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A long hard look in the social media mirror

I quit Facebook in February, tidied up my Twitter feed, and gave myself a bloody good talking to about my conduct on social media. Truth is, I have been as guilty as anyone of engaging in pointless Twitter spats, letting my inner troll roam the platform  too often. Rather than abandon it, as with Facebook, I decided instead to change my approach to Twitter, which has has made its own changes of late to improve the experience, like purging bots, clamping down on hate speech and elevating video and news. 

As part of my efforts at being a better digital citizen – having been a very naughty one at times – I have thought about some simple ways to utilise social media as a means to enhance, rather than degrade, the discourse.

We all need to stop making and believing terrible arguments, but all I can do is try and do better myself.

Bad faith. Start by assuming people actually sincerely believe what they claim to believe. Stop impugning motives, or casting every opposing view as pure evil. In New Zealand, it is near impossible to assert any view at odds with the luvvie consensus without being accused of being on one nefarious payroll or another. It's a way to avoid the substance and shoot the messenger, but it's an entirely bad faith and intellectually lazy approach. We are allowed to disagree, and we’re probably both wrong anyway. 

But, if people demonstrate a pattern of bad faith, ignore them. Engaging with bad faith actors never works: it tends to bring you down to their level, and won't change a single mind – ever. Get them off your feeds, deny them oxygen. (A note to NZ MPs on this: mute, don't block, voters; not only does blocking make you seem thin-skinned and antidemocratic, it doesn't achieve anything more than simply muting does). 

Perverse incentives. We all need to stop making and believing terrible arguments, but all I can do is try and do better myself against the perverse incentives of social media. Have you noticed how we tend to get a heap more love (or likes, to be accurate) when we let our guard down and throw out some red meat, or when we lash out at an adversary. This is an inherent problem with social networks like Twitter and Facebook, where algorithms and human nature merge in perfect alignment to elevate, and thereby incentivise, partisan hyperbole at the expense of comparatively boring old facts. Fake news works for the blazingly obvious reason that of course you can write a more compelling yarn if you're no more bound by the constraints of ethical reporting than George R. R. Martin. 

Double standards. Put simply, if you wouldn't like the other side to do or say the thing, don't defend your side when they do or say it. Mindless tribalism lurks somewhere close behind every human catastrophe. Sure, Trump doesn't seem to pay any price for daily, shameless hypocrisies, but we certainly do. 

Humility. We know very little, and understand even less. We humans are susceptible to towering hubris when it comes to our own puny grasp of the world around us. As I get older, the more I am beginning to sense how profoundly clueless we actually are. Imagine all available knowledge as a vast ocean, and the brightest among us might be a dinghy’s length – if that – ahead of the dumbest. 

Expertise. That said, every field has experts. Listen to them! The loss of faith in institutions that defines these discombobulated days has been matched by a growing and active hostility to expertise in all forms. Climate scientists have been reduced to partisan hacks, and what the hell would 17 US intelligence agencies who have been surveilling and analysing Russian active measures for seven decades know about Russian active measures? Trump supporters rarely cite French postmodernists, but, surely, one of the great ironies of our time is that the neo Marxist philosophical assault on objective truth has been repurposed as MAGA juice. (Republican Never Trumper and Sovietologist Tom Nichols has written brilliantly on this, as has New York Times literary critic Michiko Kakutani).

Disdain for institutions, expertise and objective truth is what binds the fringes of left and right. We can push back by favouring experts over cheerleaders in our social media choices, and applying basic critical reasoning skills before disseminating material. The more my synapses fire up to some new outrage, the more I have come to distrust the story. Take time to verify.  Get your facts straight. Read at least one other view. And, you know, you might not love the New York Times if you're on the right, or the Wall St Journal from the left, but let's at least agree both are more reliable than InfoWars or The Young Turks. And if you've not even heard of the outlet before, don't rely on it until confirmation comes from elsewhere.

Try not to hate (too much). This one's especially hard if you spend much time online because people behave so appallingly, including myself at times. But all this loathing is so destructive and dehumanising. I hate how much I hate Donald Trump so much, for instance, that I keep seeking out evidence that he may have some redeeming qualities after all. I thought I had found something the other day – his first wife, Ivana, was reported as saying that Donald initially did not want to name their first born, Don Jr., after himself. “Aha!,” I thought, “Finally! A heartwarming Trump anecdote!”. But then I kept reading. Turns out this wasn't a rare insight into the president’s hitherto well-concealed humility after all; Donald was worried about bestowing his name “in case the kid turns out to be a loser”. 

Punch up. Not all criticism is an “attack’, and not all targets are equal. Never punch down. Punch up within reason. This shouldn't be hard. If you're an elected politician, toughen up and face the social media criticism right up until it crosses over into personal abuse, at which point everyone should rally to cut it out. Gendered, racist or othwerise bigoted lines of attack must be unequivocally out of bounds, but this cannot be allowed to mean women, Māori, Pasifika or LGBTI MPs ought to to be ushered into safe places. 

Democracy doesn't end with elections, and MPs shouldn’t mistake accountability for victimisation. The notion, for example, that last month’s #GolrizmyCV campaign on Twitter – in which tweeps took often quite funny potshots at Golriz Ghahraman‘s notorious propensity for self aggrandising embellishment – was compared by her defenders to the horrendous trolling that led to Charlotte Dawson’s suicide. This is beyond just a silly analogy; it is an offensive one that seems designed purely to shut down legitimate political speech. If Golriz can't hack someone joking she knitted David Bain’s jumper, or that she personally staged the Thai cave rescue, maybe she just isn't suited to public life. I recognised years ago I wasn't constitutionally tough enough to withstand political life. There's no shame in recognising as much. 

Journos deserve better: Reporters  are not elected, let alone accountable, to you. Ask questions. Politely disagree. But, for Christ’s sake, stop attacking reporters personally. This can get murky when some journos behave more and more like activists – another quirk of the digital era – or when they work for dubious outlets, either ‘fake news’ or state-run propaganda, each as bad as the other. But even then, vitriol doesn't help. If you've established they're not a trusted source, find someone who is. 

One final thing. If you cannot distinguish between opinion and news, or find yourself shocked that opinion writers have opinions, or mortified they are not the same as yours, you are probably beyond help.

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