Sunday, August 28, 2016

Half The People, Half The Time


Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half the people are right more than half the time.

—E.B. White


Like many people, I have a love/hate relationship with the Internet. I truly love that it has democratized information. Having written for newspapers and magazines both before and after the advent of the Internet (yes, I'm that old), I can remember telephoning sources, poring over dusty bound directories, driving to municipal and county halls of record, and trudging out to libraries, all to unearth one fact or to look up a name. Honestly, I don't know how we did it; I certainly don't know how we did it quickly and efficiently. Now, the Internet at least gives us a starting point and, if nothing else, a list of possible sources. And email, another Internet-based technology, gives us a pipeline directly to many of those sources.

But more than that, I love the way that the Web has opened up the world to many of those to whom it had previously been shuttered. Not all, of course; we're a long way from an ideal world in which everyone has the same access to such resources. But many more have it today than they did 10 or 20 or 50 years ago. Knowledge truly is power, after all, and more people have access to that knowledge than ever before. The Internet—and the access it provides—is both the natural outgrowth and a continuing echo of Gutenberg's printing press, which unleashed a (sometimes quite literal) revolution of information; that avalanche of knowledge, freely accessible for perhaps the first time, shook the world, and the world still trembles in its wake today. The Internet, I think, is truly that important. (Which is one reason we have to keep working to ensure that everyone has unfettered access to it.)


Gamergate principal Zoe Quinn. Photo courtesy
of Zoe Quinn.
But,  then . . .  There’s also an ugly side to the Web. In democratizing information, we have also democratized misinformation and provided a mechanism that seems particularly well-suited to the delivery of hate and bigotry and misogyny. The Internet seems to have fostered an anonymity-fueled onslaught of ugliness. It's not enough to disagree with someone, which could, after all, be done with tact and grace and . . . well, respect. We seem to have lost that. Instead, many Internet users spew hate and vitriol instead of engaging in reasoned and dispassionate argument. They don't converse, they don't argue, they don't debate; they attack.

Check the comments thread of any news or magazine article. How many comments does it take before you hit the first ugly one? The first in which the writer's disagreement includes an insult? How long before the "comment" is pure insult, without even the pretense of mounting an actual argument?

It doesn't take very many comments to hit that first nasty one, does it? And the type of publication almost doesn't matter. Political blogs. News sites. Technical magazines. They all get nasty, and very quickly—and they often morph abruptly from merely critical to outright threatening. If you'd like to see real-life examples of this, just Google actresses Leslie Jones, Emma Watson, and Ashley Judd; because of their activism, they've all been threatened with rape and worse.

Or ask Zoe Quinn. Quinn was involved in the so-called Gamergate controversy, which began when a group of gamers accused Quinn and others of garnering positive reviews for their games because of favors (some allegedly sexual) offered to game reporters. (Some of you may not much care about games; I certainly don't. But keep in mind that it's a very big business, delivering a complex, sophisticated, cutting edge product to extremely passionate and knowledgeable users. It matters a great deal to many, many people.) 

From Leveling the Playing Field:

Gamergate started out as a legitimate argument about what some people felt was shady journalism: game reviewers who may have been influenced one way or another (but not by the quality of the game itself) to give positive reviews. At the beginning (for about an hour, maybe) it was a debate about ethics in journalism—surely a subject about which a group of reasonable people could have an intelligent discussion, or even a civilized argument. Then the issue got hijacked by a bunch of needy, abusive, misogynistic children. Instead of intelligent adults arguing their points of view, it became something else. Something ugly and malicious and disturbing.

Zoe and her partner, Alex, were two of the main (though not the only) targets of that misogyny and hate. They were threatened, "swatted" (SWAT teams were sent to their homes after the police were told that there were problems there), and "doxxed" (their private information released). For many months, Zoe and her partner were afraid to go home, and ended up in hiding.

It will no doubt take someone smarter than I to figure out why this problem exists, and more space than I have here to sort it all out. In my mind, I suspect that the issue has to do with the fact that there is simply a lot of hatred out there, a lot of ugliness—and it's easier to attack someone at a remove, especially when you can do so anonymously.

In the end, the world is full of ugly people and good people. And the Internet, being a product of our ingenuity, is after all simply a reflection of that world, with all of its beauty and unsightliness on display.

