Engagement in a Time of Polarization

I'm preserving my contributions to this online discussion because other people's discussion boards tend to disappear over time. Also, the course is (I think) hidden behind a login.

A Wider Sense of Polarization, Its Purpose, and Its Resolution 

I was disappointed in Tufekci's Chris Gilliard's paper. It looks at polarization from a very narrow perspective. I think we could have had a much wider discussion of the phenomenon that included, at the very least, some of the following:
  • the use of polarization on radio between Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda
  • the emphasis on boys only in videogames by the advertising industry, resulting in a gender bias in tech
  • polarization over slavery prior to the U.S. civil war
  • the Nazi's use of polarization in German society
  • religious polarization in Northern Ireland
  • manufactured polarization between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party by the apartheid South African government
  • the fallacy of the false dilemma in philosophical discourse
  • the exploitation of divisions between Sunni and Shiite in Syria and Iraq
What these examples should tell us very clearly is the following:
  • there is little, if any, distinction between digital and non-digital polarization
  • polarization is caused by many technologies and not just social media, and not, therefore, by properties unique to social media
  • polarization is not only used by the rich to divide the poor; it is used by fanatics of all stripes
  • it is not always based on race, and when it is, the 'races' in question are often artificial constructs
  • the truth (or justice, or value, or resolution, or whatever) is not always in the middle
With respect to the resolution of polarization, the terms of engagement vary
  • it's not about compromise; you can't stop being Zulu, you can't accept some aspects of slavery
  • the issue isn't engagement per se, but rather, is other a third party that is manipulating engagement
  • there's a fine line between recognizing injustices of the past (as in Reconciliation) and explitiung them (as in the Tufekci reference to the "poisonous tree")
  • there have to be rules of engagement, and sometimes these rules exclude certain objectives, expressions and points of view (specifically, those that demean, belittle, or advocate violence against others)
I still haven't found better means of addressing polarization than those I have espoused in the past: autonomy, diversity, openness, and interactivity.


Dave Cormier's Response


I'm just wondering which article you are talking about? Are you referring to the video included here or did I miss something?

It seems like you're saying that because polarization has existed before and that it has been caused by other technologies (a sound example might be the pamphlets that circulated as the printing press first started to kick ier. n) that there is not a polarization unique to social media. I spent half an hour today telling teachers here in PEI the opposite. It is true that polarization is not 'only' used by the powerful to stay empowered, and is also used by fanatics, but it is its cynical use by the powerful that is particularly disturbing to me.

I don't think anyone is suggesting that polarization started 4 years ago. I do sense that engagement has changed in the passed 4 years however. I know many, many colleagues who are tracked and hunted online (many of whom are women) and are afraid to engage in things like openness as a way of addressing polarization. It was differently difficult to silence people in the commons when 'voice' was something that was published and sent around on dead trees. Now their voice in places like twitter can be tracked and responded to with a cynical, purposeful vengeance that shuts down any chance of autonomy, marginalizes diversity, closes openness and makes interactivity a serious risk.

that's unique to social media.

My Reply

I think it's actually Chris Gilliard. Maybe. The name was very difficult to find when I was writing the response. https://hypervisible.com/polarization/power-technology/ (It's hard to take people seriously as social media experts when they don't even put their full name on their web page).

Anyhow. I think you were misinforming PEI teachers. The powerful have always cynically used polarization to get their way. William Randolph Hearst used it to start a war! The British used it to subjugate India. The examples are legion.

If there is any difference today, it's at the opposite end of the spectrum. Fringe groups and fanatics have an easier time leveraging polarization than they used to. But what we've seen is that this, too, is co-opted by the rich and powerful. Eg. witness the Russians taking over the business of far right trolling.

People have been tracked and haunted forever. Think of McCarthyism. Think of the Stasi. Think of the KKK. When publishing was dead-tree only, it was very easy to control the voice of the people. As we used to say in the Canadian University Press, "Freedom of the press belongs to those who own the presses." I spent what felt like a lifetime defending the underground press in the pre-internet era. Yes there were zines and pamphlets and the like. But vengeance-free activism? No such luck.

