Someone Was Wrong on the Internet

Today someone was wrong on the internet.  Yesterday someone else was. Actually a lot of people were wrong on the internet, and why does that bother us? I think we get bothered because we feel deep down that what we are doing/thinking/saying is right.  If we didn’t we wouldn’t be doing/thinking/saying that. Then we take that one step further and assume that because someone else does/thinks/says similar things to us on topic A that they will do the same for topic B.

The daily show had a great bit a few weeks ago where the corespondent expressed shock that it was left leaning people primarily in the “anti-vaccination” movement. The idea that someone who agrees with us can also disagree with us shouldn’t be a surprise, and yet it is. In any large religion there are as many viewpoints as there are believers.  And some of those viewpoints are opposite each other. And some of those opposite viewpoints are over key tenets of the religion. Yet both are considered part of the region.  Similarly two people can have very similar views on child rearing but completely opposing views on the environment, or labour laws, or the advantages of ketchup or ranch as a condiment.

Friends don’t have to have the same beliefs as you.  You can have a close friend who believes something you think is silly.  In fact I feel it’s a good thing that I have friends who believe differently than me.  It makes me question what I believe and reassess it, leading to a deeper and more complex belief rather than allowing it to remain simple and uninterogated. There’s just an unwritten rule that if the discussion on a closely held belief gets going that neither side pushes for the other to abandon their position.  After all I may feel that ranch dressing is the appropriate condiment for onion rings, but regardless of how much I fight about it I may never convince my friend that ketchup is inferior, and I might lose a friend out of it.

This works well when it’s between two people who know each other and are talking face to face.  If it didn’t work then we would have a world divided into small camps each trying hard to defend their beliefs while simultaneously attacking the beliefs of everyone else (frequently referred to as circling the wagons or siloing).  And that still happens, to an extent, but it tends to be the minority.  When siloing like that goes on too long we get groups of people who are absolutely assured of their own rightness.  And if that goes on too long it often ends in violence.  In a civilized society it behooves us to ensure that we don’t cut off anyone with a different viewpoint because their unique perspective can help us to grow our perspective. Most societies also set limits to how far from the societal norm a persons opinion can get before they are ostracized.

But back to the internet.  When we have millions of people who don’t know each other and have a loose connection to one another it tends to lead to a quickly devolving siloing situation.  And then someone compares the other side to Nazis. But why does this happen?

First there are trolls.  People who are just trying to rile up someone.  We can dismiss them as it’s not a difference of opinion happening, it’s just someone being a douchecanoe.

When we engage in a discussion on the internet it’s usually because we’ve been drawn together by a commonality.  For example. Yesterday I watched a YouTube video. It was a great video, and I thought the speaker had a great point.  Then I made the unfortunate mistake of looking at the comments section.  There were people wrong on the internet.  At least from my perspective. I read a few and thought: “did these people not watch the whole video?” They were wrong, but people are wrong every day, why did this upset me?

I’ll use an offline example. I’m in a large international organization with about 50,000 people.  We unite around the same hobbies.  And yet when I hear someone espousing a political belief that’s completely contrary to mine I’m surprised.  Without even meaning to I assume that people who like the same things as me will believe the same things as me.

Getting back to YouTube I was surprised not that someone was wrong, but that so many people could watch the same video and completely miss the point. A point which reinforced what I believe and which corresponded to most of the research on the topic that I’ve read. If someone navigates intentionally to the same spot and watches the same video shouldn’t they get the same thing out of it that I do?  I then thought: “if I just tell them what the literature on the topic says they’ll come around to the correct belief”. But that’s unfortunately not how the internet works. Unlike in close circles of friends sharing information about the topic on an internet comment section wont change someone’s mind, it will just drive them back to their silo or cause them to lash out from their silo. And as the popular quote by Nietzsche goes “Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster”

The internet is a mass communication system.  But I don’t think people change their beliefs as a result of mass communication.  Changing of beliefs is a slow and steady process.  The best way to do it is one on one and face to face.  Don’t try to convince someone you are right or that they are wrong, but help them to examine why they believe what they believe, and at the same time examine why you believe what you believe. Maybe they’ll change their mind, maybe you’ll change yours, but the important thing is that you will both have learned. There will always be someone wrong on the internet; instead of responding to the wrong on the internet perhaps we should look at ourselves and our friends and all move forward into better understanding.

And for the record ketchup is the superior condiment, but ranch is better with food that’s been battered and fried.

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