Sealioning (also sea-lioning and sea lioning) is a type of trolling or harassment that consists of pursuing people with relentless requests for evidence, often tangential or previously addressed, while maintaining a pretense of civility and sincerity ("I'm just trying to have a debate"), and feigning ignorance of the subject matter. It may take the form of "incessant, bad-faith invitations to engage in debate", and has been likened to a denial-of-service attack targeted at human beings. The term originated with a 2014 strip of the webcomic Wondermark by David Malki, which The Independent called "the most apt description of Twitter you'll ever see".
The sealioner feigns ignorance and politeness while making relentless demands for answers and evidence (while often ignoring or sidestepping any evidence the target has already presented), under the guise of "just trying to have a debate", so that when the target is eventually provoked into an angry response, the sealioner can act as the aggrieved party, and the target presented as closed-minded and unreasonable. It has been described as "incessant, bad-faith invitations to engage in debate". Sealioning can be performed by an individual or by a group acting in concert.
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.
American academic philosopher Walter Sinnott-Armstrong discussed the term in his book Think Again: How to Reason and Argue, saying:
Internet trolls sometimes engage in what is called 'sealioning'. They demand that you keep arguing with them for as long they want you to, even long after you realize that further discussion is pointless. If you announce that you want to stop, they accuse you of being closed-minded or opposed to reason. The practice is obnoxious. Reason should not be silenced, but it needs to take a vacation sometimes.
What is Sealioning: 'Sealioning' is a form of trolling meant to exhaust the other debate participant with no intention of real discourse.
In 2021, Canadian magazine Maclean's praised the Merriam-Webster definition saying "This neologism on Merriam-Webster’s list of words to watch aptly describes the frustration of conversing online".
In 2022, English philosopher and academic Sophie Grace Chappell likened sealioning to the Socratic term eirôneia (from which the word irony is derived but with a different end meaning), which she described as an insincere pretense of ignorance as a way to disassemble an argument, saying "In contemporary internet slang, eironeia is «sealioning»."
Origins and history
Use of the term originates from a 19 September 2014 strip of the webcomic Wondermark by David Malki titled The Terrible Sea Lion, where a character expresses a dislike of sea lions and a sea lion intrudes to repeatedly ask her to explain her statement and attempts (in an exaggeratedly civil manner) to interrogate her views, following the characters into the privacy of their own home. "Sea lion" was quickly verbed, and noting this, Malki posted on his own Wondermark site, "I'm happy that it’s resonated with so many people".
The term gained popularity as a way to describe a specific type of online trolling, and it was used to describe some of the behavior of those participating in the Gamergate harassment campaign.
In a 2016 study published in First Monday focusing on users of the Gamergate subreddit /r/KotakuInAction, participants were surveyed about what they believed constituted "harassment". Participants were quoted stating that "expressions of sincere disagreement" were considered harassment by opponents of the forum and that the term "Sealioning" was used to silence legitimate requests for proof.
In 2021, Maclean's compared its origination to other terms derived from comic strips that became common speech such as Brainiac (1958 comic book) and Milquetoast (from the 1924 comic strip). Maclean's noted that Malki had mixed feelings about the term, quoting him as saying: "I didn't set out to coin a phrase. I just wanted to make an observation", and "The core of what I set out to criticize is just the notion that any random patient stranger should feel entitled to as much of someone’s attention as they want".
- Argumentum ad nauseam — a more general term for an argument that has continued past the point of value
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- Chandler, Daniel; Munday, Rod (2016). Oxford Dictionary of Social Media. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acref/9780191803093.001.0001. ISBN 9780191803093.
Sealioning A disparaging term for the confrontational practice of leaping into an online discussion with endless demands for answers and evidence. See also TROLLING
- Bloomfield, Robert James (2018). "The LAAPs that foster productive conversations and the crebit that undermines them". Accounting, Organizations and Society. 68–69: 135–142. doi:10.1016/j.aos.2018.06.004. S2CID 158687510.
Consider a website that seeks to provide a venue for productive conversations among those who own and love cats. Their conversations are likely to be undermined by those who want to foster a preference for dogs (haters), as well as those who simply enjoy undermining conversations for its own sake (trolls). They can expect these haters and trolls to raise faulty arguments about the evils of cats faster than they can be rebutted (the Gish Gallop); to pretend sincerity in asking repeatedly for evidence on the benefits of cats (sealioning)...
