27 November 2007

Internet insularity

This article discusses how the internet has enabled Ron Paul's campaign to reach a level of hype far beyond its true significance. However, it's also a good starting-point to consider another phenomenon which has concerned me for a long time. Here's the closing:

How can we explain Ron Paul? This is a big country with hundreds of millions of people, some of whom are attracted to quirky, anti-establishment candidates. And some of those people are angry, looking for an outspoken leader and searching for an easy answer to the nation's problems. But there simply are not all that many of them. The Internet undoubtedly has made it easier for Paul supporters to connect with the campaign and with each other, and it's become a terrific way to raise cash for a candidate with emotional followers. But Web chatter, declarations of undying support on Facebook and even surprising fundraising totals don't make a serious contender out of a candidate from the political fringe.

What he's talking about here is something which we're all, to a greater or lesser extent, susceptible to. The internet makes it very, very easy to seek out fellow-bloggers and news sources which agree fairly closely with one's own political or social or religious views. It's easy to become part of a crowd who all agree with each other, and to draw information about the world mostly from people who agree as well.

This is comfortable, but it can be dangerous. In the first place, if you rarely hear opposing views expressed and make an effort to consider them seriously, you can drift into a frame of mind where opposing views seem so alien and bizarre to you that anyone who defends them must be stupid, insane, brainwashed, or acting from malevolent ulterior motives. After all, every website you read and everyone who posts comments on your blog agrees with you; who are they, those strange creatures off in the distance who actually take a completely different position?

In the second place, it can make you think that your own view of the world is far more widespread than it actually is. This problem existed before the internet, of course -- "How could that guy win the election when nobody I know voted for him?" -- but most of us understand that the people we know personally are a small, local, self-selected group which is very unlikely to be representative of society at large. With the internet, you're dealing with such a large number of people in such widespread locations that, for many people at least, it's apparently a lot harder to keep that in mind. Quite often, those whose views are in fact shared by only small minorities are convinced that they represent a substantial chunk of the population. After all, the internet has let them meet so many others who think the same way!

Sorry, but the reason Giuliani and Clinton have been topping the polls for months is that that's where the country's political center of gravity is. Kucinich, Brownback, Paul, and so forth have been heard. The reason they aren't getting anywhere is that most of their views are not shared by most of the public, even if everyone you know is fervently enamored of one of these candidates.

Faced with crushing disappointments from objective reality, in the form of poll or election results, it's easy to take solace in what I call the "people are sheep" mentality. I am part of a small, well-informed, thoughtful elite who understand the real picture, but the great herd masses out there are "sheeple" -- apathetic, passive, easily led, brainwashed by "the media", who now apparently have powers much like those of the evil wizards who in animist societies are thought to be behind everything bad that happens. That's why 97% of the electorate didn't vote for the guy I support.

I can claim rather more understanding of the "people are sheep" mentality than most can, because for fifteen years out of my life I identified with a particular ideological/philosophical movement which explicitly encouraged its adherents to think this way and to consider themselves an elite minority elevated above the slavish common herd. (In fact, they contained a much higher proportion of sociopaths, racists, emotionally-damaged control freaks, and miscellaneous crackpots than the general population.) Over time, though -- aside from the fact that most people who feel such a need to constantly assert their status as an elite superior to the "herd" are painfully-obviously nothing of the sort -- I could not avoid realizing that this simply did not reflect the reality of the world I saw around me. Most people are not so easily led unless it's in a direction they already want to go, for reasons of their own. At least in a developed and relatively-educated society like ours, most people have grounds for their beliefs which, even if they are wrong or illogical, can't be reduced to stupidity or brainwashing. The world is more complicated than that.

As an aside, being convinced that everyone who disagrees with you must be a media-brainwashed idiot can make you a rather nasty person. I saw other people who were like that, and I saw the same tendencies developing in myself.

Getting back to my main point, I fear that the internet is exacerba-ting the natural tendency of people to withdraw into encapsulated groups where everyone agrees with everyone else, which they then think are the world, or most of the world, or the only sane part of the world. This can be avoided, but it takes some conscious effort. My own regular political reading includes National Review, Michelle Malkin, Samizdata, Andrew Sullivan, and a wide range of bloggers whose opinions I don't agree with a large percentage of the time. This can cause aggravation, but it's necessary. The same applies even with flat-out enemies. Why do I focus on Islam so much? I have two university degrees in Islamic civilization, and was working on a third in the same subject when I decided that I couldn't stomach academia any more and quit. It's because of that level of knowledge about Islam that I came to understand how supremely dangerous it is.

That doesn't mean I'm eager to engage in arguments at all times with all comers; quite the opposite. Readers may have noticed that I almost never engage with questions like why I support abortion rights or why I don't believe in God. This is partly because I've already put in years of debating those issues, and quite frankly I'm burned out on it. In most cases, people who do want to engage with those questions have already done a very good job of stating the case (as with Black Sun Journal's page on global-warming denialism), and rather myself wearily rehashing what they have already done, I prefer to refer challengers to them and have done with it. Right now I'm much more interested in how the goals I support can be achieved than in going back over why I support them -- so that's what I write about.

But if you actually want to understand things like religion or the anti-abortion crusade -- even if only for the practical purpose of fighting against them more effectively -- they you need, at least occasionally, to read what they themselves have to say, in their own words. Otherwise you won't even be able to write about them and make sense.


Blogger Ute said...

Mmmmmh, food for thought. Very interesting. Thank you for posting it.

