On the Conservation of Trolls

The strange and sad story of Cecil the lion (named for an imperialist, collared for science, shot on a private ranch outside Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe) has many lessons for conservation. The one I want to consider here is what it says about trolls.

Trolls are mythical semi-humanoid supernatural creatures. They were once widely distributed in northern Europe, where the winter nights are long and cold. They are grumpy, fearsome, nocturnal, and hide in (or turn into) rocks. They are traditionally carnivorous, ambushing passers by, particularly those goats unwise enough disturb the peace by trip trapping over bridges Trolls are widely believed to be extinct, but in fact they have spread widely as Norse folklore has become the staple of the fantasy industry. Terry Pratchett has contributed a great deal to our understanding: they turn out to be surprisingly good at maths, when it gets cold enough. Recent sightings include New Zealand, where dim-witted nocturnal trolls are reported to have attacked travellers, and taken to disturbing the peace by fighting. To Tolkein, trolls represented the dark side of the rural idyll of the Shire: large, unsociable and stupid, in contrast to the robust, bucolic intelligence of the hobbits.

As far as I know, there are no trolls in Zimbabwe. But their latter-day alter egos, internet trolls, seem very familiar with the place. The estimable Wikipedia defines an internet troll as ‘a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous or off-topic messages in an online community… with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response, or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion’.

The internet came down like a ton of bricks on the American hunter who shot Cecil, a dentist from Minnesota. The staid BBC noted that the global outcry led to Walter Palmer being ‘swamped with abuse and dark humour from web users around the world’. Among other things, someone created a fake Twitter account for his dental practice, with predictable results. The commentariat, on line, in print and on TV, went into overdrive, leaving no analytical stone unturned. Not all the comment was amusing: there were death threats, and vandalism at Palmer’s properties. He went into hiding, and faces prosecution in the face of the universal disgust and hostility of the online world.

This internet storm had a number of features. First, and most obviously, it was characterised by moral condemnation of the idea of killing an animal like a lion: perhaps thanks to Disney’s Lion King, lions share with Elephants a special place in Western affections (Mufasa joining the Dumbo club). Moreover, the killing was done incompetently using a crossbow (Cecil had to be finished off later with a rifle). This death was clearly cruel, unnecessary, gratuitous, done for a rich man’s pleasure. Of course, not every one commenting on Cecil’s killing had a thought-through position on animal welfare. In the Observer, Barbara Ellen noted that ‘many people “do” animal welfare: singly, from afar, a sprinkle of stardust, much noise and bluster, job done, dab the eyes, blow the nose, quietly return to a blinkered world of battery eggs, hunting ban repeals and cheap farmed leather’. Nonetheless, the death proved the classic animal welfare and rights case: hunting is morally wrong, and anyone who does it must be a moral degenerate.

Second, there was the seemingly universal disbelief that such a thing as a global hunting industry exists, and that wealthy people can and do regularly (and legally) hunt animals. Moreover, they not only kill those that might be thought of as ‘game’ (such as deer or pheasants), but those that are rare (or have declined) or are cute. They travel to places like southern Africa, and shoot buffalo, giraffe, elephant and rhinoceros (and lion).

Third, there was shock that this ‘safari hunting’ might be part and parcel of a conservation strategy, as it is in Zimbabwe, and elsewhere in southern Africa. This is where it gets starts to get tricky for conservation organisations. The question of ‘big game hunting’ is an integral part of conservation’s colonial history in Africa, a past that is obviously anachronistic. However, there are pragmatic arguments for allowing such a trade, relating to the possibility of using revenues either to offset the cost of conservation in poor countries, or to meet the development needs of rural communities and poor people in those countries. At the same time, there are important questions to be asked about such hunting, not just about its morality, but also how to ensure that harvests are sustainable, and to deal with corruption in licensing schemes.

It goes without saying that no pragmatic argument about the best way to ensure the survival of species carries any weight with anyone opposed to killing on moral grounds: these are different value frames. Conservation has always been plural in its values. Conservationists show concern for the plight of individual animals (as those using charismatic mammals in conservation advertising know very well), even where they express a more abstract concern for the survival of biodiversity. The storm over Cecil the lion shifted the balance of debate in conservation dramatically in favour of the arguments of animal welfare organisations (and countries like Kenya) that sport hunting is morally unacceptable and should be stopped.

While the internet storm over Cecil the lion is highly relevant to the wildlife policy in Zimbabwe, and elsewhere in Africa, it also has broader implications for conservation. These relate to the impact of social media. Conservation organisations are so heavily committed to social media, as a way of getting their message out and recruiting supporters. This mean that what social media says about conservation strategies has real bite. Hunting-based conservation strategies are suddenly embarrassing.

Conservation organisations have been eager adopters of ‘Web 2.0’. Lucy McRobert argued that the internet (‘Facebook Nature’ as she dubbed it) ‘has the power to educate, excite and engage with a wider audience than any single organisation can achieve through hardcopy publications, or that any educational institution can accomplish when shackled by a counter-productive and safety-conscious curriculum’. All well and good, you might say. Online news sources such as Twitter and Facebook ‘offer new opportunities to accelerate communication between conservation scientists and the online public’. And, it seems, rare species are getting into the act: reintroduced red kites in Scotland are blogging using computer-generated language. But even where mere humans write the copy, almost all conservation organisations manage Facebook and Twitter streams about their projects, and many conservation organisations ask their staff to blog about their work.

And at one level, the internet’s outrage at the illegal killing of Cecil the lion, and more broadly against safari hunting, is just something for clever conservation campaigners to harness. It has already been appropriated by organisations campaigning against other forms of illegal killing, for example of elephants. On July 29th, the Washington Post reported that ‘as the world mourned Cecil the lion, five of Kenya’s endangered elephants were slain’. The Independent newspaper opened its article on the launch of The Giants Club, to garner support to stop elephant poaching in East Africa, saying ‘Cecil the lion sheds new light on African conservation’.

At another level, the international response to a single illegally and cruelly killed lion challenges a whole approach to conservation and development. Unsurprisingly, conservation organisations have been rather quiet about hunting-based conservation strategies in the aftermath of the Cecil debacle. This is a hard time to be defending the community-based hunting industry, or making the case for hunting as a conservation strategy. The transparency provided by social media’s global reach makes it hard to follow a policy in one place and yet fundraise on a different basis somewhere else.

So how should we think about what it means to hitch conservation to the globalised data streams of social media and the internet? The immediate prospect looks quite good: social media promises to dramatically widens the appeal of conservation (both socially and geographically), increasing conservation’s ‘reach’. From this might come new supporters, greater influence and more income. However, as the information net widens, so too does the range of people who pick up on news. Many of those reading social media will come to news without any knowledge of context or conservation, and will bring into play a range of new values. In the case of lion hunting in Zimbabwe, the conclusion of the vast majority of those on social media was that the hunting of lions and other large mammals was simply wrong, no doubts, no questions.

Live by the sword, die by the sword: if conservation is prosecuted through social media, it will be forced to abide by the norms of those who dominate that community. Science is hard to explain and evidence-based decisions may be hard to explain or to justify. Subtle arguments do not work very well in 140 characters. Those who are most connected get listened to first and most. Celebrity and connectivity determine influence.

Hence the conservation of trolls: in the world of the internet, it is the views of the connected that matter, meaning trolls as well as the many others who use social media to express their views in less extreme ways. And the case opens up conservation policy in Africa to a vast passing audience, whose views are strongly held and fiercely expressed.

In the end, whose values should drive conservation strategies in countries like Zimbabwe? Those of local people in rural areas where lions hunt and are hunted? Those of national government officials, balancing an industry against their international responsibilities for conservation? Those of media managers in international conservation NGOs, desperate to feed the insatiable demands of Facebook updates and Twitter streams? Or those who only think about conservation when they tune to the shifting emotional storm fronts of social media?

Who makes conservation policy? To find the answer, log on.


7 thoughts on “On the Conservation of Trolls

  1. It comes as no surprise that celebrity shouts louder than reason. And the scope of the internet only makes the celebrity megaphone louder still. Perhaps conservation needs another Steve Irwin. Steve may not have been the ideal face for conservation, but he certainly had the celebrity for the job.

    Celebrity in science can get pretty tricky, as exemplified by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Neil makes a fascinating Astrophysicist, but when he starts yapping about GMOs he’s a loose cannon in need of some restraint.

    A new transformative technology such as the internet will turn many establishment ideas on their heads. You’ve outlined some positives – and certainly one strong negative. Keep the positives, grow and develop them. For the negative… no simplistic pablum on offer here – roll up the sleeves, and dig in. A Steve Irwin Jr.? Shaming shortsighted celebs (good luck)? Just keep pitching.

    Maybe reality can imitate fiction. In a Tolkienesque world good will eventually prevail. Smaug and the trolls just make things interesting on the journey. If it were easy, anyone could do it.

    • Dan Brockington has an excellent book that calls into question the conventional wisdom about celebrity advocacy. He shows that a majority of people believe that celebrity is influential, but in a very contradictory way a majority also reports celebrity does little to influence their personal views. Those that reported they are influenced by celebrity often can’t identify precisely how they have been influenced. The only group where celebrity advocacy appears to be effective, Brockington shows, is within elite political networks. It seems celebrity advocacy is really only about elites talking with elites.

      Something different is going on with social media. It seems to be bringing populism to politics. For all its perils, it appears that social media will shape conservation policy in ways that mass (celebrity) media hasn’t.

      Dan’s book is “Celebrity Advocacy and International Development”, Routledge, 2014.

      • Thanks Brett, will have to take a look. My knee jerk response is a bit skeptical because we see SO much celebrity sponsorship in mainstream advertising and if it weren’t working I’d have expected it would have gone extinct by now. If Dan is right then there may be a less onerous hill to climb.

        Bringing populism to politics should be a good thing.

