Sealioning: The Terrible Sea Lion by David Malki.

Sealioning: what it means?

The term “sealioning” refers to a type of online harassment where a person persistently asks for evidence or explanations in a way that appears polite and civil but is actually meant to frustrate, derail, or exhaust the target. The questions are typically repetitive, insincere, and designed to provoke rather than engage in genuine discussion. The term originated from a webcomic by David Malki titled “Wondermark,” where a sea lion incessantly questions a character who made a general statement about disliking sea lions. Sealioning is often used to disrupt conversations, avoid addressing the main issue, or simply wear down the other person by feigning ignorance or curiosity.

The Terrible Sea Lion by David Malki

This strip below by David Malki is the source of the term. It was published on the webcomic Wondermark in 2014.

Sealioning: The Terrible Sea Lion by David Malki
Sealioning: The Terrible Sea Lion by David Malki. Source: Wondermark.com

A Sealioning example

Here is a theoretical example of sealioning in a conversation about climate change:

Person A: “We need to take urgent action to combat climate change.”

Person B: “Why do you think climate change is such a big issue?”

Person A: “There’s a consensus among scientists that human activities are causing global warming, which leads to severe weather events, rising sea levels, and loss of biodiversity.”

Person B: “Can you provide specific studies that prove this? I need to see the exact data.”

Person A: “Sure, the IPCC report is a comprehensive source. It compiles research from thousands of studies.”

Person B: “I’ve heard about the IPCC, but can you link me to a few of these thousands of studies directly? And how do you know those studies aren’t biased?”

Person A: “You can access the IPCC report online, and it includes references to all the studies. Scientists undergo rigorous peer review processes to minimize bias.”

Person B: “But aren’t peer reviews biased too? Can you show me evidence that the peer review process is unbiased? Also, what about the studies that contradict the IPCC?”

Person A: “The overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree on the fundamentals of climate change. Contradictory studies are usually less robust and often funded by groups with vested interests.”

Person B: “That sounds like a conspiracy theory. Can you provide evidence of the funding sources for those studies? Also, I’d like to see a detailed analysis of why you think the majority is always right.”

In this example, Person B is not genuinely engaging in a productive conversation but is instead continually asking for more information, questioning the validity of provided evidence, and shifting the goalposts, all while maintaining a facade of politeness. This tactic exhausts Person A and derails the conversation, which is the hallmark of sealioning.

Is Malki’s illustration flawed?

In fact, I feel like the way this comic tries to say something is somewhat flawed. Why would you portray the sealion here as being in the wrong simply for questioning and exposing the lack of logic to what’s basically discrimination towards sealions for… being themselves? And why does it read like it’s perfectly reasonable for bigots to say stuff and never have to defend or rehabilitate their claims when proven wrong?

If someone just up and said “Man, I could do without feminists existing in the world”, you bet I’d feel obliged to ask them why. I know there’s no such thing as a good reason for that, but actually getting them to say the quiet part out loud might make their rhetoric less seductive to someone who’s more clueless. Sure, that’s not very genuine of me either and maybe that’s kind of sealioning too, but then does that mean sealioning isn’t always bad?

Sources

M. Özgür Nevres

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