Image credit: EraPhernalia Vintage, used under Creative Commons license.
From discussing the role of debate in the green movement, to advocating that environmentalism must remain tolerant of differing viewpoints if it is to succeed, I like to think that I am a supporter of rigorous, even heated, discussion as a vital means to finding answers to the challenges we face. Yet when I dared to suggest that discussing birth control as a response to climate change shouldn't be off topic, I was surprised to find myself pretty much accused of advocating "forced abortions and mass compulsory sterilization". I'm beginning to think that some forms of disagreement are not helpful...I am not alone in my concern about online trolls, and how they can distort debate to the point of meaninglessness. Worldchanging moved back in 2006 to create a stock response to "climate trolls". And we've had concerns from some readers that nasty, unpleasant comments are putting them off even visiting the site. But where is that fine line between tolerating, even encouraging, those with differing viewpoints to express themselves, and yet not allowing the discussion to be derailed by folks with no interest in an actual debate?
The problem is not just that some internet commenters are unpleasant, rude, and prone to making hyperbolic accusations of conspiracies and secret agendas. (Anyone else bored of hearing environmentalists compared to Hitler or Stalin for advocating Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs?) The larger issue is that many such comments appear to be a deliberately orchestrated attempt to make rational debate impossible. George Monbiot has an interesting piece over at The Guardian about the dangers of Astroturf internet campaigns that, he claims, are being trained and possibly even funded by political think-tanks and vested interests:
"Articles about the environment are hit harder by such tactics than any others. I love debate, and I often wade into the threads beneath my columns. But it's a depressing experience, as instead of contesting the issues I raise, many of those who disagree bombard me with infantile abuse, or just keep repeating a fiction, however often you discredit it. This ensures that an intelligent discussion is almost impossible - which appears to be the point.
The second pattern is the strong association between this tactic and a certain set of views: pro-corporate, anti-tax, anti-regulation. Both traditional conservatives and traditional progressives tend to be more willing to discuss an issue than these rightwing libertarians, many of whom seek to shut down debate."
From where I sit, it's hard to contest that political groups (and yes, this happens from all sides of the political spectrum) are putting efforts into organizing their followers to influence online debate. As Monbiot's article documents, there are well-funded training sessions on how to use Amazon's reviews section to suppress ideas you disagree with.
What I find harder to identify is what to do about it? Obviously a first port of call is to aggressively moderate offensive, inappropriate and/or off-topic comments. But how do we differentiate between commenters we simply disagree with, and those with malicious intentions to stifle real debate? It's not something I have an easy answer to, but it's a debate that needs to be had. There's no difference between actively and deliberately blanketing online forums, reviews or other venues with inflammatory comments, and simply shouting over other people at a dinner party to make their voices inaudible. At some point, you have to ask rude or inappropriate guests to leave.
I suspect someone's going to accuse me of fascism for saying it though.
More on Environmentalism, Strategy and Debate
The Role of Debate in the Green Movement
Environmentalism: Movement, Ethic, or What?
From the Forums: Comments Turning Me Off TreeHugger
Worldchanging Issues Stock Response to Climate Trolls