The Great Weirding of New Media

Our society has become dominated by new kinds of media. One one level, we have a return to the image, in replacing or subverting or altering the written word, by way of cable tv, 24/7 news, Youtube, numerous streaming services, etc. But that isn’t quite correct. Even as the image has retaken territory within the psyche and the media world, the 21st century has seen a simultaneous rise in the consumption of text. More books are being published now than ever before in history. That is on top of the endless and overwhelming stream of news articles, long-form essays, the blogosphere, social media, email, and texting. There are comment threads on Reddit that are so long that, if printed out, would fill an entire multi-volume encyclopedia.

All media has increased, as unmediated experience has gone on a rapid decline. Even when people are together physically and in person, there are quite likely to be multiple devices that are offering diversion and distraction. In the middle of a conversation or debate while sitting with friends at home or chatting with a coworker over lunch, someone is likely to settle an issue or answer a question or throw in a factoid by turning to their smartphone. All the world is at your fingertip; well, all the world that conforms to the constraints of new media. Our minds are constantly aflutter with both word and image, if not so much the direct human relating that defined humanity for so long. If media is the message, what does it mean to have all of this addictive, compulsive, and obsessive, immersive, and always accessible media?

There have been a number of scholars who have explored how changes in media are closely tied into changes in culture and mentality — there is Marshall McLuhan, Walter J. Ong, Julian Jaynes, and Jean Gebser, to name a few. All of them agreed that media has the power to destabilize and transform societies, but none of them had formed their theories in analyzing media in the 21st century. They were prescient in many ways, that is true. Still, I’m not sure any of them was able to come close in predicting the full extent and impact of what media would become in the not too distant future that we are now living in. How could they?

There is something strange about the internet, in particular. There is such an ease of access to other humans, in being able to talk with people anywhere in the world. Even for those who only speak one language like English, much of the world’s population can communicate with them. But this means most interactions online have an arbitrary or random quality about them, in that the price of admission is low. It can feel like there is little at stake. The connections made are usually fleeting with the people interacting likely never meeting again. The quality of sitting alone and silently with text on a screen has similarities to talking to oneself or being lost in one’s own thoughts — it creates shallow intimacy, a sense of sharing that is only words deep. Besides, such sharing is rarely reciprocated, as there is this constant reticence and pulling away from these shadowy others lurking at the periphery of one’s mind (personal space is amorphous, shifting, and porous when online; this can be unsettling).

The human desire to connect draws one in, but typically leaves one dissatisfied or worse. It creates social conditions that are extremely unnatural, distorting, and anxiety-inducing. So much of the normal context of interactions are removed, not only the sensory experience of lived perception and behavioral observations of being in the embodied presence of others but also the shared environmental and cultural context that offers cues, norms, roles, expectations, and such. Even videos, be it Youtube or Zoom, create an odd situation in the hyper-focus on the face; and seeing one’s own image while talking lends an agitating self-consciousness, as if one is performing on a stage.

Text without video isn’t better as it can lead to an insular unawareness of others, as if one is talking to oneself while the people on the other side of the screen aren’t quite present or, at best, that they are a mere audience to one’s monologue (this is magnified by the tendency of text to induce abstract thought, whether in how people get caught up in ideologies or in how they reify their ideas, in either case making it harder to differentiate between thought and reality). Along with anonymity, this is a probable contributing factor to disinhibition in people acting in ways and saying things they otherwise would not. If one expresses online that one’s feelings were hurt as one might do in normal life with a friend who said something unkind or careless, one is unlikely to receive sympathy or even acknowledgement, much less an apology and contrition — to expect any human warmth from other humans online is treated as naive, pathetic, and laughable. That is how low our standards have become.

The human quality that exists in almost any other situation is missing when people pull on the masks of their online identities. That latter issue is most apparent in a blog such as this. The blogger is an unknown entity, as is each new commenter. There is often a heavy guardedness to such interactions where everyone is ready to retreat, attack, or evade — sometimes a near total lack of the basic goodwill and casual trustfulness that is more common in person, the lack occasionally verging on paranoia about the intentions of the other. The internet can be a harsh and unforgiving social environment, a playground where our worst impulses are unleashed.

