Why The Internet Provides A Thriving Environment For Hate & Trolling [Opinion]

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I was reading a fascinating story that was recently published in the Wall Street Journal about a kid named Aidan Dwyer that believed he had discovered a way to configure solar panels to mimic the Fibonacci sequence that makes up the structure of tree branches. Aidan’s theory – a fairly decent theory for a kids that’s only 13 years old – is that by mimicking that sequence, he might be able to also mimic the efficiency of nature itself.

So, he performed an experiment. Using a equal number of solar cells, young Aidan laid out the solar panels side by side in sunlight. One, the typical flat panel that people use today, and the other his unique “tree” design – a metal structure shaped like a tree branch. Young Aidan hooked up a meter to each, and to his surprise, he saw a higher voltage reading from his tree design. It was a remarkable finding, he thought.  So he decided, with the support of his parents, to enter it into a national science competition – and he won.

The Internet Attacks Dreams

What happened next is something that those of us that have been on the Internet for a long time now would not find very surprising. The story about the science competition hit the Internet, and everyone from PhD researchers to armchair scientists took a look at young Aidan’s design, and the flaming began.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Aidan’s introduction to the world of online commenters didn’t go too well.

“Commenters and bloggers attacked Aidan with vitriol usually saved for political enemies and the Kardashians. Blogs decried his experiment as ‘bad science’ and ‘impossible nonsense.’ Someone called him ‘an alien—a cool one, though.'”

Reading the article made me remember some of the stories that I used to write about years ago, such as science scams and other silly claims throughout the fields of Ufology and the paranormal. I’ve always felt justified, as an engineer, in my online attitude. In fact, I’ve been one of those vitriolic writers before, trashing poorly designed scientific theories and various silly claims like alleged “free energy” findings.

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Here is a blog post of mine in 2006, publicly ripping apart a guy who constantly claimed there were connections between UFO stories and the CIA and other government agencies.

I called him an idiot, a moron, liar…

This was back in 2006, and in the next 5 years, I gradually – for lack of a better word – “matured”, to some degree. And writing for MUO helped, because I started noticing what it’s like to be at the receiving end of all sorts of nasty accusations and cruel comments.

Why People Feel the Right to Be Cruel Online

The truth is, I really don’t think that I would talk that way to people in real life. I don’t think many people would. The guy I was slamming above – if we were sitting together in some cafe having coffee – we would probably have a pretty interesting intellectual conversation – disagreements and all.

But there is just something about the Internet that feeds hate and anger. For me, it’s people that flip out and draw premature conclusions over so-called scientific “discoveries”. I’m sure that’s what angered the many PhD academics and skeptics in Aidan’s case. But do we have to be so cruel about it? Even here at MUO – a community that I consider to be very intellectual and mature – there is a contingent of people that have a certain arrogance, and feel justified in calling someone they don’t even know a moron.

Here’s an MUO Answers commenter calling the questioner stupid.

Or this commenter in another article calling another reader retarded.

And yet another spat between commenters on another article, issuing pretty nasty jabs back and forth.

What has scared me the most, since writing and reading posts and comments from other writers here and elsewhere on the web, is that the cruelest comments that I’ve read remind me….of me. It is a sobering realization, and one that dampens my comments as the years go by, although I am still known for losing my temper with others now and then. I don’t know if it’s genetic, or maybe just a curse.

Mistakes Lead To A Pig Pile

What I’ve noticed is that two things seem to incite a greater level of vitriol, the likes of which poor young Aidan had to experience. The first is making a mistake. Online folks are very unforgiving when it comes to making mistakes. Aidan’s mistake was that in his entry into the science competition, he only measured voltage. Unfortunately, voltage alone doesn’t equal overall power – so his findings were questionable. That one single mistake led to an influx of attacks and name-calling.

The other factor seems to be anonymity. Anonymous posts are almost always particularly harsh…cowards are always so brave with their words when they don’t have to use their real name. Would those same people have spoken those same words directly to the young boy’s face, in the presence of his parents? I doubt it.

And if Aidan goes on to accurately measure the power of his test contraption, and he is proven correct in his theory, will all of those arrogant, nasty people respond again and apologize to young Aidan? Will they be remorseful for attacking a young child that is motivated enough to explore science at such a young age? Probably not.

Why do you think people get off on trolling and posting hateful comments online?  Have you ever done it yourself and regretted it? Let us know your thoughts and insights in the comments below.

Image Credits : Wall Street Journal, Shutterstock

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Comments (26)
  • Dannywill7

    What you are experiencing is the “dumb-ing” of America.  It is fueled by all the “reality” shows which pit everyone against everyone trying to make themselves higher on the food chain.  The DNA pool is draining fast…

  • James Bruce

    Excellent piece Ryan, and admitting (and publishing) examples from yourself must have taken a lot of courage. 

    Lots of advice I need to take note of here I think, thanks!

  • Rowdy Rob

    The author of this article, Ryan Dube, is a moron… a withering pile of turkey puke.

    Just kidding!!!! :-)

    Despite my opening remarks (meant in jest!), I obviously don’t enjoy the prevalence of trolling or flaming on the internet. But…

    I think this somewhat ties into the current SOPA controversy a bit. There is a serious problem with lack of civility in online “society,” just as there is a problem with piracy. But as serious as the problem is, it seems that every conceivable way to try to stop it leads to a “Big Brother” style of unintended consequences or restrictive/destructive regulations that punishes innocent “civilians.”

    “Trolling” is kind of like a virus. The more you try to stop it, the more entrenched and resistant certain strains become, until in the end you have a certain super-virulent strain that in the end becomes so dangerous that the “civilian” populace must be oppressed or repressed to protect them from the danger.   

    • Ryan Dube

      Haha – thanks Rob. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve read comments with opening lines like that. :-) 

      Comes with the territory I suppose – especially if you write about controversial topics. I should have expected that when I started to write online years ago. 

      You’re right about trolling being like a virus – and in that way the tone of many visitors tends to spread. On a site where most people are intelligent and thoughtful, you’ll see a majority of comments tend to lean to that side (I’d like to think MUO is like that). On other sites that are less careful about the sort of comments they allow through, it’s like a madhouse.

  • jeanneg99

    Good gravy, the kid was only 13 years old. So he just measured voltage? PhDs have apparently been faking research on all sorts of things from vaccination studies to climate change, yet their “scientific community” dares to attack a 13 year old kid’s science fair project?  Honestly….

    Anyway, as far as your points in the article go, Ryan, they are excellent. I try hard to keep the old adage of the 3 gates in mind when I write comments online: is it truthful? Kind? I can’t remember the third but if I hit the first two, truth and kindness, I feel good to go. I never want to post anything that’s going to rip someone’s soul apart.  My own soul isn’t worth it.

    • Ryan Dube

      I agree – and I’ve had to work on taking that a step further, beyond just comments but also into how I write articles. I’ve been known for ripping people apart in articles online, and over the years I’ve realized that doing so is no different than trolling in the comments area.  So, I like your litmus test – is it truthful, and is it kind. I’ve always focused too much on the first part and ignored the second, for the most part.

  • Peter

    Much the same with how people drive. Agressive, tailgating etc. You wouldn’t walk behind a person and behave like that, much too personal. It seems any sort of barrier, be it metal or anonymity helps cowards.

    • Slywlf

      Exactly the point I was going to make. I wonder how many of the people who blast their horn, flip you off or even swerve in front of you to be nasty would do the same things if their face, name and home address was plastered across the back of their car, rather than an anonymous license plate?

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