Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Invisible Elephants In Online Debates: Lack Of Nuance, Odd Couplings And The Impact of Online Propaganda

It's almost a truism that online debates (say, on Twitter) lack nuances, and usually I just accept that and slither on.  But on some days I get sick of it all.

Then I grumble, in my silent room, to an audience of zero, that it's not "both sides do it" if the number of those deeds is ten million on one side and ten on the other side.  Or rather, the "both sides do it" argument doesn't make the two sides equally at fault.

Neither is a mass murder equal to punching your neighbor in a quarrel over a tree on the border of your lots.  Yet if you take that parable to political writings you spot several examples where the difference in the severity of what has been done is utterly ignored. 

When I really get going in my sermon I point out to the interested walls that numbers do matter.  If some policy is going to hurt, say, half of all Americans, and another policy is going to hurt one American in every ten thousand, the two are not the same in their total numerical consequences.

A more nuanced conversation would allow that and would also look at the severity of the consequences for each individual, to come to a proper conclusion about how, for instance,  the resources of activist movements should be allocated.  At a minimum it would open the discussion to more relevant details.

Finally, after a sip of of water, I tell the empty room that it's a very good idea to ask this simple question:  Compared To What?, when people tell us about the high rates of something (criminality, illness etc.) for one group of individuals (check the rates for the other groups before getting all excited) or about the health risks of some treatment or non-treatment.  For an example of the latter, those who talk about the health dangers of the contraceptive pill or abortion usually don't tell us how high the dangers of getting pregnant and giving birth might be.

All those aspects are invisible elephants, stampeding over the logic of the debate.  But if you point them out you get stampeded!  It's not fun, even for someone who slithers fast.

Then there are the odd bedfellows, especially in anything concerning Islamist terrorism.  The American and European right-wingers write about the lack of women's rights in Islam, yet often immediately after those lines go back to fuming about how horrible feminazis are.  The American and European left-wingers tend to act in exact reverse:  After condemning, say, the unequal treatment of women in Western labor markets they go silent on topics such as the treatment of women under the Islamic State.

I get the reasons for those odd bed-partnerings, I do.  But I wish we could be more adult in political writing, that we could admit that oppressed people or people at risk of being oppressed are also fully capable of oppressing other people, that staying silent about something will not make it go away, that adults should be able to say that Tom shouldn't bully Jim and neither should Jim bully Jane, whatever their individual cultures are,  and that nobody will believe the sudden women's rights concerns of someone whose usual track is to write about how disgusting independent women are.

The topics of nuance, online debates and the treatment of Islamist terrorism came for me together in a recent article about the Western women who yearn to join ISIS or who have already done so. This quote explains some of the underlying motives of the women and girls who have joined or wish to join ISIS:

Exposure to traumatising online propaganda materials, such as scenes of the murder and massacre of Muslims, induces anxiety and arousal, burning these perceptions deep into the psyche. Very real injustices and outrages against Muslims become amplified; a complex reality can become distorted into a simplified worldview, where sinister forces pose a deliberate, existential threat to Islam. This belief becomes nourished and echoed across a network of like-minded individuals, until it drowns out more nuanced understandings.
Young people are particularly vulnerable to this black-and-white worldview, in which the in-group becomes understood as wholly noble, righteous and oppressed, and the enemy as devious, cruel and domineering.

Bolds are mine.
Now, flip this over so that we begin with a reverse exposure to traumatizing online propaganda materials, such as the ISIS beheadings of Christians or the victims falling from buildings in the 911 events, and the same explanation applies to those who fear the "Islamofascists!"   After that priming which "burns these perceptions deep into the psyche," what chances do we have of a nuanced conversation on the issues?

Sigh, I say to the darkening room after my sermon.  And no, the last example isn't intended to be about "both sides do it" but about the need to provide more than one side of all information, about the need for nuances.  Online propaganda sites are unlikely to do that.  We need to find a better way to expand the dialogues (though I doubt it can be done in 140 characters).