Again, in social media, if there is anything different, it's at the other end of the scale. It's easier to be anonymous online. You could not possibly reach a country or a planet without everyone knowing who you were in the pre-internet era. But now, we can have a Banksy. We can have an Anonymous.
If you're thinking of activities that used to be closed, like classrooms and club meetings, yes, that's changed. But that's not social media, that's digital video recorders. You can still have privacy if you ban cameras. But yeah, it's harder.

But we could never have classes or meetings that extended beyond the bounds of a room or a community. There really wasn't such a thing as distance classrooms (the interaction in distance education was 99% one-to-one). So we have a new capacity to have online classes, but this capacity is accompanied by online digital recording.

But if you don't think things like outing and doxxing and trolling and leaking of secrets existed before social media, or even before the internet, then you're mistaken. Think of Alan Turing. Think of the Pentagon Papers. Think of Matthew Shepard. Even the attacks on Kathy Sierra happened before social media (it was 11 years ago).

The main reason I linger on this is to stress and underline that responses unique to social media will not address the issue, because they will be too narrow and not address root causes. We have in fact always tolerated the sort of behaviour that people today are finding appalling when in clear view on social media. Understanding this will help us understand what's going wrong with social media, and society in general, and will more likely lead us to a positive outcome.

There were some other responses to this thread, which I read and found interesting and worthwhile. 

From Bonnie Stewart

So thinking about your point, Stephen, re "there have to be rules of engagement, and sometimes these rules exclude certain objectives, expressions and points of view (specifically, those that demean, belittle, or advocate violence against others)" - how do we get to those rules in a diverse society where we don't have shared channels of communications or (maybe?) shared concepts of reality? The us/them thinking extends back before social media and the internet and has precedents throughout history, but our current form of political engagement relies heavily on media for truth-making and media itself is both polarized AND benefits across the board from the creation of us/them stories. So what channels can we use to set those rules? 



Problems With Four Moves
(Me again, starting a different thread)


While I appreciate Mike Caulfield's intent in offering this process, and while it offers some valuable suggestions, I am concerned that it is not an appropriate mechanism for critically evaluating online reports.

I am most concerned about approaches based on evaluating the credibility of a source. I think it's really hard to determine whether a source in general is credible, and additionally, whether a particular report in an otherwise credible source is credible.

For example, the infographic includes news coverage as being among trusted sources. When I taught critical thinking I would use news articles in my classes as examples of unreliable sources. My class and I would analyze the evidence of bias in source selection, poorly constructed arguments and explanations, factual errors, and more. These persisted across editorials, letters to the editor, columnists and news coverage.

The first 'move' is always to determine what is being said, how it is being supported, and what the evidence there is for it (if any). This allows us to make a preliminary assessment. When we identify invalid argumentation, informal fallacies, equivocation and ambiguity, and weak explanations we should begin to question the source, no matter how credible it is.

The second move is to check the assertions of fact against what we already know. For example, think of the child who was told "Australia is not a country" by a teacher. Our own factual knowledge is not perfect, of course, and we should always be open to other possibilities. But assertions contrary to our own everyday experience and common sense should be questioned.

If the assertion has survived to this point (and a painfully large number of assertions do not) then then next step is to confirm or verify the assertions. These vary depending on the type of argument or explanation, and the standards also vary. A statement of fact needs observers or tangible consequences; a statistical generalization needs a sufficiently large representative sample. The method of 'going to the source' is one way of doing this, but the purpose here isn't to assess the source, it's to assess the evidence.

In journalism, the standard rule (often broken) is that a fact is not published unless it is verified by two independent sources that were in a position to know. There is also what Carnap called the 'requirement of total evidence', which means that a narrow view or single perspective shouldn't be trusted. We need to avoid 'conformation bias', where we are considering only those sources or arguments favourable to our own beliefs.

Finally, yes, you should be self-aware, but ultimately, your own reaction to the story is irrelevant. It doesn't matter whether it makes you happy or angry. It's not that you should be dispassionate - "Reason," said Hume, "is and ought to be the slave of the passions." If something matters to you, there is all the more reason why you want to make sure you have it right.

There's a lot more to evaluating news and opinions than I've outlined here, but these should point you in the right direction. My rules, in summary: Question authority. Trust yourself. Avoid errors in reasoning. Verify.


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