Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Stopping the Outrage Cycle

MrsDarwin and I spent the weekend on a jaunt to New York City, a chance both to see in person some friends we'd been in a book discussion group with online and also to get away alone together for a couple of nights now that the baby is weened. The periods during our marriage when there has been no nursing baby have been fairly short, and so we always try to make sure to use those opportunities to get some time along together.

This meant that I had a certain distance from the social media vortex that kicked into gear as everyone spent twenty-four hours arguing about whether a snippet of video from the intersection of the March For Life and the Indigenous Peoples March represented MAGA hat-wearing Catholic high school boys mocking an aged tribal leader, or a leftist counter-protester provoking a reaction and then perpetrating a scam with the assistance of the media. For a fair-minded description of an entire hour-plus video providing context to the video snippets that were shared on social media, you can read this post at Medium by a liberal Democrat who cares about the facts of the situation.

My purpose here is not to dissect this particular event. In terms of the outrage cycle, it is utterly typical. Someone is accused of doing something which confirms all of the other side's political prejudices about their opponents. Everyone shares around versions of the story, with links and memes sweeping through social media over the course of just a few hours. People assert that to keep quiet is to be Part Of The Problem, and everyone needs to denounce the other side because this is exactly the sort of awful thing they do. Then somewhere out in the more excitable reaches of the internet, which are legion, someone digs up the personal information of the people involved. They post this so that people can more conveniently express their outrage. Half the time they finger the wrong person, but regardless, soon all the people at the center of the outrage are being sent death threats, having their jobs or schools called and asked to get rid of them, etc. By a few days later, the specifics of the case are forgotten by everyone except the couple of sacrificial victims who have had their real lives savaged by the online mob, while everyone else goes back to the constant hum of political antagonism which is the cosmic background radiation of our political climate -- both sides more sure that the other side is made up of villainous haters who treat others badly.

The reasons that people find these stories so satisfying to read and spread are themselves toxic, as the C. S. Lewis quote that everyone is now, the day after, sharing around describes:

"The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally, we shall insist on seeing everything—God and our friends and ourselves included—as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred." Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis

There are two layers of lesson important to take from this. First off, in this specific case, there was an injustice done to a group of young people and one young man in particular, as people whose desire to see right wing pro-lifers look like arrogant racists shared around a story which turned out to be false in virtually every detail. A good lesson from this would be: Stop. Wait. Check your biases. Is this story “too good to check”? Can it be confirmed or will it fall apart within twenty-four hours as other sources and witnesses come forward. Are you really doing the world any great disservice by not sharing and commenting on the story the minute it comes before you, in its raw, unproven form?

It would be good if this particular case, in which many basically fair-minded people have had cause to admit that the first reactions they shared were wrong, caused people to at least slow down and wait until a story is confirmed before passing it on. But I would to propose that our online culture needs a much larger change in behavior. Even when a story is confirmed, I think it’s worth asking ourselves why it is that people are so busy sharing stories of small incidents of hate from across the country.

When someone shares the story of how a synagogue they never knew about before that day was defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti, or how an illegal immigrant in some far away state committed some heinous crime, we aren’t helping the person injured and we’re seldom changing the minds of those around us. We’re re-enforcing our conviction that the people on the other side are bad. If you know nothing about your neighbor who voted the opposite you did, but paint him with the brush of incidents you read about online about the behavior of “MAGA rednecks” or “Social Justice Warriors”, you are adding to the radicalization of the country. And even if you might think it a good thing if many people were more radically on your side, you need to realize that this controversies always cut both ways, pushing some people more radically to your side while pushing others more radically to the other.

That is bad enough, and I would argue that we should reconsider a lot of the sharing of bad stories that we do simply in order to show how bad the other side is, because it causes us to caricature people in this way. But I think we also need to consider just what kind of beast it is that we’re feeding by sharing these videos and retweets and hot takes. Inevitably, when one of these stories takes off, the real people involved in it are hunted down by online vigilante mobs who post their home addresses, swamp their social media pages, send them threats of violence and death, contact their family and schools and employers, and generally try to destroy their lives just in order to satisfy some primal need for a pound of flesh to be taken from the guilty. These mob punishments are arbitrary, sometimes ill aimed, and usually far more severe than the offense would warrant. It’s typical for the “responsible” social media users to decry the fact that these things happen. “Of course, doxing someone is always wrong.”

So fine, we murmur the pieties. But I increasingly think that we need to consider the fact that doxing, threats, and the destruction of people’s reputations in ways far exceeding any kind of justice are the inevitable result of these outrage firestorms. We need also to consider that there are content sites and social media accounts that make their money and their reputations (and thus owe their existence) to instantly running with any story capable of stoking outrage. The likes and shares and clicks are lifesblood to them. So when we share and like and retweet and comment on the outrage of the moment, we are feeding the outrage beast, encouraging those accounts and media outlets to share faster and check less and distort more in their eagerness to reap the most outrage clicks. And that outrage beast is not just encouraging us and our friends to hate ‘the other’, that beast is also the carrier mechanism for the even more vicious behavior of threats and harassment and personal destruction. Even if we ourselves say we reject the doxing and the threats, by helping to spread the outrage we inevitably help to make the threats and harassment worse.

The solution is to stop feeding these social media fires more oxygen. You’re not saving democracy and decency when you instantly share the latest outrage link or like someone’s hot take on it. You’re chipping one more flake off the foundations of our common civilization and fanning the fire just a little more.

This doesn’t mean that you need to ignore bad behavior or say nothing about how we can do better. Write your take about how MAGA hats have no place at a pro-life march or about the right way to respond to a ‘pro-choice escort’ screaming obscenities in your face. But break the outrage cycle. Don’t share the latest “oh my gosh, did you see this terrible person” story. Don’t thoughtlessly quip that someone should be fired or expelled or made to know what it feels like, because there’s someone out there online who is going to act on that chorus of suggestions.

I know that I am only one small voice against the whirlwind here. The very structure of the technologies that I’m going to share this post on reinforces the behavior that I’m saying we should avoid. But we don’t have to have any realistic chance of stopping all the bad online behavior to curtail our own. Even if it seems like just as many people are sharing toxic takes next week, if we don’t we ourselves will be better people, less poisoned by the need to characterize others, and we will each be doing our own small part to make things better.

1 comment:

Agnes said...

This is not the first time I see you take a stand against the "We are good/they are bad" attitude, and I am always glad to read posts like this. It is very important to fight against the idea that since we believe in our cause and believe it is a just one, we ourselves are automatically good in every aspect and those who disagree are automatically villains in every aspect.