Ideas may die, but how do you kill them?
June 4, 2016 8:53 PM   Subscribe

CGPGrey explained how internet arguments are self-selecting in order to symbiotically grow two opposing sides who mostly just badmouth the other side with increasingly inaccurate stories. That wouldn't be a problem, except sometimes the process spirals out of control and spills over into harassment, doxxing, violence, etc. So, if we understand how the process works, how do you stop it? Is there actually an effective way to treat the angry thought-germs CGPGrey described?
posted by jsnlxndrlv to Human Relations (10 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I think at best you can inoculate yourself. You can do your part by not spreading bad information and questioning things as they come your way, but once you get down to deeply held beliefs--and believe me, if someone's getting incredibly angry, you'd better believe there's a deeply held belief at the root of it--there's not much you can do to change how other people react to and spread this kind of thing.
posted by Aleyn at 1:48 AM on June 5, 2016

There is nothing we can do. This is powerful theater. We're uncontrollably swept by the emotional and psychological waves. They can be powerful and it takes too much right-brain energy to overpower our left-brain reactions.

Less-emotional people have a huge advantage (of course though there is the obvious cost: as they are more protected by the lows they also are less influenced by the highs).

Here are some tricks that may work:
1) Avoid hanging out where emotionally manipulative people are active. Seriously: life is short.
2) Get help. Consider working with a therapist if friends can't help.
3) Go slow. Give 24 hours before responding [at least].
4) [Joke] Become emotionally manipulative yourself. Fighting fire with fire works well [/joke]. Please don't do this. Abuse has an odd way of perpetuating abuse as victims often learn the behavior and funny things can emerge...
posted by Murray M at 7:18 AM on June 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

About the only thoughts I'd had on this subject so far was that, if you do find yourself in an argument like this one, secretly identify your opponent so that you can determine how and why they're dangerous. Do not call out or acknowledge that identity; if you must engage them directly, do so on a personal, historical level rather than in reference to the agenda you're opposing.

Don't get trolled. Time wasters want you to spend your time and energy answering insincere questions; the only appropriate response is one that takes less time and energy than they spent while inviting them to waste even more.

If you can, undermine their reason for fighting. What motivates them to cause the problem you're trying to undo? Can you break that causal chain by providing the benefit yourself, or by making less objectionable methods more appealing?

All of this is a good start, but: what else?
posted by jsnlxndrlv at 9:22 AM on June 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

One thing that I try to do is keep an eye on the people on "my" side of the issue.

I don't like knee-jerk callouts, but if the "good" guys are using ad hominens or making faulty assumptions or generally acting in bad faith, I feel like that's as bad for my cause as the existence of the other guys.

I find that watching for bad behavior by my people also helps me to see things from the point of view of the other side as well.

I have also been working harder on realizing when I have said my piece and then backing off. People can continue to be wrong on the Internet but it is not my mission to get them to change their minds.
posted by sparklemotion at 9:44 AM on June 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

Be pro respect of human beings.

Sow seeds of kindness and self restraint. Those can also grow. When they do, it can help crowd out hateful things.

Focus on defending yourself instead of attacking them. So, for example, rebut ugly insinuations about yourself without engaging in making ugly insinuations about them.
posted by Michele in California at 12:30 PM on June 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

One of the first studies on how the internet changes behavior was done at a university where professors engaged in online discussion boards. Within a week, they were calling each other names and threatening each other in ways that would normally have led to them being fired.

Some things that can help is not letting users post anonymously (e.g. use real names) and the understanding that one will be booted from the community if you're disrespectful.
posted by xammerboy at 1:42 PM on June 5, 2016

All discourse on social media has metastasized into this. It's a huge, huge problem. The only way to not be infected is to limit your exposure. If you have the courage and conviction, delete your facebook, twitter, tumblr, etc. right now and don't look back, and urge anyone who will listen to do so as well.

The problem: this is basically social suicide for most of us. Also: the services make it extraordinarily hard to deactivate and stay deactivated. Simply logging on again in a moment of weakness leads to reactivation of your account. And your brain is addicted to this stuff, make no mistake: the proliferated thought germs are little hits of stimulation and serotonin, and you're going to get sucked back in.

