Climate Desk recently decided to track down and meet what they call their "most pernicious, climate-denying troll," insurance executive Hoyt Connell, as part of a series on internet trolls and climate change denial. Climate Desk is a "journalistic collaboration dedicated to exploring the impact — human, environmental, economic, political — of a changing climate," involving news organizations such as the Guardian, Slate, and Mother Jones. As such it is often the target of climate change deniers, seeking to make climate change appear more controversial than it really is.
Sick of ignoring Connell, and in light of recent research which shows that trolls can disproportionately influence debates and make people "double down on their preexisting beliefs," Climate Desk decided to meet Connell in person. What they found was a seemingly calm, reasonable man, "like the uncle you don't mind arguing with over Thanksgiving dinner." Until he says he thinks Fox News is more centrist than any other news organization, and says that he is willing to listen to scientists when it comes to his own life, but not to climate change.
In the second part of its series, Climate Desk talks to Rosi Reed, a 34-year-old nuclear physicist who actively pushes back against trolls on internet comment boards. The kind of person you want to be engaging with trolls over issues such as climate change, you know, one with an actual science degree. And who enjoys arguing.
Finally, Climate Desk gets Connell and Reed to video chat each other. And while the discussion remained civil, it doesn't really progress anywhere. Which is not surprising, given that Connell's positions are based on the belief that climate change is just a theory and that scientists are just in it for the money.
Perhaps the most telling quote of the whole series is when Connell tells James West of Climate Desk, "if you allow somebody to make a comment and there's no response, then they're controlling the definition of the statement. Then it can become a truth."
And therein lies the difficulty of engaging with trolls, they always want the last word. And as Connell shows, they tend to be very stubborn and unwilling to engage with the facts of the debate.