More often than one would prefer, people online say what they otherwise would not and in ways they would not if they were talking to a living, breathing, feeling person right in front of them. Such ways of treating others can come across as quite unfriendly, often passively indifferent and apathetically unsympathetic, but sometimes downright cruel or trollish, aggressive and confrontational. Yet at other times, one leaves a comment and gets no response at all, even when attempting to be friendly in inviting connection. And because of the practice of drive-by commenting, even responding to a comment won’t necessarily elicit dialogue. This kind of behavior of one-way talking would never happen in most other situations in life (Would you drive around your town yelling at strangers? Would you knock at people’s doors, blurt out your political opinions or pet theory, and then run away? Would you harangue and criticize random people at a store and then act shocked or outraged by their negative response? Would you stand on a street corner giving a monologue to a passing crowd about your relationship problems or the movie you just saw?). One-way behavior in general is indicative of power inequality where one has no social obligation or moral responsibility to the other who is perceived as inferior in value or of lesser position. This othering effect can be quite profound and disconcerting.

It’s not only strangers that are pulled into this great weirding of new media (the “great weirding” is related to what some refer to as the “global weirding”). Similar interactions or rather non-interactions happen with people one personally knows, including family. You text, email, or Facebook chat someone as a friendly gesture of conversation. Under normal conditions in talking face-to-face, this person you know would immediately acknowledge you said something and respond. But the social norms of relating well don’t translate outside of the directly interpersonal sphere. One loses count of how often no response is ever given, even when it shows the person viewed what you sent them. Could you imagine meeting your brother or a neighbor you’ve known for years, casually saying something to them as an easygoing conversation-starter, have them stand their silently as if you said nothing at all, and then watching them walk away as if you weren’t there? Yet that is the equivalent of what happens with new media on a regular basis. Most people don’t seem to recognize how utterly bizarre this is.

This lack of basic recognition of another’s humanity, of course, is far worse with those met online without any prior personal contact. Most of the internet is not people fighting but ignoring each other, as if people of different identities, views, and ways of speaking don’t matter or don’t exist. A large part of online commentary occurs with little or any response — it’s echos in the void, a vast seething swarm of humanity mostly talking to themselves or else to those who already agree with them, which is the same difference. That is how it can feel at times. Maybe this is why so many seek out conflict, simply to be acknowledged at all. This is how people can become trollish without consciously intending to do so. Trolling is often more of a mentality one falls into than an identity one embraces. Any attention can be good attention, to all those isolated individuals hidden behind their keyboards amidst the lonely masses in their not-always-quiet desperation.

We humans are social creatures — we need the social as we need air and water; we long for human contact and relationship. Here is the rub: Social conditions determine our social behavior. But millions of years of hominid evolution happened in a far different kind of environment than we’ve created in recent generations. Social behavior requires social input. Mindreading others (i.e., social cognition) requires the development of a mental map of others. This is called theory of mind, but there is an interesting and informed speculation. It appears that, as children, we develop a theory of mind of others before we develop a theory of mind for ourselves. That is to say our self-concept is a model that mirrors and internalizes our developing perception and understanding that comes through relationship. The other becomes the self. And so the others we are surrounded by are powerfully influential — as your mother told you, pick carefully who you associate with, including the strangers you interact with. “Let me explain,” writes Augustin Fuentes (Are We Really as Awful as We Act Online?).

“We’ve all heard the diet-conscious axiom “You are what you eat.” But when it comes to our behavior, a more apt variation is “You are whom you meet.” How we perceive, experience, and act in the world is intensely shaped by who and what surround us on a daily basis—our families, communities, institutions, beliefs, and role models. These sources of influence find their way even into our neurobiology. Our brains and bodies constantly undergo subtle changes so that how we perceive the world plays off of, and maps to, the patterns of those people and places we see as most connected to us. This process has deep evolutionary roots and gives humans what we call a shared reality. The connection between minds and experiences enables us to share space and work together effectively, more so than most other beings. It’s in part how we’ve become such a successful species.

“But the “who” that constitutes “whom we meet” in this system has been changing. Today the who can include more virtual, social media friends than physical ones; more information absorbed via Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram than in physical social experiences; and more pronouncements from ad-sponsored 24-hour news outlets than from conversations with other human beings. We live in complicated societies structured around political and economic processes that generate massive inequality and disconnection between us. This division alone leads to a plethora of prejudices and blind spots that segregate people. The ways we socially interact, especially via social media, are multiplying exactly at a time when we are increasingly divided. What may be the consequences?

