Internet Comments Are Ruining the World

In this age of hard hitting viral content, are we still having rational discussions about the things that matter most?

The viral age

It’s ironic that the internet, something that was designed to bring us closer together, builds tensions between communities, people and more recently, brings about political disharmony. Whilst social media affords everyone free speech, it has changed the way people talk about important issues and politics – and to each other.

In more recent times, complex political agendas and movements have been whittled down to a viral hashtag. Think #fucktrump and #metoo, which on the one hand form strong communities of like minded individuals, but highlight the surge in viral content and statement headlines that can be easily brandished around to gain those all important ‘likes’. It’s an incredible thing if you think about it; it allows anyone with an opinion to join the conversation. At the same time, there are some glaringly obvious downsides.

The biggest one? People aren’t having satisfactory political discussions like they used to. In 2016, the Pew Research survey discovered that the majority of political conversations left people feeling more stressed and angry than they had been when they started the interaction.

It’s time to take these conversations off the internet.

Literally speak your mind

To get the most out of a sensitive discussion, sometimes it’s best to go old-school and have a face to face conversation. Research from the University of California in Berkeley suggests that the best way of resolving or discussing disagreements with people is through actual speech.

Juliana Schroeder, who headed the project, observed that hearing someone’s voice is vital for communicating different points of view effectively and with minimal tension. By having a conversation, people can’t hide behind their online personas and can’t bat away important opposing opinions with a torrent of strong opinions. More often than not, dialogue online can veer into a “mob mentality” and differences between people’s opinions aren’t resolved or discussed in depth.

Most importantly, conversations in person avoid the risk of dehumanization. Schroeder concluded that the project produced some interesting findings:

“We observed an inconsistent influence of communication-medium condition in cases of agreement, but in cases of disagreement, we observed a reliable tendency for communicator to be dehumanized less when evaluators heard their voices than when evaluators read the same content… This finding suggests either that humanizing cues are unique to the voice or that such cues are redundant in visual and vocal media.”

Dehumanization is a dangerous habit

What is dehumanization we hear you ask? It’s the process of not only disagreeing with someone’s point of view, but also putting someone down and mocking their ability to think intelligently. Schroeder puts it very eloquently:

 “Denigrating the mind of another person is the essence of dehumanization—seeing that person as less capable of thinking or feeling than oneself, as more like a nonhuman animal than like a mentally sophisticated human being.”

It follows the notion that most of what is said online is said to provoke a reaction; a negative reaction most probably. When it comes to political discussion, neuroscientist Molly J Crockett stated that political topics online are written to encourage outrage rather than intelligent discussion.

Another reason political discussion is so emotionally charged on social media is for those ‘likes’ that we all validate ourselves with. Crockett’s study unveiled that people are more likely to engage with content that has a “moral emotional” word in it. And for companies who monetize their online interactions, it’s little surprise that content is becoming more defiant and outrageous, offering bitesize bits of obscured information that can be shared and passed on from one person to the next.

The nature of the internet hardly helps

Crockett went on to say that the very nature of the way we interact over the internet is the crux of the problem. Things that aren’t necessarily important are made into bigger things than they are. She revealed her findings to The Big Think:

“[I] was able to analyze this data and show that immoral events that people learn about online trigger more outrage than immoral events that they learn about in person or through traditional forms of media like TV, newspaper and radio.”

If you have made the connection between this and fake news, then you aren’t the first. It’s worryingly easy to warp the truth on a platform where anonymity or a profile page affords enough protection from the backlash. Do you think Trump would say half the things he said on social media in real life? OK, bad example…

For this reason, political discussions, or any in depth discussions, are best to be had in person or over the phone. Even though that person might not agree with you, your conversation will inform your opinions tenfold and best of all, nothing you say is limited to 280 characters.

Photo credits: Unsplash, Big Think, dan177/Thinkstock.

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