Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Social Media and Self-Righteous Anger

Inside the Echo Chamber

We recently profiled one of our local media persons acknowledging how an elitist world-view common amongst media people helped Clinton lose the US presidential election.  The elitism of the media and the Chattering Classes arguably produced a huge back lash amongst many voters.  Heather Du Plessis-Allan acknowledged her own complicity in allowing herself to be captured by the Left's echo chamber.

In a supplementary piece, Du Plessis-Allan has written about the destructive effect of social media.  She argues that it has the unintended consequence of creating an echo chamber where one's opinions are constantly reinforced.  Worse, not only do one's views thus become more self-evident to the social media user but the intensity with which they are held rises.  Communication quickly becomes rabid.  She described how, via social media, "conversations" quickly devolve into "national shout downs".
You can measure this growing moral outrage in the frequency of the word "disgust".  In the single minute before I searched "disgusting" on Twitter, 16 people had used the word on their tweets.  Apparently men are disgusting, Washington's political establishment is disgusting, the online right wingers who call themselves the Alt-Right are disgusting pigs, and there's consensus Donald Trump and his staff are disgusting.  In New Zealand, Brian Tamaki is disgusting, Aaron Smith was disgusting and, depending on the latest headline, John Key, Nick Smith and Paula Bennett take turns being disgusting.
Years ago we came across a Holocaust Denial "group".
 Back then those wanting to make an argument that the Holocaust--the murder of millions of innocent human beings who happened to be Jewish--had actually never happened were forced to write books or publish articles to make the case. Moreover, since the protagonists actually argued the case, opponents were forced to analyse their arguments and counter argue.  This is not to say that name calling, formal and informal fallacies, and emotive irrelevancies were not present.  They were.  But in order to win widespread support, far more was required.

With the advent of social media, not so.  Social media has the effect of sealing users into an echo-chamber, where all they hear or read is a restatement of their own prejudices. Moreover, enforced brevity in some social media require an opinion be expressed in few words.  Extreme exaggerations beckons.  With each repetition comes the appearance of  self-evident certitude.  With each recounting or restating, self-righteous umbrage ratchets up off the decibel scale.
The problem is all this heady emotion is driving our political decision-making these days.  We're living in the era of post-truth politics.  We no longer use truth or facts to make up our minds because, for years, we have seen the same set of facts skewed this way and that to prove completely opposing points.  So, we instead base our decisions on emotions.
Our prejudices and opinions become validated as truth--self-evident truth--thereby justifying emotive, moral outrage.  Shouting begins.  Anger roils the bowels.  Du Plessis-Allan reckons that social media is partly to blame.
In part we can blame social media.  Our google, Facebook and Twitter profiles are set up to make us less tolerant of divergent views.  When you like a news article on Facebook, the algorithms will feed you more of the same, reinforcing whatever view you already hold.  When you choose who to follow on Twitter and who to befriend on Facebook, you're drawn to people you agree with and they reinforce the views you hold.  And so, you create an echo chamber that may be so strong, you may end up like my left-wing friend who says she was genuinely surprised when National won the 2014 election.  Everyone she knew and spoke to was voting Labour/Greens.

And in the echo chamber, you won't meet the kinds of people you find disgusting.  You won't discover that even so-called disgusting homophobes and racists have kids who love them and grannies they look after.  In the long term, if we don't talk to the people on the other side of the Facebook algorithm, we'll keep shouting people down, putting them through hell then moving on to our next target.  We'll end up as divided as the US, surprised by and refusing to accept the election outcome.
Actually, Du Plessis-Allan simplifies the matter somewhat.  The media are now up to their collective gills in social media.  They write articles, and to increase readership, employ social media to announce to their followers what they have written, attempting to get more eye-balls on their pieces.  But their Twitty Tweets are almost always sensational, emotive, attention-seeking drivel.  The media are thus a core component of the construct she is decrying.  The media become captured by their own social media driven echo chamber--which, in its turn, reinforces the need to be less balanced, less reflective, less professional in their print and spoken reportage and commentary.

The mass public media--ever since technology enabled its existence--have always had sensationalist outliers.  Now sensationalism, distortion, and emotive drivel are no longer outliers: they are mainstream.  Social media has made it even more so.

The smartest politicians and those who are advocates of particular causes will step away from social media--and even mainstream media.  Their credibility is largely shot.  The smartest advocates will play the long game--the face-to-face, high content game--which necessarily requires advocacy, argument, and persuasion in a gentle and kind manner spanning several generations.

It is the sort of strategy the Church of the Lord is ideally positioned to deploy.

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