This is where new media short-circuits our normal cognitive and affective functioning. If we can’t fully experience the other with all of our senses, our ability to read them is crippled. Pushed to the extreme, our ability to read ourselves can also go offline as we go online. The signalling we depend on disappears and so might much of our self-awareness. The person on Twitter or wherever might not be an intentional asshole or troll. Rather, in a sense, they might be lashing out in social blindness. And the same goes for us. That is the thing about the internet. It creates the social conditions of social unawareness for people who likely have little ability to handle this well. Someone who spent their whole life blind can walk down a city street and not get run over. But put blindfolds on crowds of sighted people and they’ll be running into each other and they won’t be happy about it. Then imagine what happens when you also put blindfolds onto those driving the cars. Well, that is what the internet is like.

By the way, some studies indicate that internet trolls may not be as socially blind as some but they are psychologically deaf, in not emotionally hearing their targets and victims except in the most exaggerated forms of emotional response. Interestingly, though lacking affective empathy, trolls actually measured high on cognitive empathy, which is to say they understand human behavior well enough for purposes of manipulation while being emotionally numb to the consequences — to put it simply, they know where to jab the knife for greatest hurt (Evita March, Psychology of internet trolls). On the other hand, “trolls displayed low levels of emotional and social intelligence” (Neil Graney, Is internet trolling simply replacing the violence we used to see on the football terraces?). Trolls are both stupid and smart in relating to others — call them stupid-smart. The other person remains psychologically unreal to them and so they just don’t get what all the fuss is about (it’s all about the lulz). Keep in mind, though, that anyone can be prone to trolling, particularly when a precedent of trolling has been set in a particular situation (Justin Cheng et al, Anyone Can Become a Troll) — this is maybe why trolls seem to proliferate and take over comment threads. It’s a virulent mind virus.

Outright trolling behavior (Dark Tetrad: psychopathic, sadistic, narcissism, Machiavellian) aside, what we perceive as anti-social behavior may often be better understood as non-social behavior, that is to say normal responses to abnormal conditions. It’s a reality-warping effect. We become disconnected to a radically extreme degree because most of the key markers of reality perception are missing; and so we relate without fully relating, something we’ve all experienced in the regular irritations, conflicts, and miscommunications of the internet. What one sees on a screen might not feel psychologically and viscerally real, even as intellectually we know there are real people involved living real lives in the real world. This effect can be subtle in unconsciously creeping up on us after spending long periods on the computer or scrolling our smartphone, as is common these days between work and home. It can take immense effort of reality monitoring (combining self-awareness and social awareness) to counter this sense of derealization. About why this psychological slippage happens, Alan Martin wrote (Online disinhibition and the psychology of trolling):

“Psychologist John Suller wrote a paper on this in 2004, entitled “The Online Disinhibition Effect”, where he explored six factors that could combine to change people’s behaviour online. These are dissociative anonymity (“my actions can’t be attributed to my person”); invisibility (“nobody can tell what I look like, or judge my tone”); asynchronicity (“my actions do not occur in real-time”); solipsistic Introjection (“I can’t see these people, I have to guess at who they are and their intent”); dissociative imagination (“this is not the real world, these are not real people”); and minimising authority (“there are no authority figures here, I can act freely”). The combination of any number of these leads to people behaving in ways they wouldn’t when away from the screen, often positively — being more open, or honest — but sometimes negatively, abusing their fellow internet users in ways they wouldn’t dream of offline.

“Internet psychologist Graham Jones believes that to a certain extent the kind of aggressive behaviour often seen online happens in the real world. “Having said that, there is a feature of the online world that makes such negative behaviour more likely than in the real world,” he says. “In the real world people subconsciously monitor the behaviour of others around them and adapt their own behaviour accordingly… Online we do not have such feedback mechanisms. These feedback mechanisms can be body language, facial expressions or more obvious cues, but a recent study at the Univeristy of Haifa revealed that those who had to maintain eye contact were half as likely to be hostile as those who had the eyes hidden. The lead author of the study, Noam Lapidot-Lefler, believes this is because eye contact “helps you understand the other person’s feelings, the signals that the person is trying to send you.”

