When you initially hear the term sealioning, it evokes the image of a group of dedicate volunteers on a boat, somewhere in the ocean not too far off the coast, attempting to rescue sea lions or waving flags at passing ships raising awareness about the plight of sea lions. However the true meaning of sealioning is as noble: it is a form of online harassment or trolling. This is how sealioning works: the troll (the sealion) targets an individual (the target) and pretends to be ignorant about a specific topic or issue. The sealion repeatedly asks the target questions or to provide specific evidence, while remaining polite and pretending to be sincere. The goal is to provoke the target to lose his or her temper and write an angry response. At this point, the troll responds as the insulted or aggrieved party. And just like real sea lions, trolls often work together as a group. (Incidentally a group of sea lions is called a colony when they are on land; in the water, they are called a raft; during breeding season, they are known as rookery; a group of females in a male’s territory is called a harem.)
“So what’s the real harms in asking a lot of detailed questions?” you ask. In an enlightening essay titled “The Multiple Harms of Sea Lions” included in Perspectives on Harmful Speech Online (2017) published by the Berkman Kelin Center for Internet & Society, a research center at Harvard University, Amy Johnson elaborates: “[A long series of questions] may seem like a well-intentioned search for answers. It’s not—it’s a simplified example of a rhetorical strategy called sealioning. Sealioning is an intentional, combative performance of cluelessness. Rhetorically, sealioning fuses persistent questioning — often about basic information, information 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. [The responses from the target range] from lengthy explanations to pointing to logical fallacies in the questions themselves, from calling out the sealioning to ignoring it. It is these responses that the sea lion seeks to shape — and it is here that multiple harms occur.” The multiple harms can be minor, like short-term annoyance, wasted energy, and the opportunity cost of time spent. But there are larger social harms, like when the target is now skeptical of all future questioners and is likely to engage in online discussions. This results in reduction of constructive discourse as well as reducing the opportunities of individuals to learn from one another. Johnson argues that sealioning attacks informal teaching; she writes: “Informal teaching undergirds mediated communication. Informal teaching is an unacknowledged foundation of technoutopian dreams from telegraphy to the present: by learning through iinteractions with each other, we will achieve universal understanding and eliminate conflict And to some extent, this happens. At any one moment, informal teaching — about everything from platform norms and literacies to life experiences — bridges the hugely diverse skill sets and histories of people online.”
So now you understand the harm of sealioning, but we are left with one question: how in the world did this form of trolling end up being called sealioning? The term is based on a specific comic strip titled “The Terrible Sea Lion” (published September 19, 2014) from the web-based comic book Wondermark by David Malki. In the six panels of that comic strip a couple is discussing marine mammals and the wife mentions that she doesn’t care for sea lions. All of a sudden a sea lion appears and requests “a civil conversation about your statement.” And the seal lion is persistent: he shows up repeatedly: at their dinner, at their bedside in the evening, and at breakfast in the morning. The sea lion says, “I have been unfailingly polite, and you two have been nothing rude.” So there you have it: the worst form of sealioning — from an actual sea lion. What is the world coming to?
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For further reading: cyber.harvard.edu/sites/cyber.harvard.edu/files/2017-08_harmfulspeech.pdf