Sep 08 2014

Internet Echochambers

I recently came across a post on the skeptic subreddit pointing to the rules of the 9/11 truther subreddit:

Welcome to 911truth! The purpose of this subreddit is to present and discuss evidence showing that the US Government’s version of the events of 9/11 cannot possibly be true. Submissions or comments supporting the official version, including links to sites purporting to “debunk” the 9/11 Truth Movement (depending on context), are considered off-topic here.


  1. Stay on topic. Off topic comments are subject to removal.

Rule #7 also made me smile:

7. No caps lock.

This is the double-edged sword of the internet – it allows for unprecedented on-demand access to incredible information, but that information is biased.

This is nothing new. We can only sample a tiny amount of all the possible information about the world. Whatever process is used to filter, organize, access, and digest that information will be biased. Part of the skeptical endeavor is to study such biases, at every level, so that we can have some sense of how that affects the information that ultimately gets into our brains, and perhaps compensate for them.

Pre-internet perhaps the primary sources of bias were the gatekeepers of mass media: TV producers, journal editors, newspaper editors, and book publishers. They still have a tremendous influence, but are rapidly being eclipsed by the internet.

Social media has the benefit of bypassing such gatekeepers and allowing individuals or small organizations to place their ideas in the public domain, and to create spaces where groups can discuss and share information. It’s all good – but we have to recognize that this creates the easy opportunity to erect new biasing filters.

It is not surprising, given what psychologists have discovered about human nature, that we tend to sort ourselves into like-minded groups. This can also be a positive thing, in moderation. We need a sense of community, even if it’s virtual, and such groups can facilitate finding information we wish to seek out.

The glaring downside, however, is that such groups will tend to be insular and to provide access to information that confirms our existing beliefs and biases. This phenomenon is often referred to in derogatory terms as an “echochamber.”

It’s rare to see such a blatant expression of it, as in the 9/11 truther subreddit – don’t post anything here that will challenge our basic assumptions, or it will be removed. This policy is justified with the extremely thin argument of labeling such challenges as “off topic.”

There are many other strategies for biasing information to be in line with the basic assumptions of a virtual community, often more subtle. Perhaps the most common is to label those expressing a contrary opinion as a “troll.”

Internet trolling is a real phenomenon. Essentially a troll is someone who expresses a contrary opinion just to annoy or inflame others. They do not truly engage in conversation or respond to the posts of others. They are just poking people in the eye because they enjoy watching them react. A troll is also someone who will attempt to derail any discussion and move it to a topic they want to discuss, especially their one pet topic.

Any blog or forum is likely to attract the occasional troll, and banning them is now a basic part of internet hygiene.

It is a short trip, however, from banning someone for being a genuine troll, to using the label “troll” to ban someone who is simply expressing a contrary opinion.  This can go from basic hygiene to sanitizing a site of any impurity of thought or opinion.

There are other strategies for weeding out contrary opinions, all of which tend to lend themselves to conspiratorial thinking as well. Those with a contrary opinion can be dismissed as shills. This is a popular strategy with any medical claims. If you call an anti-vaccine blogger on their blatant pseudoscience, you can be conveniently dismissed and even banned as an industry shill.

There are other labels popular within the skeptical/atheist/humanist communities that I find are often dismissive. They may be true in some cases, and this is the trick, that careful judgement is required. But our own judgments are likely to be biased by our existing opinions on the topic at hand -how to separate the two?

For example, I have never been fond of the term “mansplaining.” I understand it may have legitimate uses in pointing out oblivious male privilege and sexist apologetics. But it then becomes a handy shorthand and can be quickly used for dismissing more nuanced opinions.

For similar reasons I find the term “accomodationist” problematic. This term is often thrown around when discussing the philosophical relationship between science and faith, or when discussing strategies for public outreach.

The internet seems optimized for spreading such memes: “tone troll,” “free-speech nazi,”  and many others. Those that skeptics specifically use include “true-believer,” “conspiracy theorist,” “denier” or “denialist,” “pseudoscientist,” and many others.

To clarify – I am not saying that any of these terms are not legitimate in some cases. They exist partly because they conveniently describe a pattern of behavior that is often encountered. Denialism, for example, is a real pattern of logic and style of argument that is worth understanding.

Convenient labels, however, are seductive, and they tempt us to oversimplify the world by pigeon-holing everyone and every claim into some narrow category. Here are some rules of thumb that may help minimize the downside of dismissive labels:

1 – Define internet denizens by behavior, not by the positions they espouse. A troll is someone who fails to engage and who derails discussions, not someone who disagrees with me or even the community.

2 – Go out of your way to be tolerant of dissenting opinion.

3 – Use labels with extreme caution. Have some operational definition for their use, and minimize their use.

4 – Individuals are individuals. They cannot be fairly understood by any label you might apply to them.

5 – Seek out sources of information and discussion on the internet that specifically have a different set of filters and biases than you are used to.

6 – Don’t be a troll – respect others on the internet, and respect their communities. This does not mean you cannot vehemently disagree. But genuinely engage, stick to arguments of logic and evidence, don’t be afraid to acknowledge common ground, stay on topic, and don’t spam-post. These are all basic internet etiquette. This can mean examining your own goals. Why are you on a site? Are you trying to convince them that they are wrong (nothing wrong with that), are you trying to learn what it is they believe, engage in genuine discussion – or are you just trying to annoy them as much as possible?

In short, it’s a good idea to deliberately make yourself uncomfortable, by seeking out information that challenges your assumptions and beliefs. This also means tolerating contrary opinions, and avoiding dismissive labels.

At the same time you have to be careful if your goal is to make others feel uncomfortable. There is a role for this if your goal is to provide a contrary opinion or information, but this can easily slide into trolling, which is likely to just make the community more insular and resistant to your opinions, or any outside opinions.

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