Under the bridge

Climate Desk tracks down its 'most pernicious' troll

Frustrating as they may be, every journalist wonders at some point about the identity of his or her most devoted online hecklers, but The Climate Desk’s James West and Tim McDonnell just couldn’t let it go.

Citing research that found that “uncivil discourse” in social media and comments sections can have a polarizing affect on consumers of science news, and “sick to death of ignoring him,” the two reporters recently tracked down their “most pernicious Twitter troll,” @hoytc55, who had mentioned @climatedesk 126 times in April alone, almost as much as the site’s top nine other followers combined.

The man behind the curtain turned out to be Hoyt Connell, a 57-year-old insurance executive who likes to refer to climate science as “alarmist propaganda.” West and McDonnell met him at his home, and their interview forms the first installment of a three-part video series that The Climate Desk published on Monday. Unfortunately, it doesn’t shine as much light under the bridge as it could have.

“Why climate science out of all the different topics you could talk about? Why this one? Why us?” West asks while explaining their curiosity in front of a dash-cam on the way to Connell’s house. They’re great questions that ultimately go unanswered.

The first thing West noticed upon arrival, he says in a voiceover, was that Hoyt is “really normal,” and he points out his argyle sweater and diamond-toed socks, his love of cats, and his avuncular quality. What the viewer really wants to know is what that normalcy belies, but the interview doesn’t go much deeper.

“I think what’s sad is when people sit on the sidelines,” Connell says in his first quote. “When I lock onto something, I generally don’t let go.”

Why is that? West points out that Connell is a “social media junkie,” but the answer, seemingly, doesn’t come until a minute later, when Connell reveals that he’s a prostate cancer survivor and that while he was sick, he learned everything there was to know about his disease.

Following that, West pivots to a great question about why, after thorough reviews of the literature, Connell decided to trust his medical doctors, but not climate scientists. But it’s one that could’ve waited a beat while West worked up to it with a question or two about Connell’s Internet research habits and why he latched onto The Climate Desk in particular.

Regardless, Connell responds with a trite statement about climate change being an unproven theory that has been “usurped by politics” and a jab at Congressman Henry Waxman, whom he accuses of not having done his “homework.”

West gets Connell to concede that he distrusts Waxman largely because he’s a Democrat, which is interesting, but the conversation, and the video, don’t go much farther than that. As the clip fast-forwards through what looks like a long interview, the viewer hears only another voiceover from West.

“And, so, around and around we go,” he says, “and here’s what I learned: Trolls are definitely stubborn and irrational. But I have to say that what struck me the most is that Hoyt is not some outlier, some self-defined troll easily dismissed. In fact, Hoyt should be deeply familiar to anybody who spends any time on the Internet - his catalogued talking points, his love the echo chamber. He’d hate this analysis, but Hoyt struck me as a product, and a purveyor, of America’s antagonistic political culture, and like any propagandist, Hoyt believes that the truth is only in the telling.”

There, the video cuts to a final word from Connell, who says, “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.”

It’s a comment that merits a couple of questions about the blurry line between accuracy and rhetoric in cyberspace, but like the others, it goes unexplored.

In the second part of the video series, West interviews an online acolyte, Rosi Reed, a 34-year-old nuclear physicist at Yale University whom he and McDonnell dub the “troll slayer” for her attempts to rebut folks like Connell. It’s not terribly revealing, however.

In the third part, West moderates a debate between Connell and Reed about online commenting and climate science. It’s interesting, insofar as Connell seems far more aggressive than he did when talking to West, but there’s no mention of that discrepancy, and otherwise, listening to the back-and-forth is (unsurprisingly) as unsatisfying as reading it a comments section would be.

If the idea was to understand what makes trolls tick, a better course of action would’ve been to focus the series entirely on Connell—how he became a social media junkie, why he homed in on climate change, and what guides his commentary online.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , ,