Saturday, 28 March 2015

Speech And Counter-Speech: How Populism Causes Problems

When Techdirt's Mike Masnick shared a link to an ITIF event where they were discussing the impact of populism in tech policy, I couldn't help thinking of the oft-repeated saw that the best way to counter negative speech is with more speech. The trouble with that approach is it's like trying to sift the wheat from the chaff in the middle of a hurricane — how are you supposed to get to the truth of the matter, and is it really worth the effort required?

I pretty much use Twitter like most people use newspapers: to find out what is happening in the world. Since I follow a wide variety of people whose opinions often differ vastly from my own I've got a depth and breadth of news and views you'll never find in one outlet, as a rule. Of course this often means I get conflicting stories in which there is very little in the way of reliable information. Take the Meredith Kercher murder, for example.

Populism is about pushing an agenda

Look at my conversation with new follower . Now look at the Amanda Knox trend link. There you will see some people high-fiving the end of the saga, others decrying the injustice of letting a murderer walk free, and one or two people asking who actually killed poor Meredith. Because the only thing we can be totally sure of is that the young victim is dead. My own knowledge of the case is sketchy at best so I've not really formed much in the way of an opinion on it either way RE: Knox's guilt or innocence, but when Messgorough and I discussed a half-remembered documentary about it, I was at pains to make it clear that a failure in due process is to blame for the facts not being particularly clear. Per the documentary, the authorities did a sloppy job of gathering the evidence. As a Pirate, this is a big bugbear for me because I'm seeing due process being trampled left, right, and centre in the name of IPR. I can't set that aside for other situations with legal implications, due process must apply to all for even the most heinous crimes.

The trouble with the stories, tweets, and other analysis being conducted online at the moment is that much of it is either about establishing Knox's innocence or guilt. Few people seem to be interested in what happened that fateful night or in who actually killed Meredith Kercher. Populism is actually getting in the way of establishing facts; the people discussing the case appear to be more interested in taking sides over whodunnit, etc.

Shouldn't we analyse the evidence?

It's not really fair on anyone, not even yourself, to form an opinion without first gathering as much evidence as possible, then analysing it to decide what the nature of the situation is, then deciding what can be done to resolve it. What tends to happen in practice is that people will often herd, choosing the most popular or interesting faction, then dogpile on anyone who has been identified in the media or in popular fora as the baddie. I've had some pretty horrible personal experiences where I was briefly forced offline due to the prevailing tendency of online friends to abandon troll targets to avoid being trolled themselves. Had the so-called friends actually considered the situation they might have realised that there were more of them than the trolls but that's cowardice for you. Anyway, as I've already pointed out, the "more speech" option works for popular people. When you're not, you soon discover that to be a target is to be alone.

Muddy waters aren't easily cleared

Given people's tendency to intellectual laziness and social herding, once bias has stopped you considering that there might be another side to the story you're following you will pretty much accept anything your dearly beloved thought leaders are telling you. Even when counter-speech is deployed, you're unlikely to change your opponent's mind so they're pretty much aiming for your audience, who will accept or reject the argument made based on their own personal biases.

The shift towards stupidity

It's becoming more common for people to accept opinion as fact and to emotionally invest themselves in opinions due to some kind of personal identification with the issues involved. This is resulting in a shift towards stupidity which is tolerated because everyone is entitled to their own opinion. There's a certain degree of truthiness in this as it seems both reasonable and fair to respect the views of others. However, there is little value in giving mere opinion the same weight as fact. Where freedom of speech is concerned, the truthiness is that all speech ought to be free. In practice, factionalisation leads to a state of affairs in which popular speech is accepted but unpopular speech is actively suppressed. Counter-speech is included in this. That populism and stupidity often go hand in hand is hardly surprising, is it?

Populism threatens freedom

It may seem counter-intuitive but populism's sheer noise can create barriers to freedom in which people feel intimidated not just because they are actively getting jumped on but also because the environment is too hostile for them to feel able to express themselves as much as they'd like to. If you don't feel comfortable about expressing an opinion you're not really free, are you? I've written about this before; a hostile environment creates a chilling effect on diversity, enforcing conformity and bashing anyone who dares to step out of line. That I'm willing to dare makes me stand out from the crowd, but then I've always been suspicious of populism per se. Appeals to populism in an argument can and do provoke me to slap people down in debates, and I'm quite ruthless about it even if it means I might fall out with someone I like. The fact is, if you feel afraid to express yourself because your friend might not like you any more, you don't really have a friend, do you?

Countering populism's corrosive effects

Well censorship is the worst way to attempt to get to grips with it. For a start, it simply makes people curious, driving up the number of people interested in the forbidden thing. Mind you, populism can act as a kind of censor by creating an atmosphere hostile to opposing views. So let's agree that censorship is not the answer.

What about moderation? 

Curating content so the adverts for sunglasses and designer knock-offs don't spam your comments is one thing but when opposing views are removed or discouraged from being posted on particular platforms, that can create an echo chamber at best, or an intimidating cult-like atmosphere at worst. Result: islands of discourse in which certain views that are welcome proliferate on them, consolidating and amplifying them to the exclusion of all others. This is pretty harmful because, should this lead to a debate elsewhere, no real conversation is had, people just end up butting heads instead of actually debating. Later on, there's a contest between the most powerful factions for attention, and the noisiest one tends to win. Therefore, while some moderation is necessary, the lightest touch is advised, as a rule. I should point out that no one has a right to be heard.

Taking responsibility for managing speech

Where there is negative speech, counter-speech can be effective but, as I've pointed out, where there is a lot of speech, this can be interpreted as there being a lot of noise, much of which gets ignored in favour of the side perceived to be winning. So someone needs to take responsibility for managing or providing counter speech and making the effort to manage the narrative. A certain amount of curation would be necessary, the idea being to create talking points to simplify the issues in the argument in an effort to win people over. Needless to say, a fair amount of support would be required to make this work but it can be done. One thing is certain: if propaganda can be created and disseminated to the point where people accept without question what they're being told, so can counter-propaganda. It's a matter of putting the effort in.

I'm not saying I've got the answer to the problems posed by populism mostly because I've been on the wrong end of it myself and no one came to my rescue with counter speech. This is why I tend to be a bit suspicious of those who proffer it as a solution. Well by itself it wouldn't be terribly effective but as part of a nuanced, multifaceted approach, it could be one of the most effective tools. We just need to work out what the other approaches could be.

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