I have to admit it, I find debating environmental issues via the internet increasingly difficult in this day and age.
This isn’t because I am somehow deficient in the ability to provide a given set of responses to intelligent questions, or to research those answers if I somehow find myself lacking the necessary knowledge, but because I find it frustrating attempting to respond to questions that are either totally unintelligent or are the product of deliberate bedevilment on the part of those opposed to environmentalist sentiments, being presented purely as a means of baiting a person and trying to make that person lose his or her cool. Often, the two latter forms of discourse from an environmental critic are, in my opinion, identical. Furthermore, as the signs of imminent climate change grow steadily apparent, the barrage of bedevilment and abuse from sceptics is becoming increasingly worse.
Part of the problem is the impersonality of the net. You can\’t be assaulted online, either physically or verbally, and I mean verbally in terms of actually hearing the comments expressed. Neither can your read another person\’s expressions or body language. From the point of view of the person making the attack therefore, the net is a pretty safe space in which to operate, which means it\’s perfectly possible to launch a truly horrible tirade against someone online and largely get away with it.
The problem is not just limited to environmental debate and thus forms part of a general pattern of internet abuse which most people now recognise as \’trolling\’. Sometimes this can take deadly forms, for example there have been instances where online trolls have harrassed people, usually young people, into taking their own life. Thats about as extreme as you can get and fortunately it doesn\’t seem to be a regular feature of online environmental debate, but the problem has become sufficiently bad for certain online correspondents, the most well known being the left-wing journalist George Monbiot, to question whether some of these people are actually real. Monbiot has suggested that some of the people leaving comments on environmental pages may be paid agents of large corporations who have a vested interest in sowing discord and disruption by infiltrating \’grassroots\’ debate and causing arguments and spreading abuse at every possible opportunity. For this reason Monbiot calls this activity \’astroturfing\’ and suggests it is a deliberate policy, though probably not one which the corporations involved would openly admit to.
This concern has spread to other environmental sites besides that of Monbiot\’s blog and columns in The Guardian. A poster on the Treehugger website known as \’wildlifer\’ posted a link to George Monbiot\’s article on the subject from December last year. Monbiot states that he encountered \’astroturfing\’ way back in 2002 when investigators Andy Rowell and Jonathon Matthews investigated two people who had made some vociferous attacks against a scientist claiming that Mexican corn had been contaminated by GM pollen. Rowell and Matthews discovered that one of the attacks originated from an internet domain operated by the Bivings Group, a PR company that specialises in internet lobbying. After being challenged on the BBC\’s news programme Newsnight a Bivings Group executive admitted that the attacker, who went by the name \’Mary Murphy\’, was in fact someone who either worked for Bivings or someone who used their services. In other words, a plant. Ultimately, Rowell and Matthews traced this activity back to Monsanto, the huge chemical and GM food corporation.
Monbiot says that the main issues that are likely to be hijacked by trolls are those where there is a huge amount of money involved, such as climate change, oil depletion, GM etc. All areas where certain corporations stand to lose a large amount of revenue. The most irritating thing about this is that although George suggests we fight back against these deliberately planted trolls, he\’s not exactly clear on how we should do it.
Infiltration of a community is the most dangerous activity possible in terms of steering that community away from something that would be of benefit to everyone, for example doing something concrete about climate change. That old comment made by a certa Adolf Hitler, i.e. \”if you tell a lie for long enough eventually people start to believe it\” is absolutely true. What we are facing then is a \’secret army\’ of right-wing, corporate sponsored plants who basically brainwash people into opposing measures intended to make things better for the world, climate change campaigns being the perfect example. It\’s propaganda basically, although perhaps a more accurate word might be downright lies. The problem is that, as Hitler said, people start to believe it.
I\’m not callous enough to bluntly accuse some of the people I\’ve had arguments with on Facebook of being trolls. However, its a sure bet that these corporate plants have played a major part in making many people in society believe that climate change either isn\’t happening or if it is, isn\’t caused by humans. A recent poll conducted some time last year, measured climate change scepticism within the UK as affecting around 60% of the population. The trouble is that this stuff ripples through society. It might start on comments pages but then gets picked up by others and subsequently appears all over the place, including on Facebook.
So, what to do? The problem I have, and I\’m freely willing to admit it, is that I\’m very passionate about my subject and thus I am, unfortunately, someone who is very easy to whip up into a state of anger. Not good. Recently I decided to mass email some of my Facebook friends to see what they would say concerning the appropriateness of visibly expressed anger in environmental debates. Here are some of the responses.