- Sullivan, Emily; Sondag, Max; Rutter, Ignaz; Meulemans, Wouter; Cunningham, Scott; Speckmann, Bettina; Alfano, Mark. "Can Real Social Epistemic Networks Deliver the Wisdom of Crowds?" (pdf). p. 21. Archived from the original on 28 January 2019. Retrieved 28 January 2019 – via The PhilPapers Foundation.
- Johnson, Amy (2017). Gasser, Urs (ed.). "The Multiple Harms of Sea Lions" (PDF). Perspectives on Harmful Speech Online. Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. p. 14. Archived (PDF) from the original on 25 September 2018. Retrieved 16 September 2018.
- "What is 'Sealioning?' Sea lions can be real trolls sometimes". Merriam-Webster Online. December 2020. Retrieved 5 June 2022.
- Hluchy, Patricia (3 November 2021). "'Sealioning' is the word that sums up why Twitter discussion is so unbearable". Maclean's. Retrieved 5 June 2022.
- Chatfield, Tom (September 2021). How to Think: Your Essential Guide to Clear, Critical Thought. SAGE Publishing. p. 34. ISBN 978-1529727418.
To cite just one example, sealioning describes a form of harassment in which a victim is relentlessly asked to provide evidence and reasoning by someone who is hiding behind the excuse 'I'm just trying to have a debate ...
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- Stokel-Walker, Chris (18 August 2018). "How to handle a troll ... and neuter a sea lion". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 10 January 2019. Retrieved 13 September 2018.
- Shepherd, J. Marshall (17 March 2019). "'Sealioning' Is A Common Trolling Tactic On Social Media—What Is It?". Forbes. Archived from the original on 16 June 2019. Retrieved 16 June 2019.
- Think Again: How to Reason and Argue. Oxford University Press. July 2018. p. 56. ISBN 978-0190627126. Retrieved 5 June 2022.
- Brown, Amy (November 2019). Informed is best: How to spot fake news about your pregnancy, birth and baby. Pinter & Martin. ISBN 978-1780664903. Retrieved 5 June 2022.
Sealioning is a more subtle and very irritating form of trolling.
- Johnson, Amy (7 March 2019). "'Sealioning' Is A Common Trolling Tactic On Social Media--What Is It?". Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. Retrieved 5 June 2022.
- Kennedy, Tristan (26 April 2022). ""Don't read the comments": misinformed and malicious comments stifle Indigenous voices". The Conversation. Retrieved 5 June 2022.
Sealioning (a special kind of trolling)
- Grace Chappell, Sophie (March 2022). Epiphanies: An Ethics of Experience. Oxford University Press. p. 408. ISBN 978-0192858016.
In contemporary internet slang, eironeia is "sealioning"
- Zucca, Diego (May 2022). New Explorations in Plato's Theaetetus: Belief, Knowledge, Ontology, Reception. Brill Academic Publishers. p. 92. ISBN 978-9004516021.
In contemporary internet slang, eironeia is «sealioning»
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- "Wondermark #1062". 19 September 2014. Archived from the original on 8 June 2019. Retrieved 3 March 2019.
- Maxwell, Kerry (6 October 2015). "Definition of Sea lion". Macmillan Dictionary. Archived from the original on 11 January 2018. Retrieved 10 January 2018.
- Malki, David (23 October 2014). ""Sea Lion" Has Been Verbed". Wondermark.com. Retrieved 26 June 2023.
- Jhaver, Shagun; Ghoshal, Sucheta; Bruckman, Amy; Gilbert, Eric. "Online Harassment and Content Moderation: The Case of Blocklists". ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction. 25 (2): 12. doi:10.1145/3185593. S2CID 4315029.
- Massanari, Adrienne L. (2016). "'Damseling for Dollars': Toxic Technocultures and Geek Masculinity". In Lind, Rebecca Ann (ed.). Race and Gender in Electronic Media: Content, Context, Culture. Routledge. ISBN 9781317266129. OCLC 948090024.
For supporters [of Gamergate], however, the hashtag became an effective way to swarm the mentions of users perceived as not sharing their views, which became known colloquially as 'sea lioning' (Malki, 2014).
- Jhaver, Shagun; Chan, Larry; Bruckman, Amy (5 February 2018). "The view from the other side: The border between controversial speech and harassment on Kotaku in Action". First Monday. 23 (2). arXiv:1712.05851. doi:10.5210/fm.v23i2.8232. S2CID 3653593. Archived from the original on 21 March 2019. Retrieved 21 March 2019.