VIDEO: The Secret Life of Trolls

Climate Desk’s three-part series explores who gets to define the truth about climate change in the digital age.
James West/Climate Desk

James West/Climate Desk

If you’ve ever read anything on the Internet, chances are you’ve encountered a troll. No, not the kind that live under bridges, or the ones with a shock of neon hair. We’re talking about those annoying commenters who get their kicks by riling people up as much as possible. But have you ever wondered who these people really are? Well, we found out.

Internet researchers at George Mason University recently found that when it comes to online commenting, throwing bombs gets more attention than being nice, and makes readers double down on their preexisting beliefs. What’s more, trolls create a false sense that a topic is more controversial than it really is. Witness the overwhelming consensus on climate change amongst scientists—97 percent agreement that global warming is real, and caused by humans. But that doesn’t settle the question for Twitter addict and Climate Desk perennial thorn-in-the-side Hoyt Connell:

“If you allow somebody to make a comment and there’s no response, then they’re controlling the definition of the statement,” Hoyt says. “Then it can become a truth.”

We first encountered Hoyt, or as we know him, @hoytc55, several months ago on our Twitter page, taking us to task for our climate coverage. And the screed hasn’t stopped since: In April alone, Hoyt mentioned us on Twitter some 126 times, almost as much as our top nine other followers combined. So we did the only thing we knew how to do: track him down, meet him face to face… and ask a few questions of our own. Watch Episode One of our three-part series Meet the Trolls: Trollus Maximus:

While it might not always seem this way, many of our followers actually do believe in climate change. Some are silent, watching from the wings, what internet researchers call “lurkers.” Not Rosi Reed, a 34-year-old nuclear physicist at the Large Hadron Collider and long-time Internet truth crusader, who goes by the nom-de-guerre PhysicsGirl. We like to call her The Troll Slayer:

For better or worse, online, people have the luxury to lob bombs from behind a keyboard barricade. Which led us to launch an experiment: What if the trolls and the troll slayers met face to face and talked it out, analog-style (or as close as we can get with Google Hangout)?

For all their differences, Hoyt and Rosi have one thing in common: they aren’t cowards. They agreed to square off in a debate about online commenting, climate change, and what defines truth in the digital age. Watch Episode Three, The #Showdown:

Archives

About Climate Desk

The Climate Desk is a journalistic collaboration dedicated to exploring the impact—human, environmental, economic, political—of a changing climate. The partners are The Atlantic, Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Mother Jones, Slate, and Wired.