  2. At the recent ICCB, there was an informal session on what conservationists should do next as a response to the Cecil the lion furore. One of the first conclusions was that conservationists had missed the boat with the fast paced nature of social media – it was simply pointless putting out a nuanced defence of the pragmatism of hunting-based conservation strategies a full two weeks after the initial twitter-storm (though there are a few good blogs out there). Conservationists putting out nuanced arguments will always struggle against straightforward moral outrage of animal rights people, particularly when constrained to 140 twitter characters. One of the more interesting proposals was that there should be some meeting or other forum in the medium term in which conservationists could debate what their position should be on hunting, given unease over its environmental impact, animal rights issues, and post-colonial overtones. There was also a proposal that the hunting industry itself should set up a sustainable hunting certification, modelled on FSC certification, to promote hunting that contributed to both species conservation and rural development.

  3. As always, an elegant and thoughtful piece Bill, thank you; acute and penetrating observation from the side-lines. The only inference I would take issue with is that conservation organisations have all been ‘quiet about hunting-based conservation strategies in the aftermath of the Cecil debacle’ though fear of trolls and their impact. Could it not be that, at least in part, conservationists are reconsidering whether strategies they promulgated in the past are still viable? Not only in light of flares of social media reaction but because the tenets of ‘sustainable use’, by whomsoever for whoever, are being called into question as human pressures on species and habitats escalate? (Perhaps time for a coffee?)

  4. A very interesting read on a topic of growing importance. Thanks!

    I have a paper in review for Bram’s forthcoming special issue on Nature 2.0 that deals with similar issues. It’s titled “Hijacking the Narrative” and explores political openings created by the social media phenomenon. The abstract is pasted below.

    ABSTRACT: The first World Forum on Natural Capital was an important moment in the production of “valued” nature. It brought together bankers, CEOs, and business elites to explore new opportunities presented in the application of economic logic to all manner of conservation issues. At the same time, the event’s media campaign sought to normalize the notion that the financialization of conservation can provide a solution to environmental degradation. As these ideas become rooted in popular imaginations, anti-capitalist activists have sought novel ways to resist. While the Forum was able to advance a particular narrative within the actual event and in traditional (i.e. print and web 1.0) media, organizers struggled to control the outward message on Twitter, one of the more active and prominent publicity channels for the event. At the margins, digital activists were able to challenge the official narrative and even compel Forum organizers to address the associated social and environmental justice concerns. While the discourses of the World Forum on Natural Capital produce the conditions in which nature can be abstracted into value-bearing commodities, discursive resistance mounted against it simultaneously produces the conditions complicating the process. This paper seeks to explore the discursive co-production of nature through social media and understand what it can tell us about public spheres of deliberation, counterpublic organization, and agonistic confrontation in a new digitally-mediated world.

  5. Working and living much of my time in Odessa, Ukraine has given me quite a lot of exposure to Trolls in relation to the Russian annexation of Crimea and the constructed conflict in the Donbas. Rather like mythical Trolls, those on both sides of the argument, thanks to their extremism, have largely brought themselves pretty much to a rock-hard standstill (though an occasional insight does emerge from the slanging matches). This reflects the point that social media types tend to join groups and networks that reinforce their own views, until they can hardly bear to read any other opinion counter to their own. It is amazing how quickly in internet forums (including comments on articles published in the old media) that two or three sensible initial remarks are then quickly followed by Trollic personal abuse (in fact, there seems to be, on any issue, a small community of pro and contra Trolls who are very familiar with each other, and Twitter becomes tribal warfare by another means, with celebrities serving as petty chiefs). The same pattern emerged with Cecil, and since it was a one-off, I think it will quickly blow over as such: it will be interesting to return to it next year and see what impact ensued. I don’t think it is substantially different from old media TV images of whaling, sealing, bird trapping or other wildlife atrocities that have been used to pull the public heart- and purse-strings. So while I agree the social media has been transformative in many ways and can globalise an issue far more quickly and transparently than previous forms of communication, and might bring more people in to a debate, as a matter of settling conservation policy I doubt it will change much.
    As far as conservation is concerned, and who decides policy, it is surely clear that this is a matter of societal choice as pointed out in the CBD and implemented through the ecosystem approach. Sustainable use is the current deservedly much maligned paradigm, and future generations may decide on a different one (no use of wildlife perhaps, driven by the ever increasing strides made in genetic engineering such that IUCN have issued draft guidelines on de-extinction and biologists openly talk of creating new strains of bacteria that can give us food, fuel and environmental management, including terra-forming on Mars). Societal choice, where it is permitted (so that more or less excludes Zimbabwe), is done through politics, and hence the question is, to what extent law-makers are influenced by Trolls to change their attitudes? I suggest not much because biodiversity is rarely an electoral issue. I propose that the really effective Trolls (or maybe we should think of these people more as the intelligent Hobbits) are not to be found openly in social media, but underground, in suits, practising the dark arts of face-to-face political lobbying. In this world, hard data (economic, ecological, social) and ultimately covert political calculation count for far more than a split-second outburst across the internet. I propose the abandoned change of hunting legislation (scuppered by SNH) and expansion of badger culling (supported by the minority farming lobby) in England as evidence of this. That is not to say conservationists should ignore social media, far from it, but we should keep its influence firmly in perspective. As long as cats rule OK on the internet, we are safe!

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