\”Interesting topic. I often think that greens come across as a bit cold, academic and technical and that showing their human side would help them get their points across. We\’re all human Robin, so these things happen and are honest and natur…al! In my view anger is fine if channelled into achieving a positive outcome and expressing your values…otherwise its wasted energy and can make things worse. I always try to stay as calm as possible (though there is often a lot of inner tension) as its harder to debate properly if you are not reasonably controlled!! Having said that it is important to show people that you are passionate about injustice, unfairness, unsustainability…I think its unhealthy for individuals to bottle up anger – controlled release is the answer I think.\”
\”Hi there Robin. Interesting question! I usually find myself getting angry when I think about an issue – anger usually fires me up to act on something, nuclear power for instance, to use the example of your image. But, when debating, or trying to engage with an opponent, I\’ve always found it so much more effective to remain calm and have a reasoned, articulate debate, tho\’ I do know thats not always possible……\”
\”No I dont think it is best tactics to lose your temper use emotions in a controlled way , be d passionate commited but you have to engage your audience- empathy, logical argument and passion work together winning the audience is the prize they are the real target not the other debates\”
\”Hi Robin, interesting question, and I think definitely not get angry… I\’m only saying that because anger or temper loss serves no useful purpose in any debate, in fact it only serves to toughen the resolve of your opponent, and less likely to see things your way. You know me, I hate getting annoyed about anything, and if ever there\’s a peaceful way to resolve or discuss anything, that\’s the route I take. I think there\’s plenty of room in debate to display passionate feelings without getting angry. Spare a thought for me tomorrow afternoon, in Stavanger being interviewed by the mighty Halliburton!\”
\”…..best environmental debate I ever saw was Lindsay Keenan on newsnight discussing the gm thing with a pro gm person, possibly scientist. The pro gm bloke obviously thought that Kirsty Wark would be on his side and would ridicule Lindsay….not knowing that Lindsay and Kirsty are mates…Kirsty just sat back and Lindsay tore him to shreds…you could see Kirsty trying to not smirk….\”
The last comment is particularly interesting because it refers to a televised debate, not an internet exchange, and I think we can take some lessons from this. Where live debates differ from internet exchanges is that in live debates there is often a facilitator or referee. In particular situations this should be true on the internet as well, for example on forums where there is, or should be, a moderator. On newspaper comments pages though, such moderation, in my experience is limited, although the very worst comments are deleted. On Facebook its even worse, as there is often a situation of \’open house\’ unless you are debating within a particular topic group.
So, with regard to the net, I think there are several things to say here, and they very definitely apply to me along with anyone else finding themselves embroiled in online debates.
First \”don\’t feed the trolls\”. This is tricky because rising emotion just makes you want to stand and fight, and thats the problem I face regularly. The answer is to just walk away, make a cup of coffee or something and then return to the PC when you\’ve cooled down. I freely admit this is something I still need to learn, so don\’t think I\’ve managed this myself yet, because I haven\’t, although I promise to continue trying. It basically boils down to good old fashioned self-discipline.
Second, learn your stuff. Keep on educating yourselves and practice your arguments. It\’s all very well walking away, but then the trolls have free rein to pollute other peoples minds, so its important to come back and stop them. You just have to do it in a dispassionate way with sound arguments that can be supported by reliable evidence. If you don\’t know the answer to a particular question, criticism, attack or whatever, you either have to hope that someone else does or you have to spend some time researching it. The time spent on research may very well allow the assailant to land a few brownie points in the meantime but the way to reverse this is to reopen the debate on that particular topic armed with your evidence and then blow him out of the water by systematically debunking all the points he\’s made.
Third, with respect to comments pages and internet forums, raise the possibility that many of the \’trolls\’ are likely to be paid agents of corporations, and if you have any evidence of this then so much the better. If you open up this aspect of the debate, there is greater chance that the trolls will be regarded with suspicion by other posters. Well, you can at least hope and its worth a try anyway.
Essentially its a question of self-discipline and continuing to learn the arguments. This isn\’t just beneficial in terms of debates on the internet it will also allow you in theory to hold your ground in public debates in real time as well. I\’ve been told by a friend that the climate sceptic Bjorn Lomberg will be coming to Bristol shortly, so no doubt there will be many of my green friends beavering away learning and practising their arguments ready to give him what for when he arrives. I hope so at least.
Environmental debates are complex situations and they need discipline and preparation. Ranting just doesn\’t work at all.
And the more I can tell myself that the better.