Some people are more skillful in handling this psychological crippling of online environments. They might have learned greater social intuition about personality and behavior from some kind of atypical life experience or professional training. Or because of some lucky combo of nature and nurture, they might’ve always been extraordinarily calm, accepting, gracious, and forgiving toward others. But for most of us, we continually bump into one another and then immediately blame the other, likely even giving them a good whack to teach them a lesson and complain mightily when they whack us back, that is if we manage to even slightly recognize and appreciate their humanity and existence. One might like to think that one is above average in interpersonal skills and moral character, unlike all those other social morons and lowly reprobates, but the fact of the matter is most people are not above average. And in the social blindness of the online world, the standard social ability of the average is already quite low.

It’s actually worse than described since, as the deficient social signaling can make us socially blind, we can be socially blind to the fact that we’re socially blind, not recognizing ourselves in the mirror of our own projections — a self-enclosed obliviousness and self-reinforcing obtuseness. Imagine all those normally sighted people with blindfolds on and not realizing they are blinded, going about their lives as if they could see. That causes much psychological confusion and interpersonal havoc, further exacerbating the sense of the great weirding and at times magnified to the level of the political and even geopolitical (President Donald Trump being the great example). Welcome to the new media world! Think of it as an opportunity for a steep learning curve. Keep all of this in mind. If you can recognize you’re in a situation of social blindness and surrounded by the socially blind, you are already ahead in the game. Maybe don’t react so quickly, withhold that initial impulse to judge, pause and take a breath. Maybe give the other person the benefit of the doubt and assume the best, as you’d like them to do for you. People sometimes just have bad days, even when the antagonism of new media weirding isn’t involved. Simply put, be kind and forgiving.

We are going to need all the compassion we can muster, as we move forward in this new media society of heavily mediated reality. The changes in media are going to happen faster and faster with impacts and consequences we won’t be able to imagine or predict. It’s guaranteed we won’t handle it well. The stress of society will fracture society even further. It’s possible that our society will survive the threats of collapse and eventually gain a new stability within this media paradigm, although social norms and functional ways of relating well will be slow to develop and take hold. It is highly doubtful that we will see the end of this transition in our lifetime, much less benefit from what might eventually be a positive change. We are in the middle of the storm — tighten the straps and hunker down.

Let’s end on a personal note. In this crazy online world, for those we’ve attacked, irritated, or unfairly judged, for those times we failed to treat others as we’d want to be treated, we apologize for our shortcomings as normal humans stuck in abnormal times. But we know we’re likely to continue to get stressed, anxious, and emotionally pulled into conflict; and so we also apologize in advance for our future wrongdoings and lack of needed understanding. We’ll try to do better, if that helps. In such difficult times, though, one’s best might not be good enough. So, we should be forgiving toward ourselves as well.

* * *

Here are a few things I came across while writing this post:

Here’s Why Internet Trolls Are So Good at Upsetting You, According to Science
by Minda Zetlin

Internet Trolls Really Are Horrible People
by Chris Mooney

Psychopaths, Sadists, and the Lure of Internet Aggression
by Traci Stein

Loneliness moderates the relationship between Dark Tetrad personality traits and internet trolling
by KeitaMasui

Autonomic stress reactivity and craving in individuals with problematic Internet use
by Tania Moretta & Giulia Buodo

Internet “addiction” may fuel teen aggression
by Amy Norton

To end internet trolling, send everyone to a nice park
by WHIMN

Over a quarter of Americans have made malicious online comments
by Jake Gammon

Why Is Everyone on the Internet So Angry?
by Natalie Wolchover

We’re the reason we can’t have nice things on the internet
by Whitney Phillips

The Internet Is a Toxic Hellscape—but We Can Fix It
by Whitney Phillips

Weirding Diary
by Venkatesh Rao

The Internet of Beefs
by Venkatesh Rao

Crowds and Technology
by Renee DiResta

Status as a Service (StaaS)
by Eugene Wei

Trolling Democracy

I had a week that was both frustrating and interesting. I made a New Year’s resolution to break my habit of wasting time on commenting elsewhere, including on my own social media. It can make me feel drained and dirty.

