God Save Us From The Nasty Effect

Quite a close-to-home article appeared in The NY Times the other day, “This Story Stinks”, […]

David Zahl / 3.7.13

Quite a close-to-home article appeared in The NY Times the other day, “This Story Stinks”, in which Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele relay some findings from a report published last month in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication (!) about the so-called “nasty effect” that afflicts online culture. Specifically, the comments sections one finds on blogs and online publications such as this one. How do insulting and ad hominem comments affect the way we process information? You probably already know, but suffice it to say, the answers are not encouraging. In a sentence: “Uncivil comments not only polariz[e] readers, but they often chang[e] a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.” In other words, the study showed that rude comments did more than get readers’ blood pumping, they prompted them to actually misconstrue what was being reported. More commentary after excerpts:

chickentroll1When it comes to reading and understanding news stories online the medium can have a surprisingly potent effect on the message. Comments from some readers, our research shows, can significantly distort what other readers think was reported in the first place…

While it’s hard to quantify the distortional effects of such online nastiness, it’s bound to be quite substantial, particularly — and perhaps ironically — in the area of science news. An estimated 60 percent of the Americans seeking information about specific scientific matters say the Internet is their primary source of information — ranking it higher than any other news source.

Our emerging online media landscape has created a new public forum without the traditional social norms and self-regulation that typically govern our in-person exchanges — and that medium, increasingly, shapes both what we know and what we think we know.

But as they say, the genie is out of the bottle. Reader interaction is part of what makes the Web the Web — and, for that matter, Facebook, Twitter and every other social media platform what they are. This phenomenon will only gain momentum as we move deeper into a world of smart TVs and mobile devices where any type of content is immediately embedded in a constant stream of social context and commentary.

someone-is-wrong-on-internetAnother way to summarize this report–which rings very true, btw–is that both the best and worst part of online life is the same as in flesh-and-blood life: interaction with other human beings. As much as we belabor the split lives that we develop via social media, there is an upside, right? Love may be kept at bay but so is judgment, i.e. “they’re not mad at me, they’re mad at the version of me they see online”. Yet we all know that there is something about the anonymity of the web, or at least the distance, that exacerbates vindictiveness (or at least filters out our other instincts). That is, the Internet may not create divisiveness or rage (see Mark 7), but it does seem to accelerate it. Divorced from body language and non-verbal cues, we are much more likely to objectify and/or demonize those with whom we disagree, yada yada yada. And there’s something deeply biblical about a venue that was designed to promote communication (and to a lesser extent, global harmony) being the thing that actually prevents it. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the discussion of religion.

As someone deeply invested in the power of virtual communication, these are important questions to be asking. What exactly is the utility of online “discussion”? What does it look like to convey an honest-to-god point of view in a way that isn’t overly bashful yet still compassionate toward those who disagree? How do we avoid the gravitational pull of “preaching to the choir” that seems to characterize so much online discourse? Furthermore, if the hope is to be a bridge builder in such a charged arena (religion), is that even a hope worth having? A few thoughts:

1) Most obviously, the notion that “It doesn’t matter how I say something so long as I am right” is a false one. We see this in relationships, and it is doubly true online. I remember sitting in stand-still traffic at the Holland Tunnel once and watching in disbelief as a church van decided to “redeem the time” by getting out their megaphone and reciting scripture. As you might imagine, there were no sudden conversions or hallelujahs; people were annoyed and, this being New York, they let that fact be known in a colorful way. The lesson I took from it was that you can’t communicate grace in an ungracious way. It simply doesn’t work. The circuits don’t match. It’s not really a question of “should” or “shouldn’t”, it’s a question of “can’t.” There is no such thing as a “grace nazi”.

But perhaps the deeper and more alarming finding here is that polarizing forms of discussion actually affect how we view the ideas themselves, essentially detracting from the truth. Meaning, angry comments don’t just prevent us from engaging an idea, they lead us to actively distort it. So we are not talking about being nice (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) or not having the courage of one’s convictions, we are talking about civility in the service of truth.

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2) This means that in some sense people create their enemies as much as find them, which strikes this writer as yet another remarkably “incurvatus in se” aspect of the technology. In fact, if I have one major observation to add from six years of blogging, it’s that people, myself included, often live off the ideas we disagree with in a strangely parasitic way. Dare I suggest that there’s even an addictive element at work, a rush involved when the threat is perceived and our self-justification muscles spring into overdrive? How else do you explain the hate-reading/watching phenomenon? Whether the topic is breastfeeding or drone warfare or sanctification, the same emotional dynamics are almost always at play. “Combat mode” is how Jonathan Haidt describes it, and it’s a rhetorical merry-go-round, especially in print. Maybe this is the difference, in Pauline language, between the ear and the eye. I don’t know.

Of course, you could say that this is a mighty convenient way of dismissing any/all pushback one receives online, and you would have a point. Rarely, if ever, are our words or actions untouched by the urge to justify ourselves (he said, by way of justification…). But that doesn’t mean ideas don’t have merit on their own, thank God, or that we can’t recognize and respond to civility when we see it.

3) Finally, and perhaps most controversially, the angrier or more excessively dogmatic we get on a particular subject, the less likely we are to be right about it. At least, if we have a clear ‘enemy’ in our mind against whom we define ourselves and our arguments, then our own views are probably not as trustworthy as we think they are. I know, for example, that whenever I peruse the comments under a CNN article about religion (and if you don’t want to lose all faith in humanity, you won’t), the first question that pops into my mind is never “Is what they’re saying true?” but “Why are they so upset?” Surely I’m not alone on this. Maybe you’ve listened to a sermon or lecture where the speaker was talking to someone who wasn’t there, and it was painfully obvious. You were not being addressed, some projection was, and the end result was distraction and alienation (and pity). Or maybe you know someone who believes that it is their responsibility in life to correct and police the ideology of everyone around them, rather than, say, God’s. You can’t help but suspect that if they were a little more confident in their beliefs, they wouldn’t be so threatened by other people not holding them. If this cuts close to the bone, it should. The problem is not “out there.”

Thankfully, none of this invalidates the theological detective work that we find so endlessly edifying on this site. If anything, I’d like to think it makes us more distinctive. But maybe that’s just another layer of justification. We’ll have to leave that to the comments section to decide…

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