‘Sealioning’ is a common trolling tactic on social media – what is it?
Marshall Shepherd, March 7, 2019, Forbes magazine
There are times in life that you know something when you see it. In competitive sports, a very talented player usually stands out above the others. I can identify within seconds whether I will dislike the food at a restaurant based on the smell. Social media has become a significant part of the daily landscape of society. There is interaction, information-sharing, debate, discussion, vitriol, harassment, and a lot of people exhibiting the Dunning-Kruger Effect. As I previously noted in Forbes, the Dunning-Kruger Effect is “a psychological concept that people believe they know more about a topic than they actually do (or conversely misjudge how much they do not know).” You probably didn’t know it was a formal “thing,” but you know it when you see it. This week a former graduate student from my Department at the University of Georgia introduced me to the term “sealioning.” Upon learning what it means, I realized that it happens a lot on social media, especially to scientists. What is it?
For more insight, I asked Dr. Pete Akers to explain since he exposed me to the term. Akers is a scientist at Géosciences de l’Environnement, Grenoble. He said via social media, people who troll online by pretending to ask sincere questions, but just keep feigning ignorance and repeating ‘polite’ follow ups until someone gets fed up. That way, they can cast their opponents as attacking them and being unreasonable. It’s pretty common on comment sections of weather blogs re: climate change. It’s called ‘sealioning’, and the term is based on this lovely comic.
As a climate scientist, I see all types of tactics employed by climate change-dismissive people. My recent summary in Forbes identified:
- the use of misinterpreted or outdated science information,
- citation of 1-study that confirms a bias,
- establishing tangential or inflated credentials,
- the “grand Poobah” effect of repeating a favorite personality,
- reference natural cycles, ice ages or magazine articles, or
- deflection with a series of irrelevant questions to create a “gotcha” moment for a scientist
The “deflection” point that I made sounds a lot like “sealioning” though I was not familiar with the term when I wrote that piece. Daniel Chandler and Rod Munday have actually published the book, A Dictionary of Social Media. They define “sealioning” as “A disparaging term for the confrontational practice of leaping into an online discussion with endless demands for answers and evidence.”
The Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University published a collection of essays entitled Perspectives on Harmful Speech Online. In the essay “The Multiple Harms of Sea Lions,” Amy Johnson writes:
Rhetorically, sealioning fuses persistent questioning—often about basic information, information on easily found elsewhere, or unrelated or tangential points—with a loudly-insisted-upon commitment to reasonable debate. It disguises itself as a sincere attempt to learn and communicate. Sealioning thus works both to exhaust a target’s patience, attention, and communicative effort, and to portray the target as unreasonable. While the questions of the “sea lion” may seem innocent, they’re intended maliciously and have harmful consequences.
Johnson offers an alternative term because she argues that “sealioning” is “opaque and obscure.” She borrows from the information technology and computational community to suggest that “sealioning,” as she writes, is a “type of denial of service (DoS) attack—one aimed at humans rather than servers.”
I think this tweet by Anthony Martin is important because honest scientific discourse and inquiry are necessary. Martin tweeted:
Pertinent article for my #ENVSCOMM19 students when trying to discern “good faith” vs. “bad faith” appeals for information/explanations of environmental-science topics. You do not owe your time nor energy to anyone who deliberately moves the goalposts. #scicomm
Dr. Marshall Shepherd, Dir., Atmospheric Sciences Program/GA Athletic Assoc. Distinguished Professor (Univ of Georgia), Host, Weather Channel’s Popular Podcast, Weather Geeks, 2013 AMS President