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Ten Common Strategies for Dishonesty and Abuse on the Internet

And how to defend yourself against them.

A triangular graphic representing a "hierarchy of disagreement" from clear refutation to mere vituperation, based on the essay "How to Disagree" by Paul Graham.
A triangular graphic representing a "hierarchy of disagreement" from clear refutation to mere vituperation, based on the essay "How to Disagree" by Paul Graham. Wikimedia, public domain. CreateDebate user 'Loudacris'. Vector: Rocket000.

Yes, they can hurt you

The first mistake we make is to think that we cannot be hurt by our interactions online.

After all, they are two separate worlds: the real one, where we live under our real name and interact with our friends and families, and the one behind our computer screen. In it, we are anonymous or hidden under a nickname. The relationships we develop can be severed at our whim by blocking people or ghosting them. Anything they write about us is not really about us, but about our internet persona. We can safely walk away from the nastiness simply by turning off our computer or putting away our phone. Then we go back to our real selves in our real lives.

But things are not like that. Our brains are programed to respond to shaming and blaming by other people, no matter if they are in the real world or behind a computer screen. The relationships and social networks we create online are as real as the ones in the physical world.

Fooled by our anonymity, we share secrets online that we wouldn’t dare to tell to our best friends. And then those secrets can be thrown back at us to hurt us in the most intimate places of our psyches.

Since other people in the internet are also cloaked behind nicknames, their social inhibitions are turned off, and they dare say things that they would never say in the physical world. Nice doctor Jekyll turns into nasty mister Hyde as soon as he touches that keyboard. He also believes that what he writes cannot really hurt us, so he pours his venom with complete abandon.

But, yes, we can be hurt online. It happens all the time. People are thrown into anxiety, rumination, depression and even suicide.

If, like I do, you go into the internet to share your knowledge and defend worthy causes, you should be aware of all the ways people can be dishonest and abusive. You need to fend off the bad guys and attract the good ones. You need to know how to stay on message and avoid being derailed into worthless arguments.

In this article, I compile ten dishonest and abusive tricks that you may find on the internet, and what you can do about them.

1) The personal attack

The most basic and frequent form of internet abuse is the personal attack. You are discussing a problem in general terms, and then somebody comment on it, making it all about your person.

This is an informal fallacy called ‘ad hominem’, which in Latin means ‘to the person’.

Ideas should be considered on their own value, not based on the person who expresses them. Attacking the person and not the idea is a distraction commonly used by people who don’t have solid arguments against that idea. This turns an intellectual argument into an emotional one, since it is very easy to escalate an ad hominem into all sorts of blaming and shaming. Then you find yourself defending your reputation, and not the idea that you wanted to express.

Questioning your authority on the topic at hand is not always dishonest. People have legitimate reasons to want to know how educated you are on a subject. If you have some academic credentials or an education degree, you may want to give them. However, this is not always a good idea. For one thing, you may out yourself, so you are no longer anonymous while your opponent remains so. This puts you in a situation of vulnerability, open to further attacks based on the information they may find about you.

You may also be forced into the converse fallacy of the ad hominem: the argument from authority. It consists of defending an idea on the basis of your authority on the matter, instead of giving evidence and rational arguments to support it.

A better solution is to show your authority by demonstrating it, for example, by citing papers and books that support your position. Or you may explain obscure ideas and technical jargon in ways that make everybody understand them. This will make you more popular amongst people who are trying to learn something, at the same time that it shows that you really know what you are talking about. Just try not to sound condescending.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that you are not trying to convince the person arguing with you. In most cases, that person would be so attached to his beliefs that it would be impossible to convince them. Who you are trying to convince is everybody else watching the discussion.

“Abusive ad hominem argument (or direct ad hominem) is associated with an attack to the character of the person carrying an argument. This kind of argument, besides usually being fallacious, is also counterproductive, as a proper dialogue is hard to achieve after such an attack.” Wikipedia.

If a personal attack raises to the level of insult, block that person without a second thought. Life is too short to deal with mean people.

2) Fishing for personal information

Personal attacks take many forms. The most vile seek points of weakness in your past to make you ashamed of them. The problem is that your attacker doesn’t know much about you. Hence, they need to extract some personal information from you beforehand.

They may do that by feigning genuine curiosity or sympathy. Only after they have gathered the information that they want they will start their attack.

Another strategy is to write a wild assumption about you. When you correct them, you give them the information they want.

For example, a woman recently responded to one of my comments by saying that surely I was single and had problems dating. She implied that I was a misogynist and, therefore, no woman would want to date me. I replied saying that I had been married for 30 years, what about her? That way, I gave a minimum of truthful information and turned the tables on her. Of course, she didn’t volunteer if she was single or married. She knew the rules of her own game.

3) The dog pile

The dog pile is one of the most vicious internet attacks. It’s when a group of people collude to make a simultaneous personal attack on you.

The term ‘dog pile’ existed in the English vocabulary long before the invention of the World Wide Web. The internet made it possible to take it from a physical attack to a verbal one.

Here is an old Bugs Bunny cartoon perfectly illustrating how a dog pile work.

Often, the people making a dog pile are part of a clique that follow a dog whistle of one of their members to appear in the comment section of one of your posts.

Other times, dog piles form spontaneously when you dare post a view the goes against the commonly held beliefs of a site - not a wise thing to do. Stay off that site. You won’t make any friends or convert anybody there. You’ll be like Bugs Bunny chewing his carrot in the dog’s neighborhood.

Since in a dog pile a lot of people are posting simultaneously, it is nearly impossible to defend yourself by responding to each of their comments. You could write a collective response, but this would just emphasize the fact that there are a lot of people against you. People are cowards, so don’t expect anybody to rush to your defense - unless you have enough friends to form a counter-dog pile in response.

But even that would have destroyed the comments to your article. I found that the best response to a dog pile is to individually block every individual participating in it. These people are mean, you won’t miss them as followers. If you detect the dog pile early enough, you can block the instigators, thus nipping the attack on the bud before it does too much damage.

4) Baiting

Baiting is when somebody post something in a provocative tone to evoke an emotional response from you. Things tend to escalate and go downhill from there.

Baiting achieves its objective by making you look like a nasty, emotional and aggressive person. The more you descend to the level of your provocateur, the more you drive the onlookers away from your position.

Besides, some provocateurs are deftly enough to always look cooler than you. If you are responding to comments on your blog or to one of your articles, you are defending your home turf. An attacker looks like a daring outsider, which gives her an advantage.

Always remember that you are not writing for the attacker, but for the onlookers. Think of how you appear to them.

The best way to respond to baiting is with a rational, overly polite answer.

Not answering is always a good option. At least, you won’t waste your time. The baiter will not get her reward and will probably look for better targets. And you will devote your time and energy to the good members of your audience.

However, keep in mind that intelligent disagreeing comments are the best. Agreeing comments are nice but boring, because it is hard to reply to them with something entertaining. An opponent willing to argue honestly is the best thing that can happen to your article. Treat them with the utmost respect and give them your best. A smart, profound discussion will enthrall your audience in ways that your article could not.

5) Sidetracking

Sidetracking is when somebody takes the discussion away from the man topic of your article. It’s a common and annoying practice.

If you built the reasoning of your article in a way that is rationally waterproof and based on solid evidence, people who disagree with it will find it hard to argue against it. Instead, what they would do is to nitpick on an irrelevant detail or take the conversation away to a different topic. This may be a topic that they know better than you, where they can embarrass you and destroy your credibility.

Don’t let yourself be sidetracked.

Do not respond to sidetracking comments. If you do, bring the discussion back to the main topic by sidetracking the sidetracker. If people follow a sidetracking thread, do not participate in it. Do not complain that they are sidetracking, because that would make you look like a censor. If you do not participate, you would avoid risking your credibility and lending importance to the sidetracking topic.

6) The joke is on you

Often, sidetracking is done by joking.

This could signal the beginning of a personal attack or a dog pile. There may be a trick question that then turns you into the butt of a joke. But, if you don’t play along with a joke, this would make you appear straitlaced and humorless.

You’ll have to use your best judgment about how to respond to a joke. If you are witty and appreciated for your sense of humor, you could outwit the joker. A friendly audience will often flock to your side. But beware that this may escalate and you may not keep up your smart responses for long.

Do not turn your response into an attack on the outsider. Always be friendly and compassionate. Your success as a writer depends on making friends, not enemies.

7) The Kafka trap

“A sophistical rhetorical device in which any denial by an accused person serves as evidence of guilt. […] Coined by American computer programmer, author, and advocate for the open source movement Eric S. Raymond in 2010 in reference to the book Der Proceß (The Trial, 1925) by the Bohemian author Franz Kafka (1883–1924), in which a man is accused of crimes that are never specified, and every defense is treated as proof of guilt.” Kafkatrap, Wiktionary.