I don't know if democracy is merely a "suspicion," and one that's so far not quite proved. If so, then I'm not sure that bodes well for us. On the other hand, I kind of prefer Winston Churchill's comment (actually, he was quoting someone else at the time): "Democracy is the worst form of government . . . except for all the others." 

If Churchill was right (and he was often right), then perhaps this wild digital democracy is the best we can do, and we’ll find ways to mitigate the evil and protect one another from the ugliness. In the meantime, perhaps we could make it a priority to just . . . be kind, whenever and wherever possible; it costs nothing, after all, and it may redeem us yet.

21 comments:

  1. Respect and kindness are in short supply these days.

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    1. Sadly, that's very true. It's a little depressing, really!

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  2. I have a feeling that the ugliness will wear out eventually. People will adapt to negativity and give it less and less attention and credence. That's my hope anyway.

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    1. Man, I sure hope you're right! It's nice to think that could be the case - and it's good to see that level of optimism in someone I respect. Let's hope for the best!

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  3. As a librarian, I cringe at all the unsupported "information" I see on the Internet. Unsupportable really, because it's false. Any librarian could find you the data that supports one side or another on most issues.

    And if people aren't interested in facts it's not surprising that they sink quickly to invective when they are expressing opinions. But destroying someone's life as Internet bullies have done to Zoe Quinn is truly unconscionable.

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    1. Yep, we removed so many barriers, which is good -- but sometimes some of those barriers served a purpose. I have to spend a lot of time in class trying to get students to be critical consumers of this sort of media. The funny thing about the Gamergate saga is that I'm not even saying (and I've tried hard to AVOID saying) that Zoe is right. Like you, I'm just saying that there's a difference between rational argument and crude invective, and on the Internet that lines gets crossed so very frequently.

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  4. What a thought-provoking column, Rod. I have some questions/comments: First, I'd like to think the ugliness is a result of a very small minority of people who just don't think through the consequences of their actions. Do you think it's worse than that?

    Second, do you think the tendency to join a mob or pile on someone when he or she is down preceded the Internet and even technology? So, that unpleasant aspect of our humanity (or lack thereof) is not new?

    Third, I agree that tech has made it far easier to join in the ugliness because the it's 1) more visible to greater numbers of people (an anonymous letter sent to someone's home would go unnoticed by almost everyone but the recipient), and 2) it's easier to reply in a comment section than it is to take the time to write or type a letter, research an address, find a stamp, and then mail the letter. So, in that way, technology and its immediacy is definitely to blame.

    And, fourth, in the past--so, yes, pre-tech--I'd guess that most of the people who may have actually taken the time to write a letter and do the rest may also have had time to reconsider their ugly response and cool off before reflexively and immediately hitting reply.

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  5. I actually don't think the ugliness or the piling on are any worse, no - just easier to do and more visible these days. I do think that the immediacy has a lot to do with it -- it's so easy to click Send or Publish and BOOM!! It's done. No real thought, certainly not much in the way of reflection. So, yeah, I think a lot of people are (and always have been) jerks and the tech lets them be jerks much more quickly and with very little accountability.

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  6. A related aspect of the "democratization of misinformation" is that it is now stupendously easy for anyone to find confirmation for his or her particular bias. I think people fall easy prey to the logical fallacy that, if 500 people believe something, it must be more true than if only 50 people believe it; and you can now readily find 500 (or 5,000) people who heartily endorse the same beliefs you endorse, independent of whether those beliefs are actually supported by any facts.

    So groups like that often become echo chambers. They preach to the choir. Instead of rational discussion of the issues, they often simply offer mutual support, and insult to outsiders. This can be VERY seductive, especially for people who feel themselves emotionally but not quite rationally drawn to an idea.

    Here's an example. About two years ago, I started seeing a handful of YouTube videos proposing the completely insane notion that the earth is FLAT (including slick animations "proving" that airplanes can't fly properly on a spinning globe, and so on). I had a good laugh.

    Two years later, by one estimate, there are now about TWO MILLION "flat-earth" videos on YouTube. People talk about their personal "awakening" to the truth of the flat earth. There are weekly hosted YouTube broadcasts featuring interviews with "prominent" flat-earthers. Flat-earthers have written petitions to NASA demanding their tax dollars be refunded (because all those space missions are hoaxes). It's no joke.