It’s a hard habit to break, though. I was drawn in by some fake reviews on Amazon. Dishonesty really really bothers me. I know they are trolls, but they represent so much of what is wrong with our society. I do see them as a genuine threat to what little democracy we have, as they make public debate nearly impossible. Their only purpose is to obfuscate the issues and derail discussion.

Still, it wasn’t an entire waste of time. I made a fascinating discovery. It fascinates me, anyway. One of these fake reviewers, Johan RF, must have a lot of time on his hand and he has learned how to game the Amazon system. I’ve been studying him and tracking down his activities across the web. But before I get to that, let me discuss the book reviews that got my attention.

I was reading a sample of a book about psychology and perception in relation to climate change. It is Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life by Kari Marie Norgaard. Be smarter than me by skipping the Amazon reviews and just go straight to reading the book. It is one of the more recent books that looks at the human side of the issue.

At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it. I had other books on climate change that I had yet to read. But the human aspect was on my mind (because after all I’m human and my concern is accordingly biased). So, that is what led me to look at the reviews, to see if they would tip me toward getting a copy of the book. In this case, I will give the fake reviews credit for helping me decide. They made me all the more curious. Sometimes fake reviews have that effect on me.

I even left comments in response to some of the fake reviewers explaining that they had convinced me to buy the book. That was when the fun began. About a third of the reviews are critical, four out of eleven. One of the critical reviews is genuine and only moderately critical with a three star rating. The others are all one stars and, of course, they are dismissive while refusing to actually review the book itself. Two of these reviews are by a William Beahan and someone ironically calling themself Realist. The third is by the aforementioned Johan RF, and that is the troll that got my goat, so to speak.

There is a perverse side of my personality that almost enjoys engaging trolls. I had a troll on a blog post recently who threatened to make my life a living hell. He told me he knew who my family was and where I lived. My response was to tell him to stop by for coffee sometime and I’d personally introduce him to my family. He stopped bothering me at that point. The internet has given me a thick skin. I have more important things to get excited about than mentally disturbed people online. Unhappy people sometimes feel inclined to try to make other people unhappy. It sucks for them and everyone involved, but it usually isn’t anything of great concern. That kind of troll just needs a kindly pat on the head to send them on their way.

Johan RF, however, is a more intriguing species of troll. He somehow kept getting my comments deleted, not all of them but many. I’m not sure how he was doing it. He somehow knew how to game the system in getting the bots to delete comments. When that failed, he simply deleted his entire review and reposted it. This he did several times. I just kept putting my comments back up. I think he finally gave up on trying to censer and silence me, but he was almost as persistent as me.

In interacting with Johan RF, my first response was amusement, then frustration, and after that grim determination. I checked out all of his other reviews and I commented further. I was testing the water to see how he would respond. I began to see a pattern to his behavior and I adapted to it. If it was a game he wanted to play, I can go along with that for a time. Once my curiosity is piqued, I go into obsessive mode.

Who is this person? That is always the question. Names often mean nothing online.

In a comment under one of his reviews for Hoggan’s Climate Cover-Up, he stated that, “For the record I am a scientist. I believe humans are putting molecules into the atmosphere that may well indeed have an impact on climate. I am also a statistician and in that realm it is very easy to identify a HUGE hole in the man-made-climate change assumptions and claims being made.” He made a similar statement in a review of Mann’s The Hocky Stick and the Climate Wars: “I am just a scientist who likes rigour and adherement to basic principles of scientific investigation.”

I doubt any of that is true. His grasp of science appears to be slim to none. He even goes so far as to claim an author of a book (Haydn Washington, Climate Change Denial) is a “non-scientist,” when in reality that author has almost four decades of scientific experience. Ya know, typical troll behavior.

The thing is this guy is prolific. He has quite a few  reviews posted on multiple Amazon sites. Here are his Amazon profiles for the United States, Canada, and United Kingdom.

