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Many online discussion groups and chatrooms have discovered, much to their regret, that participants don't always behave in a civilized manner. Discussions on hot-button issues such as politics, sports or religion can suddenly turn into overheated arguments called flame wars in Internet lingo. One of the main weapons used during these conflicts is known as an ad hom attack. An ad hom attack is an attempt to win an argument by attacking the speaker's character, rather than the topic under discussion. Many online discussion groups specifically prohibit the use of ad hom attacks, since they often lead to uncontrollable flame wars.
The term ad hom is a shortened version of the Latin phrase ad hominem, which literally means 'to the man'. In the classic sense of philosophical discussion, an ad hominem argument is considered a fallacy, meaning it is a faulty response to a logical statement. This is not to say that an ad hominem argument is always ineffective, however. If the ad hominem argument rings truer than the issue itself, opinions could still be swayed. If a politician says, "This city's crime rate is far too high," for example, his opponent might say, "Who should know more about the crime rate than a convicted criminal?" This would be an ad hominem argument, since the speaker's character is being questioned, not the issue itself.
In the modern sense of an ad hom attack, the issue at hand may be completely irrelevant. Many veterans of message board flame wars consider any personal attacks against a poster to be ad hom in nature. The forum can become a platform for an escalating series of vicious and personal attacks. Attempts to enforce the rules against ad hom attacks often fail to restore order during a flame war. Only after the main participants have exhausted themselves can the message board return to a semblance of order. This is why many administrators and moderators of message boards remove posts at the first sign of an ad hom attack.
One of the main dangers of an ad hom attack is the damage it can cause to a participant's credibility or reputation. Unless an administrator or moderator removes inflammatory ad hom threads promptly, the accusations against a member's personal character can be read by other members. In some cases, the information used in an ad hom attack can have serious real world repercussions. An ad hom attack is often launched by a cyberbully, or an Internet 'troll' who enjoys the attention such ad hom attacks generate.
Other people who make an ad hom attack may be seeking personal retaliation against a specific participant, which means they could use private information as part of the attack. In any case, it is always best to avoid online discussions containing ad hom attacks, since they have a tendency to escalate quickly. If you find yourself the victim of an ad hom attack, you have the right to demand action against the offender and to have any posts containing personal information removed from public view.
To me, argumentum ad hominem is one of the weakest debating tactics possible, because everyone should readily see it for what it is. Obviously one side is using lies and personal attacks to weaken the opponent's credibility. But it surprises me how well an ad hom argument can work if it's maintained long enough and the audience is primed to believe it.
I heard a lot of ad hom attacks during the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. If a different person had said the exact same things Barack Obama did, very few people would have a problem with it. But the ad hom argument that he was a Kenyan citizen with a Muslim agenda made his campaign pledges sound less credible.
I had an ad hom attack situation a few years ago. I used to participate in an online forum connected with a statewide news organization. Usually we just talked about the new grocery store being built or the best place to find cheap gas in town. Sometimes it would get a little political, especially around election time.
I got in a few heated discussions with a person who called himself "Avenging Angel" on the forum. I thought we were just discussing the differences between his favorite candidate for mayor and mine. I'd say his candidate wasn't experienced enough to become mayor and Avenging Angel would say my candidate was a flaming liberal homosexual who was going to tax us
to death. That's the sort of heated rhetoric he'd use all the time.
One day I called him on the name calling and he went off on me online. Instead of criticizing my candidate's qualifications, he started calling me a fraud and a child molester and worse. Anyone who took my advice on voting should their head examined. I didn't know this "Avenging Angel" at all in real life, but he tried to win every online argument by attacking MY character, not by using facts and figures about the actual issue.