Monday, September 15, 2014

Some Of My Pet Hates. On Twitter Opinions, On US Reactions to the Islamic State And Such.

1.  A new journalistic fashion is to  write a short piece about what people say on Twitter on some issue.  The piece begins by setting out the point of the debate or describes some recent event.  It then goes into a list of Twitter comments and presents them as --- what?  As evidence?  As opinions?

The latter, usually.  But what are we to conclude from those opinions?  That they are generally held?  That they are the most common opinions on some question?  That they are important opinions?  That they are unusual opinions?  Given by famous people?

The process of picking the Twitter opinions for such a piece is opaque.  First, Twitter opinions are not like an opinion survey.  The people who include themselves in a conversation are a self-selected bunch, to use statistical language, not a cross-section of all affected individuals.

Second, the actual opinions in some Twitter conversation don't always give the flavor of the final post.  That's because the journalist picks the interesting opinions or wants to bring out a particular point by showing the support or criticism it received.  That selection process (which is probably subconscious) means that the final sample in the piece may not look like the Twitter conversation in the actual numbers of tweets which are in support of or opposing some opinion or person.

Third, what those two points mean is that the overall meaning of what is covered in the piece is unclear.  We can't conclude that the opinions in it are common among some general population of interest, we can't conclude that the opinions in it are even the most common among Twitter users or the people in that particular discussion.

Using Twitter as a source can also be valuable, in the sense that it brings out opinions which might not otherwise be included, and writing about Twitter opinions is also meaningful when the story consists of those opinions, i.e., is about what someone famous said on Twitter etc.

That's not what I am irked by here, but the kinds of stories which add Twitter opinions as if that was additional data, not opinions, as if that was a way to show the widespread significance of some issue.

2.  The parallel use of "males-and-women" or "females-and-men" in stories about gender.  I see this a lot.  It's annoying because one could write "women-and-men" or, if absolutely necessary, "females-and-males." 

And guess what's really weird?  This particular mistake is by far most common in pieces by meninists and others bent towards that way of thinking.  So common that I wonder if it's a coded message or something!  Here comes the biological essentialist telling us why men rule and women drool.

3.  The last but certainly not the least of my current irritations is the way political fronts arrange themselves neatly by opinion into camps on the Islamic State question.  Bomb that demonic area back into stone age goes the right-wing message, just a little sharpened by me.  And the equally sharpened-by-me left-wing message seems to be that the US is every bit as bad as the Islamic State or if not the US then Saudi Arabia so what's the difference?

There's a prior readiness for those fairly absolute stances, and some of that is because of the way the right-wing belligerence of the past has fed into the discussion by creating "Islamophobic" prejudice which then has created a particular defensive response from the left-wing which has contributed to the right-wing arguments and so the circle continues.

The problem with such absolute stances is that they impede the analysis of more detailed data or arguments and make nuanced debate almost impossible.   They can also create very odd ethical bedfellows.  For instance, suddenly women's rights matter to some in the US extreme Christian fringe or matter less to some in the US social justice left-wing because different fears are weighed in those cups of the scale and some fears take precedence.

I get the great difficulty of trying to have a more nuanced conversation.  Our hind-brains have been triggered to take over  (danger!danger!).  Sadly, that tends to result in dualistic thinking of good and evil, of what matters and what doesn't, and often a forcing of everything to line up with either good or with evil.