I would have been at a dead end, if I hadn’t come across someone speculating about Johan RF’s identity. It is from the Scott Mandia’s blog Global Warming: Man or Myth?, in the post Anthony Watts’ Minions Attack Mike Mann and Make Mockery of Amazon Review Process. There is a several year old comment by Lamna nasus:

.. JrF ‘Jonny old boy’.. jonathan frodsham.. same person/activist?.. JrF is definitely fond of leaving very low rating, ad hom filled reviews of AGW publications on Amazon at any rate.. also didn’t like being challenged over being the same ‘jonny old boy’ Climate Change Denier who frequently posted comments on Richard Black’s Blog at the BBC.. JrF has admitted changing his identity details on Amazon on a frequent basis (currently using Johan RF)..appears he or a supporter recently (10.09.12) threw a hissy fit and had all comments on his review of Mann’s book and identity removed from Amazon.. gotta love that Wingnut dedication to freedom of speech.. interesting that another Denier suddenly throws a necropost at this thread…

That is such an intriguing comment. I wish there had been some links offered or something. Still, it was a lead.

There apparently used to be an Amazon profile of JrF “Jonny old boy.” Michael E. Mann has an old Facebook post with an image with a dead link to a review by JrF “Jonny old boy.” Further down in the comments, Mann says that, “the guy has replaced his old review w/ an even more dishonest revised review, and apparently Amazon resets the ratings–which seems absurd. Could use some more attention.” That fits the profile of Johan RF who does the same thing, replacing old reviews with new ones (he did this to me several times, but I noticed others complaining about the same thing at some of his other reviews).

That doesn’t prove they are the same person. Even so, others apparently have made this connection.

Adam Siegel, at the Get Energy Smart! NOW! blog, has something of interest at one of his posts, Amazon-ian challenge: what is the right thing to do?. In that post, he shows a review of JrF “Jonny old boy,” but when you click on the name it goes to Johan RF’s Amazon profile. The specific review is found as a screenshot at Scott Mandia’s post, which Siegel discusses. Here is the image:

1 Star Reviewer Shows His Lack of Understanding of Basics

Over at the Skeptical Science Forum, there is a discussion (LIVE NOW – Mike Mann’s hockey stick book now live at Amazon so post your reviews!), also from several years ago. The last comment is by Tom Smerling:

Just for fun….and as a sign of how things are trending over at Amazon…

The long-time record holder for “most helpful” one-star review (below) first appeared on Feb 8 and by Feb 12 was scoring about 50% “helpful” (that high in trollville).

But the author (“JrF” aka “Jonny Feese”) deleted his own post, and reposted the same review on Feb 13.

In doing so, he inadventantly, but helpfully, created a controlled experiment.

Now his post’s second incarnation, instead of scoring 50%, is running …9%. In fact, he’s gone from first to last among the 1-star crowd: in fact, it’s now the #1 least helpful review of all 65+.

It just shows how the tide has shifted. 🙂

P.S. Gotta love that headline. . .

————-

4 of 44 people found the following review helpful:
1.0 out of 5 stars i did read this and thinks its poor. I am allowed to think this., February 13, 2012
By
JrF “Jonny old boy” (UK) – See all my reviews
This review is from: The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines (Hardcover)
Had to repost this review after abuse from AGW nutters.

Like Siegel, the name JrF “Jonny old boy” is linked to the Amazon profile of Johan RF. I’m not sure if that means that it always has been the same profile, but the username changed. Can someone change the name of their profile while maintaining the profile itself with all the reviews? I don’t know, as I’ve never tried. Smerling also throws out the name Jonny Feese, but I have no idea where that name comes from and websearches weren’t helpful.

To return to the comment by Lamna nasus, the other name that popped up was that of Jonathan Frodsham. There is a JB Frodsham with a blog and a Youtube account, both of which show an interest in climate change. A jb frodsham left a comment at Watts Up With That? (WUWT), and at the same post there is also a comment by jonny old boy. Another post at the same blog has comments by jonathan frodsham and jonny old boy.

Those two WUWT posts are the only two results that come up in a websearch for those two names. I’m not sure what that might mean. By himself, I was able to get a lot more results to come up with variations of Frodsham: Jonathan Frodsham, J Frodsham, JB Frodsham, etc. The last is most interesting, in that it could easily be connected to JrF “Jonny old boy.” Along with Johan RF, all of these names are some combination of ‘J’ and ‘F’, sometimes with ‘B’ as well (or all three letters).