    A survey of these videos, and the accompanying comments, shows there's a large group of people out there who are drawn to a view of the universe that can be understood with simple, naked-eye observation, and little or no scientific analysis or (God help us) mathematics. They are SO strongly drawn to it that they are perfectly happy to rewrite history, make up their own laws of physics, and literally label as "hoax" any experimental result that conflicts with their thesis. They're virulently, even proudly, anti-intellectual -- and they're THRIVING.

    I don't think the weird rise of the flat-earthers could have happened without the Internet. Try to point out a flaw in their argument, and their typical response is to refer you to ten links (to other flat-earth YouTube videos), and to admonish you to "do some research" (which is code for: "watch some flat-earth videos"). It's confirmation bias gone wild. Universal access and unlimited disk space has allowed them to create a self-contained ecosystem that does not need to operate by the logic of the real world.

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    1. Very true - and I hadn't given that sort of confirmation bias a whole lot of thought. They don't need to operate by the logic of the real world, simply because they're able to deny (and have that denial confirmed) that it actually IS the real world! It's crazy out there... Maybe you and I should start a 'Trapezoidal Earth' society. I'll bet we could get converts. The secret handshake might be tough, though . . .

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    2. BTW, this would make a really interesting book, which YOU should write!

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  7. Rod:
    I do think that anonymity is a major factor in the vitriol. People will do some amazingly cruel and anti-social things to other people when they think they won't have any physical contact with the other person. Look at road rage to take an example from another field. Perfectly respectable people can turn into monsters at the slightest provocation when they are in 2000 pounds of metal and glass. They think they are invisible.

    There have always been trolls and I'm pretty sure there always will be. Our better angels want to nuke them with love. Our lesser angels want to drop a flaming bag of dog poo on their front door step, ring the bell and run.

    Thanks for the post.

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    1. I know, anonymity is a big (the biggest?) part of the problem. And yet, there's an argument that there are people who genuinely need that anonymity -- I'm sure you've read all the arguments. And I have no idea how to reconcile those two things. Some of it comes down to what Zoe told me: It's not the Internet, or even the trolls, that are the problem; it's the providers (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) who fail to abide by their own terms of service. Maybe things will change for the better if Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and the rest do (or are forced to do) their part.

      And thanks for the comment... Good to get a conversation/debate going. No trolls here, though. :)

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  8. About the use of the internet (and social media) see today;s New York Times pieve on Russian's use as a strategic weapon http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/29/world/europe/russia-sweden-disinformation.html?ref=todayspaper&_r=0
    Fits so well with your writing, albeit unnerving.

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    1. It's scary, isn't it?! Such a powerful tool for informing people and also for misleading them. Which is what many said about the printing press, come to think of it.

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  9. You mention the comments thread. A friend and columnist with a major Seattle newspaper, who at one time was their national Washington correspondent, never looks at comments to his columns. Says that they only destroy his sense as an objective professional.

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    1. I can understand your friend's position! People can be so mean-spirited and so aggressively malicious that I'm not sure it pays. Surely there must be solid criticisms, rational argument, and valid points in there someplace, but man...the sludge you'd have to wade through to find them.

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  10. I think Bilbo got it right: “I don't know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.”

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    1. Nice. :) There's a great infographic explaining Bilbo's statement at http://tinyurl.com/jyoz5kk. There sure is some good stuff in Tolkien, yes?

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  11. Great post! I managed to live a rather sheltered life, but I was on a student exchange semester in London when I met my first unabashedly racist person (my own age). She was from Alabama- not to demean people from Alabama, I'm just trying to make it clear that she was not from England. We were on a date, of all things, and somehow the subject was broached. I started trying to argue with her, quickly realized that her perception was deeply ingrained and borne of plain old ignorance. I effectively walked away from her mid-sentence, and never looked back.

    I like to think that this kind of racism and ignorance is something that erodes as truth seeps in, and despite its many flaws, the Internet does have a few nugget of truth floating around in it. So many young people, will get older and wiser, and invariably look at the things they posted online all those years ago and wish they hadn't. Hopefully, they come to their senses BEFORE they have kids, and eventually the intensity of the online hatred will decrease.

    Until then, let's all just breathe deeply as the chemtrails crisscross the sky, making us ever more docile... (I read about this on the Internet)

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    1. Thanks for chiming in, Andrew! Yeah, I look for those nuggets too! There's so much good info there, and some beauty, too. Maybe the beauty will win out, as you're thinking. I hope you're right!

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