Reading comment threads on the Guardian’s sites and elsewhere on the web, two patterns jump out at me. The first is that discussions of issues in which there’s little money at stake tend to be a lot more civilized than debates about issues where companies stand to lose or gain billions: such as climate change, public health and corporate tax avoidance. These are often characterized by amazing levels of abuse and disruption.
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 be more willing to discuss an issue than these right-wing libertarians, many of whom seek instead to shut down debate.
So what’s going on? I’m not suggesting that most of the people trying to derail these discussions are paid to do so, though I would be surprised if none were. I’m suggesting that some of the efforts to prevent intelligence from blooming seem to be organized, and that neither website hosts nor other commenters know how to respond.
For his film (Astro)Turf Wars, Taki Oldham secretly recorded a training session organized by a rightwing libertarian group called American Majority. The trainer, Austin James, was instructing Tea Party members on how to “manipulate the medium”. This is what he told them:
“Here’s what I do. I get on Amazon; I type in “Liberal Books”. I go through and I say “one star, one star, one star”. The flipside is you go to a conservative/ libertarian whatever, go to their products and give them five stars. … This is where your kids get information: Rotten Tomatoes, Flixster. These are places where you can rate movies. So when you type in “Movies on Healthcare”, I don’t want Michael Moore’s to come up, so I always give it bad ratings. I spend about 30 minutes a day, just click, click, click, click. … If there’s a place to comment, a place to rate, a place to share information, you have to do it. That’s how you control the online dialogue and give our ideas a fighting chance.”
Over 75% of the funding for American Majority, which hosted this training session, comes from the Sam Adams Alliance. In 2008, the year in which American Majority was founded, 88% of the alliance’s money came from a single donation, of $3.7m(13). A group which trains rightwing libertarians to distort online democratic processes, in other words, was set up with funding from a person or company with a very large wallet.
Now I have no idea if the trolls that come here have any affiliation with the "American Majority." But if one company like that exists, it stands to reason that there are undoubtedly others.
What I do know is that there have long been some EXTREMELY dedicated Palin defenders coming to this site who seem to have little more to do with their time than to leave comments here, and on other blogs, that attempt to refute what I say in my posts, attempt to hijack the conversation and change the subject, or viciously attack the people who regularly comment here.
They use an interesting variety of methods:
There are the concern trolls: "I have been a fan of this blog for years, but THIS time Gryphen has gone too far and I am NEVER coming back here again. GOOD-BYE!"
There are the trolls who always attempt to change the subject to their percevied failings of Obama: "Sure Sarah might not know much about foreign policy, but at least she is not going around the world and apologizing to Europe on America's behalf like the man-child currently in office."
There are trolls who try to make the comment thread seem an unwelcome place to visit: "You know obviously Anonymous at 3:45 is an ignorant inbred moron who probably wishes his mother had aborted him because he doesn't even respect his OWN God given right to exist. Communist liberal, Christian hating scum!"
There are trolls who might let a criticism of Sister Sarah go, but simply MUST defend her family at all cost: "While I agree that Sarah Palin will never be President, there is NO evidence that Track did anything illegal," or "I personally know the Palins and they are a closed knit loving family, and you are all jealous." or "I hate Sarah Palin just as much as ANYBODY but her children should be off limits.Come on we are better than this!"
Then there are the messages that are just to me, and the commenter knows I will probably not post them: "So Jesse is this another one of your icebergs coming? You are so pathetically jealous of Sarah's success that you can't stand it!" or "Boring! When are you going to post something new? This is the same old crap everyday." or "You secretly want to have sex Sarah don't you, you gay Nazi bastard?" (I seriously have received that last message at least three times now. Except I softened the language because it is early.)
Do any of those examples sound familiar to you?
Now another favorite technique is when I REALLY write something controversial, such as my posts about Bristol moving to Arizona, and the trolls see that I am being confronted by the REAL commenter's and simply pile on. So what might elicit a handful of negative responses now brings in dozens, making it difficult to figure out who is really upset, and who is just taking advantage of a perceived weakness.
Now you might believe that the idea of paid internet trolls is a little far fetched, but don't forget that John McCain himself set the precedent during the 2008 campaign.
The reason that I have long suspected that there are trolls paid to visit this site, is because of how quick they are to jump on a story that they don't like, and how often similar phrases or words (like man-child) show up in different threads. (I once posted a story and noticed a spelling mistake. In the twenty to thirty seconds it took me to correct that mistake, somebody had left a comment disagreeing with me which contained a LINK to help refute my position. They literally had a link ready for when I made a post on that topic!)
So the next time that you read a comment that seems rather aggressive or hateful you have to ask yourself, is this simply somebody who disagrees with Gryphen? Or is this somebody who is paid to start trouble over here? And what does THAT say about the impact that this blog must be having on certain people?