Somebody accuses you of being a misogynist, a racist, a communist, etc. When you deny it, this is taken as evidence that you are because that’s precisely what a misogynist, racist, communist, etc. would say.

In its most elaborated forms, Kafka traps are constructed so that even good behavior in support of a cause is taken as evidence that you have a secret agenda. You are virtue signaling. Or, worse, planning some ultimate exploitative act. For example, nice guys are the worst misogynists. White men dating Black women are racists. Men dating trans women are abusing them.

The underlying idea is that being part of an oppressor group is an irredeemable quality, so that every good deed from members of that group would eventually turn evil. That there are nasty motives behind every good intention, even if they are unconscious. Because nobody can escape the oppressor-victim dynamic at the core of postmodern ideology.

“As almost any glance back in history will tell you, silencing a subsection of society simply encourages the pretence of compliance, a fostered resentment and a festering that will re-emerge at a later date. The Kafka Trap is an excellent way to keep the walls of an echo chamber solid and a bad way to promote social change.” @Argumentative Penguin.

Verbal Prison: How To Spot and Escape The Kafka Trap

8) Arguments from gender, race, nationality, etc.

This is a variant of the ad hominem attack that is worth mentioning because it has become so pervasive in identity politics that it is almost part of its ideology.

A long time ago, conservatives used to say that women or Blacks couldn’t say anything worth hearing because they were of lesser intelligence and education. Perhaps this is still true today in some conservative circles.

But, nowadays, this misogynistic and racist idea has been turned on its head by identity politics. What somebody says can be discounted solely because he belongs to the wrong gender, race or nation. Again, the underlying assumption is that whatever is said by a member of an oppressor group can be attributed to wanting to maintain the privilege of that group, and not to an honest opinion or an idea based on evidence and logic. This frees people who espouse ideological dogmas from having to defend them against powerful arguments.

A variant of this is to imply that the subjective experience of somebody belonging to an oppressed group trumps any objective finding related to this group. For example, a woman mocked me for being a man writing about female orgasms. Since I could not experience them firsthand, it was impossible for me to know anything about them. No matter how many women I had sex with. No matter how many scientific papers about orgasms I had read. Taken to its logical conclusion, this attitude would invalidate any scientific evidence in favor of the subjective experiences of certain people.

9) Pearl-clutching

This expression comes from the image of a Victorian woman in rich clothes clutching her pearl necklace while exclaiming “Good Heavens! I can’t believe you could say that!” Or something along those lines.

It’s a shaming maneuver that invites indignation from the audience.

It’s designed to put you in a defensive position by having to defend your right to express an idea before you can start actually defending that idea. You would need to argue that expressing that idea is not a moral outrage. Even if you manage to do that, it would put you in a weakened position by the time you get around to defend your idea.

Even though the image of pearl-clutching evokes Victorian era puritanism, today this attitude is most commonly encountered in those defending the politically correct status quo.

10) The easily offended

Recently, in a chat group, I defended a gay man against a dog pile. People were attacking him because he said that there was still homophobia in some kinky groups. Among other things, I pointed out that a group attack on somebody who was gay could be perceived as homophobic. A woman who had marginally participated in the dog pile took great offense at that, saying that I had accused her of being homophobic. Never mind that I didn’t accuse her, or anybody else, for that matter. I just pointed out that what they were doing was wrong.

As I said above, personal attacks are against people. Attacking ideas should be part of the normal discourse; otherwise, there would be censorship. We should also be free to condemn some behaviors. In fact, this is what I am doing in this article. Criticizing behaviors is essential to fight for a just society.

For centuries, taking offense by confusing an attack of an idea, an ideology or a religion with a personal attack has been a favorite strategy of the defenders of dogma. Thus, questioning the dogmas of Christianity was presented as an attack on Christians and got a lot of people tortured and killed. Today, the Left furiously condemns any criticism of Islam as a bigoted attack on Muslims. Never mind that Islam holds the same misogynistic and homophobic ideas that the Left has been fighting in conservative Christianity.

Conclusion

The only hope out of the cultural wars that are tearing Western societies apart is to establish a solid base of common norms for polite discourse, evidence and rationality. Unfortunately, the Left has become as guilty of poisoning the well of rationality as the Right.

When signaling to what cultural group you belong to becomes more important that finding the truth, everybody becomes more mired in their common delusions. Ideological divisions become more profound until talking across them becomes impossible and they tear our society apart.

In this light, perhaps the most worthwhile battle is to fight for rational discourse and a common base of shared knowledge.

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