I noticed a comment by jonathan frodsham (at JoNova):

“Can you give me a hand?? This guy is calling me a shit eating denialist. There are a some real swine here:”

Following that, there is a link to an Amazon discussion. When you follow that link, it goes directly to comments by a Realist. In one comment, Realist calls himself Jo-the-former-Green. Other commenters refer to him as JB Frodsham or some shortened version of it, such as JBF. The other commenters all somehow seem to know who he is. If you go to some reviews by Realist, the comments also refer to him as Frodsham, and Realist always responds when called that name.

When I saw Jonathan Frodsham going as Realist, I began to see a connection. As I mentioned earlier, I first came across Johan RF on his review of Norsgaard’s Living in Denial. I remembered that Realist also had a one star review of the same book, and Johan RF (AKA JrF “Jonny old boy”) left a comment there in response to me.

It’s interesting to compare the two reviewers, including Johan RF’s profiles at the Amazon sites of other countries. There is at least one other book that both of them review. Their reviews fit the same basic profile. The style of writing and the sentence structure has some similarities.

They both always write very short reviews, often a single paragraph. They have a preference for non-standard usage of commas as a way of connecting two separate sentences or sentence fragments: Johan RF writes “not sure why , maybe because the author accepts spin as fact” and Realist writes “This woman is dangerous, she want to get rid of democracy and freedom.” Of course, they both tend to give either one or five star ratings to books on climatology. And, of course, in their negative reviews they attack the author’s credibility and dismiss them.

The main difference is that Johan RF less often capitalizes words and more often uses elipses (whereas Realist uses normal capitalization and rarely uses elipses, not at all in most reviews), but those are easy superficial things to change to make the reviewers seem more like different people. If he has managed to maintain multiple sockpuppet accounts, I’m sure he has done so by creating some basic rules for writing for each one, rules that would be easy to remember and implement.

Assuming that were the case, you might think at some point he’d slip up or that Amazon would eventually see a pattern. Still, I know that Johan RF is a somewhat clever guy, at least in terms of learning how to manipulate the system to get comments deleted and such. Looking at Johan RF’s other reviews, there are some where he maybe slips out of persona and writes more like Realist, with words capitalized and sentences ended with periods.

Let me give one other example of similarity. Realist likes to use the word ‘rubbish’, even in reviews not about books (in a review of anti-virus software, he calls it “absolute rubbish”). His review of Living in Denial is simply titled as “Rubbish.”

I must admit that I don’t hear that word used a lot, at least as an American, but Realist claims to be from Australia. By the way, Johan RF claims to be from London (AKA JrF “Jonny old boy” from UK). Johan RF uses ‘rubbish’ a lot in his reviews at the Amazon sites for UK, Canada, and Australia, although maybe not as much in his reviews at the US Amazon site.

Is Johan RF (AKA JrF “Jonny old boy”) and Realist (AKA Jonathan/JB Frodsham) really the same person? It would be hard to absolutely prove it without an open admission of guilt, but the gathered evidence could be interpreted as indicating a connection of some sort. That could mean they are the same individual with multiple sockpuppets. Otherwise, it could simply be two people who are in the same internet social circle and happen to think and write in a similar fashion. Either is possible.

Anyway, trolls are fascinating creatures, especially those of this variety. These aren’t just your average denialists. They have (or he has) brought contrarianism and obfuscation to the level of an art form. To this kind of person, everything is a game to be won at all costs. Defeating the enemy is more important than winning the truth.

It makes me wonder if such people simply have too much time on their hands. Or is someone paying them to distort the issues, derail debate, and drop the ratings of climate change books? In recent years, a couple of books were published about the highly organized and well-funded corporate campaign against science (or rather public debate of science): Doubt is Their Product (2008) by David Michaels and Merchants of Doubt (2010) by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway—the latter writing:

“Small numbers of people can have large, negative impacts, especially if they are organised, determined and have access to power.”

The manipulation of Amazon ratings is just a tip of the melting iceberg. The full effect of this kind of activity undermines democracy itself by making informed public debate almost impossible. It filters into mainstream media, given voice by pundits and politicians alike. And then it gets repeated endlessly by the disinformed public.

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(In case anyone is interested, I do have screenshots of most things mentioned in this post: reviews, posts, comments, etc. I figured that, as I went to so much trouble to research this, I better document it all. Johan RF showed that he has a habit of deleting things. So, if some of it does get deleted and anyone wants to see what it was, just ask me and I’ll offer you the screenshot.)