Twitter can be a harsh place. I get responses daily to my tweets that might make your hair rise on end. Here’s the most negative tweets – unfiltered – I got in a random week (April 21-28, simply the week before I wrote this intro):
- “As the False Prophet, he [Pope Francis] will be one of the greatest deceivers in human history.”
- “No matter how u twist & turn & contort the English language there are no rational religious beliefs.”
- “Councils (Trent) were of Holy Spirit? Was the torturing & murder of 75 million people of Chirst?”
- “The real problem is that JEWS decide which media personalities get fired for making the “wrong” statements.”
- “Apparently, your collar doesn’t make you bright.”
- “Mr. Pontifex takes a breath of fresh air, awaiting the arrival of his Muslim masters.”
- “Isn’t she [Elizabeth II on her 90th birthday] the queen of freemasonry?… She’s had time to convert, hopefully b4 she dies.”
- “and the church suddenly has an interest in science? Figures, it’d be pseudo science #propaganda”
- “Allah The Most Gracious The Most Merciful The Only One True God Has Saved Jesus Christ.”
- “Another shameless photo op” [referring to Francis hearing confessions in St Peter’s Square]
- “I am sorry the education system has failed you so thoroughly.”
- “#ProLife activists like @FrMatthewLC will be happy. Vote for #Trump! Back to middle age in a few months.”
- “that could only have been written by someone who isn’t in a loving relationship where you give yourself completely lovingly.”
I’m sure many of you have noticed how online there tends to be more ear-piercing debate then honest and thoughtful discussion. People even made jokes about the YouTube comments section as a place to find the lowest dregs of humanity. Instead of narrowly talking about Twitter or YouTube, I want to address online discussions in general. I want to look at the philosophy that divides us, how technology enables negativity and yelling, and a few ways we can respond.
A Culture of Relativism Is a Culture of Ear-Piercing Debate, Not Discussion
Rene Descartes flipped truth on its head: instead of “I am therefore I think” he said “I think therefore I am.” The consequence of this is that truth is no longer based in objective reality but in my perception of reality. He still argued for objective truth but slowly over time his thoughts transformed into a complete relative isolation of truth. How often today do here lines like “Well, that’s your truth but is not my truth”? Yet objective truth is a common good to all human beings – mine and yours can’t be different.
Even what would seem like scientific truth has become relativized. For example, I’m not an expert on gun laws. I hoped to be convinced by clear science showing what their effect was, but when I tried to research I found people claiming that both pro-gun and anti-gun legislation reduced crime; there are seemingly scientific statistics to show both. (Note: If you want to debate this, please take it elsewhere rather in the comments as there’s a wide range of acceptable Catholic positions on this and I’m not exactly sure where I stand.)
Our culture makes it very difficult to know the truth because it believes it does not exist. We live in what Benedict XVI called the “Dictatorship of relativism,” which he says, “Does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”
If we let relativism reign, then the loudest voice or the largest group is the closest we can have to truth. This encourages loud, uncivil, boisterous, unfounded and ear-piercing debate that goes nowhere. Exactly the current environment in online debates.
Online Disinhibition Syndrome
People have this sense that what they do online is separate from their off-line lives. In “real” life, people have to look at the people they are speaking to, noticing their facial expressions, and explaining things in a way they can understand. This requires a great deal of what psychologists call “theory of mind,” which is a human ability that allows us to perceive what the other is thinking and feeling. Online, someone sits in their bedroom and types away to somebody or some group randomly as if simply writing a personal diary. Their theory of mind is greatly hindered because the other is not perceptible, only conceivable through a complex thought process of imagining them and guessing what their reactions would be.
Historically, people thought of all their online interaction as consequence-less. However, slowly our perceptions on this are changing: social media investigation has become an ordinary part of the hiring process, people have lost their job over their posts, and even a sitting politician was kicked out of her party over
Most people feel less inhibited online. For example, pornography viewing and addiction has increased dramatically as the user no longer has of having to walk into a “naughty” store and come out with a brown paper bag. Sometimes this inhibition is actually a good thing, for example, the young lady behind Common Catholic Girl on Twitter told me that the internet allows her to express her Catholicism boldly while living in the Deep South.
All of these add up to “Online Disinhibition Syndrome” which gets worse when things are anonymous. For example, one study found that 53% of anonymous comments are rude; only 29% of registered attributed comments. Anonymity also breeds polarization both from the nastiness of the comments and from becoming a kind of “minion” for the cause. You can see this minion-ization when you look at all the anonymous Twitter accounts with the words “Trump” or “Bernie” in the name which tend to see themselves and be seen as proxies for their favorite candidate. However, anonymous comments were less likely to change someone’s opinion, being possibly automated, being unreliable, and being that the person seems unsure of themselves because they don’t want to attach their own name to the comment.
Stop Feeding the Trolls
Several key strategies are important to bring back discussion over relentless and volume-increasing debate.
First, whenever you make a comment online, imagine you are sitting at a restaurant chatting with a large group of mixed friends. Or as I sometimes think, “If my mother read that, would she be proud of it?” This helps us overcome the inherent theory of mind difficulties caused by task indication rather than oral, facial, and/or bodily communication we do off-line.
Second, ignore anonymous comments. If someone isn’t sure enough of a comment to attach his name to it, we can ignore it. There are a few exceptions to this such as whistleblower comments but as a general rule it applies. Never feed the trolls who want to bring the rest of us down to their disgusting, low-life existence of pure crude anonymous negativity. Troll-recognition is now 2nd nature for me but it is definitely a learned skill as in my earlier days I fed the trolls too much.
Third, be the same person all levels. It’s in Facebook and Twitter’s economic interest to make your public self and your private self the same. To a large extent, much of what was previously considered private life is no longer private – there are some things we lost with this but there are other things we gained and I don’t think is a way to turn back the clock on the short to medium-term.
Fourth, don’t be anonymous online. I also think that in general Twitter accounts and Facebook pages of individuals are better than of groups because these apply to be authentic and for you instead of being restricted to not comment on issues that the group simply doesn’t have an opinion on because of its focus. For example, my religious community focuses our message on spirituality, communion, and mission but at times on my own account, I’ll note things like how cute my nephew is or how the presidential election has becoming tiring. Such comments seem fine from a priest because they are real but it would seem awkward sending them from my community’s account.
Fifth, believe that we can know truth. If I don’t begin with this belief, I can never be proven wrong because wrong is the opposite of truth so only exist when truth does.
Obviously, there are other factors that cause the intense polarization and loud debate in our current society but I want to focus on the biggest two and provide some solutions rather than just complaining about how horrible it is. The dictatorship of relativism and the inhibition present in the online world tend to produce interminable debates. Our response should not be simply to retreat back into a corner and scream all the more but to bring out a Christian worldview where discussion is a mutual seeking for truth.