enemies, but they are regulars. Just like the Sealed Knot. Nothing ever gets resolved. No one ever says, after one of these exchanges, “You know what, I was wrong, let me join your gang.” Well, not as a result of a twitter skirmish anyway.
So trolling is OK generally. It’s a thing that happens on Twitter. It happens on British EduTwitter.
I disagree. Criticising progressive education, saying it has failed, particularly when giving a justification for this opinion, is not trolling. Comparing people who express this opinion to fascists and calling them idiots is not “counter-trolling”, it is abuse. I don’t know how to explain to a grown adult; let alone a university lecturer, that expressing an opinion, no matter how provocative, is not the same as insults. Or that insults related to fascism can only be highly offensive, particularly to anyone who has suffered from the results of actual fascism. If we care about outcomes for our students, we should all be free to rip into any teaching method we like, say exactly what harm we think it has caused, without being called names or compared to the far right.
As for the idea that this travesty of debate isn’t harmful because nobody ever changed their mind on Twitter, I disagree. In my last blogpost I mentioned this twitter poll:
The answers below are in no way representative, but they do show many people have changed their minds because of Twitter.
I can assure you these are just a fraction of the people I’ve met over the years who have told me how education debate on Twitter changed their views. Many more have told me that blogs and books they found through Twitter made a difference. Given that over 450 people answered the poll to say they were now traditionalist (but not always traditionalist) I doubt converts influenced by Twitter are rare. So, no, it is not the case that the trolls are just joining in with something that is futile. They know that, from their perspective, traditionalist arguments are something to be feared and hated. The point of abuse is to intimidate, silence and get revenge on traditionalists. It’s shameful that so many people on education Twitter made excuses for this.
By the way, if you are another Twitter convert, please let us know in the comments.