Internet viciousness and relearning how to argue

By ELAINE WONG | December 2, 2017


BROKENCHOPSTICK/CC BY 2.0 Wong argues that the internet has created ideological bubbles.

People say we are living in a more divided America than ever. Objectively, however, America has seen a lot more division in the past: a border dividing it into North and South; and laws that enforced segregation or gave men more rights than women. In most schools, we now learn that these ideas aren’t okay and that the people who fought them are heroes. Though some disagree, at the very least we are united in the eyes of the law and popular ideology. Taking this into account, what makes America today appear more divided than it was back then?



A common contemporary idea is that of social media “echo chambers.” Echo chambers are social networks where it appears that the vast majority of the people on that network agree with you. Most websites (especially Facebook) implement algorithms designed to increase user engagement by curating content that seems most interesting to you and placing it on your newsfeed.

It could be content you agree with that makes you happy, like videos of kids asserting that love is the love, whether gay or straight. It be content that makes you angry, like “Trump did xyz and we are all pissed about it! Here’s why...” Either way, it typically reinforces your perspective.

Rants, anecdotes and articles get passed around, and the algorithms that place them in front of you aim to keep you coming back for that feeling of, “Look! Everyone agrees with me.” After all, you wouldn’t visit Facebook if it always made you feel like you were wrong about everything.

“Everyone agrees with me” is useful in some contexts. It would suck to rant to your friends about how Alex cheated on Charlie and then have to explain that cheating is wrong every single time. We can assume our friends agree with that premise and continue with that assumption in mind. But when we take that attitude into a broader discussion about social issues, we can’t assume that everyone agrees with our ideologies. In this way, echo chambers have taken their toll on the way people speak about these important issues on the internet.


The “glass bubble” effect

This assumption that everyone holds our beliefs gives rise to what I call the “glass bubble” effect, which is what happens outside the echo chamber. The glass bubble tricks us into thinking that we don’t need to use logic to prove anything. We, on one side of the argument, are in a glass bubble screaming at people in the other glass bubble. They can’t understand us, because they can’t hear us. They only see us flailing around and stomping and moving our mouths. Likewise, we can’t understand them. Sure, the people around us agree, and that makes us feel good. But an effective and civil discussion can never come from a circle jerk about cheaters being mean.

Online arguments have devolved into a contest of who can throw the most savage insults at the other side, a contest judged by people who already agree with them. If someone says something we don’t agree with, we call them racist, sexist, white cishet scum, stupid, insensitive or any range of names under the sun, regardless of where our specific beliefs lie.

For instance, I once argued that labelling the preference for fair skin in East Asia as racist was not something East Asians could relate to and that it made no sense to use the word “racism” to criticize that way of thinking. I agreed that it was bad, just like fat-shaming in America, but I argued that it had to be placed into the correct context: classism. I was dragged as a “racist sympathizer.” In fact, the only reason I spoke out was because I cared about tackling colorism, and I wanted to make a difference instead of just ranting about it to my glass bubble.

People are praised as “savage” when they publicly crush dissent with insults, because of which online discourse lacks analytical or critical thinking. It has created “callout culture,” where as soon as someone expresses an unpopular opinion, they are shamed before the whole world.

Yes, it is funny when someone tweets — “Yeah I’m Mexican and don’t speak Spanish, but when will your mayonnaise ass speak 17%-Irish 23%-Italian 54%-Polish 100%-Raciste-Faciste-Blanc-Fromage?” (two real tweets smashed together). But this attitude makes people afraid, which is the worst thing we can do.

If we make people afraid to ask questions like “What’s wrong with being pro-life?” (a real question sent to me privately by someone who feared being dragged) or “Why can’t I assume that Mexican people speak Spanish?” — how will we convince people who are willing to listen that it’s wrong? How will we make any change in the world?


Relearning the art of civil discussion

Like the social heroes who came before us, it is up to us to prove that the changes we want can make the world a better place. In some ways, that isn’t fair.

But incremental change and logical compromise are better than nothing, and we aren’t always 100 percent right in the first place. We, like everyone else, can learn something from people who disagree with us, and our opinions and strategies can evolve to make a real difference.

Rather than being absolutists and labeling people who disagree with us as “bad,” we should understand that they only differ from us by their opinions. If we believe in what we stand for, we should not feel compelled to shame them into believing the things we do.

We should feel confident enough to invite them to have a calm, logical conversation where we clarify and explain our premises. We can’t force people to change everything they think, but we can invite them to consider our beliefs, just as they can invite us to consider theirs. We can strengthen our own cases by accepting that we can be wrong.

It is only through the courage to make our own ideologies vulnerable that we show our conviction in our ideas and cultivate a progressive dialogue.

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