27 November, 2007 08:00  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some wise words here. Thanks.

27 November, 2007 09:13  
Blogger The Exterminator said...

Infidel, you said:
It's easy to become part of a crowd who all agree with each other, and to draw information about the world mostly from people who agree as well.

You're right. It's far too easy for us to wrap ourselves in the insularity of a selected corner on the net. And we should definitely not become deluded into thinking that the opinions expressed in our Web-orhood are indicative of a trend.

I'm not sure I agree quite as wholeheartedly with your opinion about hearing opposing views, though. I do think that, occasionally, it's worthwhile being exposed to those views, even if it's only in a know-thy-enemy way. But I have absolutely no interest in reading endless variations on, say, the creationists' argument. To me, those people are, as you so aptly put it stupid, insane, brainwashed, or acting from malevolent ulterior motives. I don't gain any insights from listening to what they have to say. It's annoying and a waste of time.

And the other thing you don't mention about one's own "niche": There's plenty of disagreement within some seemingly like-minded communities. One of the greatest things about being an atheist, for instance, is how many different viewpoints fall under that general umbrella. Why, I'm sort of disagreeing with you right now -- even though I'd bet we agree 95% of the time, maybe even more than that. So it's equally valid to pair your suggestion to go exploring with the suggestion that all of us speak up when we differ within our own online circles.

27 November, 2007 13:30  
Blogger John Evo said...

Just to weigh in a bit... I believe most of us in the free-thinking community realize that our "world view" is not shared by the vast majority and that they can't all be labeled as blind or stupid.

That said, there is still value in the communities we develop. As an atheist for nearly 35 years, I never had a community that might not agree with me but totally "gets" what I'm saying. It's kind of nice.

And there is the added value that Ex mentions. Since we don't agree on everything, yet approach the problem using the same mental devices, there is a chance to reshape and improve ones own "world view". I might become somewhat defensive when a theist tells me I’m seeing the problem incorrectly. I’m totally at ease with you folks telling me the same thing.

27 November, 2007 15:26  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Mucho thanks for all the comments.

Exterminator: But I have absolutely no interest in reading endless variations on, say, the creationists' argument.

On that kind of case, I agree with you. That's like arguing about abortion -- they're never going to come up with anything you haven't heard 100 times already. I actually wrote this posting mainly with political differences in mind, including the political positions and tactics of the Christian Right, which need to be understood in order to devise counterattacks and advocate to the undecided -- unlike their theological core-beliefs, which are really outside the realm of rational debate. It's worth reading what arguments they are making to advocate teaching ID in the schools, but it's a waste of time reading why they believe the Earth is 6,000 years old, if you see the difference. (Of course others might find both or neither of those things worth bothering with. I'm speaking for myself on that point.) The one exception is the sole redeeming feature which fundamentalist polemic often displays: unintentional humor.

There's plenty of disagreement within some seemingly like-minded communities. One of the greatest things about being an atheist, for instance, is how many different viewpoints fall under that general umbrella.

That's certainly true, though I'd argue that atheists are not a "community" in the sense that Christians or Muslims are. All we have in common is a lack of belief in one particular thing. There's no reason to think that that implies commonalities on anything else -- as I like to say, what's the common agenda of all people who don't believe in unicorns? Yet there are benefits from interacting and supporting each other, just as is the case in wartime, between countries which have little in common except a common enemy.

John Evo: As an atheist for nearly 35 years, I never had a community that might not agree with me but totally "gets" what I'm saying. It's kind of nice.

That's certainly true. Where politics is concerned, there are too many people who demand total agreement on their entire agenda -- one disagreement in one area and they fly off the handle and start name-calling or worse, no matter how many points of agreement there are. Atheists, at least, seem a lot less prone to do this.

Much appreciate all your thoughts.

27 November, 2007 18:33  
Blogger The Exterminator said...


I agree that there's no such thing in the non-blog world as an atheist community. And I also agree that even in Blogworld we may have nothing in common except our freedom from god-belief.

But let's face it: Here in the Atheosphere we've got, what?, 500 blogs on the Atheist Blogroll, plus maybe twice that amount again (I'm being generous with my guess) of freethinking bloggers who have chosen not to be on it. Of those 500, let's say that a third of them are "active" (again, this estimate is generous, I think), people who post to their own blogs fairly regularly and leave comments at others'. So we're reading one another constantly. Wherever you go in the Atheosphere, the same names keep appearing.

You and I, for instance, have not left comments on one another's blogs a whole lot. But I recognize your pseudonym when I see it, and I'll bet you recognize mine. If we happened to meet at a huge atheist convention, we'd probably acknowledge one another. "Oh, you're Infidel." "Oh, you're Exterminator."

That doesn't mean all 500 of us sit around together in a circle and sing "Kumbaya" as a "community." But it does mean that many of us have a sense of each other as fellow atheist bloggers. That's a community, although a loose one. It may not be as "solid" as a church, but it's tangible. And I'm proud to be part of it.

27 November, 2007 20:15  
Blogger PhillyChief said...

I think the dangers of insularity for atheists online doesn't apply. I've yet to meet or hear of an atheist who thinks we're really a majority, that we do in fact stand for what most people think, or are completely surprised to see political candidates pandering to christians.

I think I'm going to have to return to this, as this issue is making a bunch of things fire simultaneously in my brain and I need time to wrangle them.

28 November, 2007 07:12  
Blogger tina FCD said...

I kind of like it when someone doesn't agree with what I believe. It makes me open to other possibilities.

I agree with your last sentence Exterminator.

28 November, 2007 09:09  

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