Philosophy of activism: comment “swarming”

In my ongoing Philosophy of Activism series, I describe tactics used by various advocacy organizations and solicit feedback from our readers to determine if those tactics are effective or not. For the latest edition, I wanted to pick all of your brains about a tactic that I personally used this week.

Last week, I wrote a post about a troublesome shark news story in my local newspaper, the Charleston Post and Courier.  I noticed in the comments of the news story itself that a Post and Courier reader took issue with my criticisms. I’m always up for a good discussion, but this reader wasn’t interested in a discussion. They aimed to insult me, and claim that scientists have no idea what they’re talking about when it comes to shark populations (in the original article, a shrimp fisherman claimed that blacktip populations were the highest in 50 years, which is incorrect).

I used Twitter and Facebook to get the word out there about this commenter, and asked people who knew that shark populations were indeed declining to say so. I want to know if you think this tactic is worth pursuing in the future.

The goal of this tactic is not to persuade “fishcatcher” that they are wrong. That individual is not interested in discussing the matter, and zealots on either side are rarely persuadable.

The goal is to reach the other people who view that Post and Courier article. Ideally, if someone who doesn’t know that sharks are experiencing population declines is curious enough to read through the comments, they will see a few rude comments by an anti-shark zealot and a lot of comments by rational, well informed shark conservationists. Hopefully this will result in changing minds, or at least getting the word out there that many shark species are in trouble.

As of this writing, there are 31 comments on the article’s page, and only 2 of them (both from the original person I mentioned)  make the claim that sharks are not in trouble. Many comments are pro-shark (or at least anti-sensationalism about sharks), and a few provide recipes for grilled blacktip.

Is it worth pursuing this technique in the future?

Would it be more effective if more than five conservationists participated? I didn’t use the full extent of my spamming resources.

Is there any way that this technique could harm the cause of shark conservation?

~WhySharksMatter

  1. I’m glad you identified this as spamming, because that’s exactly what this is. More to the point, what you did was what we commonly call “feeding the troll”. The fishcatcher comments were not making an argument or presenting a point of view, they were trolling the article to get people riled up, for fun. You took the bait. Instead of laughing at an absurd position, you elevated it to the level of discourse.

    You engaged with the absurd, and drew an equivalency between his argument and yours. He didn’t raise anything that wasn’t already countered in the article you posted. He didn’t need a response.

    We have word for creating the artificial appearance of a false majority for the sake of silencing dissent.

    So no, this is not a valid technique. Engage with a the substance of a debate. If your argument is good, solid, and valid, it won’t disappear just because someone contradicted it. Yelling louder doesn’t matter in writing.

    • “I’m glad you identified this as spamming, because that’s exactly what this is.”

      Totally. No debate here.

      “The fishcatcher comments were not making an argument or presenting a point of view, they were trolling the article to get people riled up, for fun.”

      Very possibly. However, my goal was not to convince fishcatcher, but to show other people reading the forum that fishcatcher’s claims are false. Later people reading the forum might not know that fishcatcher was trying to get people riled up.

      “You engaged with the absurd, and drew an equivalency between his argument and yours.”

      I see what you’re saying but don’t completely agree. Someone who doesn’t know that sharks are in trouble (i.e. my target audience) might not know that what he’s saying is absurd. Around here, “scientists don’t know anything, they make absurd claims from behind a desk” isn’t a rare viewpoint. In some people’s eyes, what he said is already equivalent to what I said.

      “We have word for creating the artificial appearance of a false majority for the sake of silencing dissent.”

      I prefer to think of it as demonstrating that there is an actual majority on this issue.

      “If your argument is good, solid, and valid, it won’t disappear just because someone contradicted it.”

      Your faith in the power of facts is inspiring, but I think that some people are more likely to consider them if they are presented repeatedly by multiple people.

  2. My further questions to you:

    Do you think it worked?

    Do the comments responding to fishcatcher raise the level of discourse or lower it?

    Is anything in the thread more persuasive than your original comment?