I don't have a solution for this yet. But I recognize the problem, and it's going to get bad enough that we all either end up in a digital Lord of the Flies, or we all figure out how to fundamentally and permanently detox.
posted by naju at 10:12 PM on June 5, 2016

The only way I can think of is to be aware of this phenomenon (as you now are) and guard against it, the same way you guard against logical fallacies and known emotional blind spots and whatnot. What that actually means depends on the particular person and their online patterns, but in my case I try to avoid both extremes — the circlejerks (e.g., comments sections on progressive blogs) and the cage matches (e.g., political arguments on facebook).

You can try to decontaminate yourself, but know that the vast majority of people are going to cling harder and harder to tribalism until they have some good reason not to. I look forward to a day when people are burned out of brinkmanship and invective, but I dread that it may take something large and unpleasant to bring that about.

In the meantime, the best way I know of to persuade other people — and to de-extremify them in the process — is to come at them obliquely so that they don't put their defenses up. Make them think you're not in it for a fight, which should be easy, because you won't want to fight. Try to see their side of things. Don't rebut their arguments explicitly; instead try to meander towards a different framing of the problem that might force them to reconsider their priorities. If you're a liberal talking to a progressive, or vice-versa, the worst thing you can do is make them feel as though they can't let themselves persuaded to your point of view because that is Not What Our Side Believes.

This is easier said than done, especially if their views are so odious that you can't even pretend to appreciate their take. And I feel like that sort of persuasion is more easily done in person than online just because in-person conversations give us more tools to put people at ease. But it's still worth doing because it's one of those fake-it-til-you-make-it approaches that starts out as a performance but eventually becomes sincere. When you play at empathy for a while, you will eventually realize that most of the people we talk to every day are deserving of empathy, even if they're saying awful things.
posted by savetheclocktower at 10:56 PM on June 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

One of the first studies on how the internet changes behavior was done at a university where professors engaged in online discussion boards. Within a week, they were calling each other names and threatening each other in ways that would normally have led to them being fired.

Years ago, I saw some stats that boil down to the vast majority of face to face communication is conveyed by voice tone, body language, facial expression and context. Your actual words are a fairly small part of it. Online, your actual words are most of it. People who rely heavily on cues like voice tone may not realize how bad their words sound when stripped of that. If you do make a concerted effort to use formatting, like bold and italics, and signalling, like emoticons, your written words and spoken words will come across very differently, even when it is the exact same words.

Sarcasm in particular is dangerous territory online. I try hard to avoid it or to explicitly signal that I am being sarcastic. But mostly, I just try to avoid it.

There are techniques that can help compensate for the reality that our written words online get stripped of so much that we rely upon when we speak. I was fortunate to be exposed to some of these concepts very early in my internet life. That doesn't mean I never have friction online. I have plenty of friction online. But it tends to simmer, burst out a bit here and there, then go back to simmer. In some cases, it genuinely de-escalates.

So, yes, the social friction can be de-escalated.

Now, your actual stated question was about killing ideas, which is a very different thing from not getting dragged into toxic, intractable polarized arguments. I do not generally try to kill ideas. I try to build bridges and I try to assume we are all like six blind men and elephant. In many cases, it is simply not constructive to tell someone you are wrong and I am right when you each have a limited piece of the truth. An elephant is not like a spear or a rope or a wall, but some piece of it is.

It is extremely challenging because most people want to say "I am right and you are wrong", so much so that even if youvalidate their points, some people will feel compelled to keep shooting your points down. But I like to try to build that larger picture -- that the elephant we are discussing can, at times, be like all these diferent things.

In most cases, it isn't worth the effort. Some people are deeply toxic and will never respect me, period. But I can avoid putting out the fire with gasoline. And that makes life better for all involved.

Ideas rarely actually die. Even when society at large becomes less x-ist, some people remain deeply x-ist. But there are ways to reduce the negative impact.
posted by Michele in California at 9:41 AM on June 6, 2016

My read on your question is that you want to figure out how to change minds or stop ideas that you feel are wrong from spreading, on a very large scale.

If that's the case, you might want to study sociology or public relations for an in-depth understanding of the topic, or hire someone who specializes in one of those, depending on what you are trying to do.

Edit -- Also, you might want to look at some of the stories of great attempts to "kill ideas" before the internet came along -- the civil rights movements, women getting the vote, child labor laws, unions, etc.
posted by yohko at 4:56 PM on June 7, 2016

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