How to deal with trolls, conspiracy theorists and hoax spreaders on the web

by Fabio Chiusi

It is known that trolls and hoax spreaders have long been a fixed presence in the ecosystem of online discussions. It is less well known which dynamics they trigger, as mentioned on Wired. For the participants of the panel discussion “Conspiracy theorists, trolls, debunkers: the web 2.0 dialectic” at the International Journalism Festival, there is a real ‘War of the Worlds on the web 2.0’, starting from the title.

It is a war fought between those who defend science and those who vilify or exploit it for their own political and media agenda. It is between those who seek to build debates based on facts and reasoning, and – ultimately – on logic and those who use discredited theories, without any falsifiability or more simply use the weapon of provocation and disorder as an end in itself or “just for lol” with terribly practical effects.

The huge success of the hoaxes on the Stamina scientific method and chemtrails, on alleged global conspiracies based on Masonic lodges or improbable aliens, or on nonexistent quotes, feed new forms of populism that are causing so much damage to the public debate and the management of public affairs, beside feeding all kinds of discrimination and intolerance starting, as Leonardo Bianchi, Vice news editor, says, from the Roma and immigrants.

According to science journalist Silvia Bencivelli – who has been for months the target of a hateful campaign of persecution on the Internet for an article with 24 thousand shares published on La Stampa that breaks down the myths about chemtrails – the approach is “the respect for the hoaxes”.”We all believed in fairy tales and we all make mistakes” but without intransigence for the falsehoods they contain.

It is understandable the origin of our desire to believe. For Bencivelli, it dates back to the heuristics of judgment and the fallacies that are well known by cognitive psychologists as in the seminal work of  mos Tversky and Nobel prize Daniel Kahneman. There is an irrational need for belief, above all, in terms of consolation. However, understanding the phenomena does not mean we can justify it.

The imperative is to learn to recognize the themes and recurring ways of development of online lies. Hoaxes, for example, “almost always have a control room,” says Bencivelli. “Someone who builds and manages them for his or her own interests”. In this “control room”, one plays with science; and in order to do so, in some cases, there are even scientists, or presumed ones. If “science has antibodies”, and knows how to correct itself, readers are much less capable. This is proved unequivocally, as well explained by Bianchi, with the success of many Facebook pages that spread misinformation under the flag of “counter information”.

If during the panel discussion there was no shortage of laughs for the coarse tones and the delusional theories that hoaxes contain – from “Renzi must close borders immediately”  for a supposed (and nonexistent) growing epidemic of Ebola virus, to the catastrophic proclamations of supermarkets attacked by the hungry masses in Greece (false), with anarchists who have distributed the proceeds of robberies that have increased  by presumed 600% (again false) – the reflections that arose were terribly serious. Think of the way, for example, in which hoaxes of this kind have fed the consent of protest movements such as that of the “Forconi”, says Bianchi. Or of the “news invented to be clicked” by several sites, even at the cost of composing hateful racist and ultra-nationalist mosaics.

The economist and author of Phastidio blog, Mario Seminerio, captured the central point by detecting in too many media and political messages in Italy, the confusion between correlation and cause, speaking of a real “magical thinking” that no party or movement seems capable of escaping. In his personal experience, from Giulio Tremonti to the Five Star Movement, through what he called “renzisti”. “It’s simply a matter of logic,” says Seminerio. The one which is deliberately ignored and manipulated by trolls to create online confusion and delirium, on the basis of rhetorical patterns that for the blogger Santiago Greco have their roots in the speaking for speaking of the sophists and in Socrates.

In this case also, the deception – often harmless, and sometimes even healthy and liberating – in the Italian confusion about digital issues may have deleterious consequences. Greco referred to the case of the insults towards Enrico Mentana, with his consequent abandonment of Twitter. Most importantly of the dangerous and erroneous identifications implemented in that circumstance between hate speech and trolling, and between anonymity and virtual identity – the real basis of muckraking and the resulting harmful proposals to regulate the web, constantly dismantled by Wired in the past few months.

The main danger is to end up identifying criticism as if it were trolling. A handy weapon for those who want to suppress dissent, focusing on “analysis and motivations of the interlocutor,” says Greco. A fallacy already seen in many of the criticisms of Edward Snowden, for example. This false identification is uncomfortable and inadequate for anyone who, on the contrary, wants to reiterate that the distinction is and remains fundamental on the web – which according to the blogger, limits the rhetoric of trolling in Italy – as it does off the web.