    You tend to have a reactionary “nothing bad can ever be said about sharks” approach. I don’t see that as a terribly effective philosophy.

    • “Do you think it worked?”

      Hard to say if my goal is convincing anonymous readers who I’ll never speak to.

      “Do the comments responding to fishcatcher raise the level of discourse or lower it?”

      A little of column A, a little of column B. Some people who responded to my request are non-native English speakers, others are somewhat fanatical. However, a few are excellent writers who presented well-reasoned arguments.

      “Is anything in the thread more persuasive than your original comment?”

      Nope. But again, some people are more likely to consider an argument if they see it over and over.

      “You tend to have a reactionary “nothing bad can ever be said about sharks” approach. I don’t see that as a terribly effective philosophy.”

      I prefer to think of it as “whenever someone says something about sharks that is inherently wrong, I try to provide those exposed to that wrong information with facts”.

      Is this last comment referencing my attempt to get people to comment on the article, or my original post about the article in the first place?

    • Your initial response was all that needed to be said. The fishcatcher reply didn’t do anything to add to the debate beyond pointing more readers towards your response. Everything that occurred after the fishcatcher reply simply muddied the water and made it seem like there was a real debate, with two valid viewpoints being discussed instead of a wall of data versus a vacuum of crazy.

  3. In general, Andrew, I am indeed skeptical that this is an effective technique. That’s part of why I wanted to discuss it in a “philosophy of activism” post.

  4. Interesting. I used the a similar tactic when I saw comments from oil spill deniers showing up my website. My goal was both to reach my readers and to call these people out and identify them and their political affiliation. The post I wrote about the oil-spill denier/conspiracy theorists ended up being one of the most-viewed stories last week. Keep up the good work!

  5. I think that it depends on your goal. If your goal is straight-up activism (that is, finding a way to get as many people as possible to think or act a certain way regarding a topic, and probably use their collective power to change widespread practices or policies), then flooding pages with comments might be a good way to get noticed and recruit some new proponents to your cause. If your goal is the dissemination of unbiased information, then I think tactics like this hurt your goal, because they reduce the information you provide to the level of catchphrases, diluting it, in a sense, among a large number of similar writings so that what will be paid attention to is the mass, and not the content, of the comments.

  6. I think it could have been well executed, had the right people saying the right things responded.

    If everyone had been saying the same basic thing but in different ways with a few different points, maybe it would be effective.

    However, fanatics won’t convince anyone (9 times out of 10, to be honest, Sea Shepherd was what gave me that initial poke to do some research) and will probably just make you look like a dick. Much like SSCS.

    So…maybe a C+ for concept, D for execution and T for Troll.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cdiz0k0Rudw

    For the first two, I mean there’s room for improvement.

  7. I’m not sure. I’m someone with a graduate degree but no knowledge of the ocean or sharks. Just the human body. I can’t tell you the numnber of times people have come up to me in a clinic to say “well, looky-here (or the UK equivalent), the scientists have just discovered that what my grandmother always said about yoghurt is true!” and become even more entrenched in their position that experience, and “the old ways” are always better than these uppity science folk. Our knowledge makes them deeply uncomfortable and therefore they will need to resort to these denail tactics to feel more secure.
    Lots of people will take what fishcatcher said as fact, after all, “he’s out there seeing it with his own two eyes”. The arguments in the USA have become so polarised and dare I say it, polluted by moral majority appeals to tradition and these “old ways”. How did they get that way? Education, exposure to basic principles of rational thinking, and even basic data collection methods (or lack thereof).
    If even a few readers pay attention to what the majority here say or it gets them to look into it a bit more, even if it triggered one person to use their innate intellectual curiosity rather than have it stifled, I think your tactic was worth it.
    But it’s an exhausting effort for that return! I think I agree with the tactic. lecanardnoir (on twitter) tried this similar approach to homeopathy funding by the NHS in the UK and right now the government is pulling the plug on it, so yes, these tactics can bear fruit