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Combatting Tribalism and Fake News

Tribalism and Fake News

The gorilla joke is either a great meme or “a sign of the imminent collapse of critical thought and public discourse”. New York Times, “Let’s Talk About the Gorilla Channel For One More Day”, Vivian Wang, 1/6/2018.

There’s been a couple of articles on topics of social media, critical thinking and how to communicate with people who do not agree with you. This state of affairs about our nation’s tribalism and critical thinking was brought out by New York Times in the article about the gorilla channel. I won’t go into the details about the story except to say I can’t believe people would believe that story about Trump, but I guess that’s what tribalism will do to you, either on the right or on the left: that no matter how wild the stories are, you will want to believe them if they confirm your bias.

“It spreads, thanks to people’s willingness to suspend disbelief and their susceptibility to confirmation bias – the same reasons that fake news accounts are able to take hold.” New York Times, “Let’s Talk About the Gorilla Channel For One More Day”, Vivian Wang, 1/6/2018.

Social media seems to be the crucible that is generating this intense tribalism. With mainstream TV and newspapers, with the exception of Fox News (sorry, with the exception of Chris Wallace and Shep Smith, you are not the news, you are an opinion piece), there is at least a philosophy of confirming the facts from multiple sources before publishing the stories. And if a mistake is made, a mea culpa is performed and the real facts noted. Social media, on the other hand, has no such philosophy because anybody can join in and distribute information – false or otherwise. And the incentive is: the more scintillating the story is, the more “famous” one becomes. Here’s an interesting article from the New York Times about how a clip containing a sliver of Steven Pinker’s presentation alluding to the “intelligence of the alt-right” was posted on social media. The clip went viral and had the left up in arms and the right cheering. But the clip was misleading because the sliver gave an entirely different meaning than the whole presentation. Instead of Steven Pinker portraying the Alt-Right as being literate and intelligent, he was really talking about how literate and intelligent people can get caught up in erroneous beliefs because they are not provided with counterarguments against repellent ideas.

This problem presents itself when it comes to “the often highly literate, highly intelligent people who gravitate to the alt-right: internet savvy, media savvy, who often are radicalized in that way, who ‘swallow the red pill,’ as the saying goes, the allusion from ‘The Matrix.’”

Mr. Pinker goes on to argue that when members of this group encounter, for the first time, ideas that he believes to be frowned upon or suppressed in liberal circles — that most suicide bombers are Muslim or that members of different racial groups commit crimes at different rates — they are “immediately infected with both the feeling of outrage that these truths are unsayable” and are provided with “no defense against taking them to what we might consider to be rather repellent conclusions.” New York Times, “Social Media is Making Us Dumber. Here’s Exhibit A.”, Jesse Singal, 1/11/2018

This article is well worth reading because it includes some counterarguments against what the Alt-Right are saying.

So how do we cut through the tribalism and convince people of the truth or the verity of our argument? Well, research indicates that providing facts alone will not work. If the facts do not fit their bias, they will either throw the facts away (fake news!) or rationalize those facts to fit their beliefs. As a matter of fact, the smarter you are, the more likely you are to manipulate the facts to fit your beliefs. This YouTube video goes into the fascinating research on this phenomena and offers a suggestion on how to convince others of the facts without using facts. You basically have to get at the common motives both of you have and argue from there.

Fast Company had an article on how to persuade in a business context. First of all, you don’t try it via email; you need to talk face to face. Face to face humanizes you and makes the listener more likely to listen to your perspective.

One of us read a speech excerpt that was printed in a newspaper from a politician with whom he strongly disagreed. The next week, he heard the exact same speech clip playing on a radio station. He was shocked by how different his reaction was toward the politician when he read the excerpt compared to when he heard it. When he read the statement, the politician seemed idiotic, but when he heard it spoken, the politician actually sounded reasonable. Fast Company, “How to Communicate with People Who Disagree with You”, Michael Grothaus, 1/11/2018.

The story about the speech was really interesting to me because it reminded me of my own shock when back in 2002/2003, I watched George Bush give out his reasons for pursuing the Iraq War and then tried to find out more by researching newspapers. When I watched the news, George Bush came across affable and reasonable but when I tried to supplement the case with the newspapers, I could find no hard facts to support the Iraq War. Instead, I came away with “There is no there there.” That was the moment when I realized why people were willing to go to war: they were listening to George Bush, with their heart and emotions, and were thus subtly conned (in my opinion) by his affableness. They didn’t read the newspapers. I sought out additional corroborating facts and did not find any and thus was against the war. Fast Company's conclusions was very interesting. The Fast Company article was saying, convince people in person because they will react to you emotionally. My takeaway, based on my own experience, was to seek out the written word from reputable news sources and include international sources; don't seek from television because I could be persuaded by visually connecting to the emotions.

The bottom line is written arguments will not work for you; you have to talk face to face. You also have to argue backwards from the other person’s known beliefs (very similar to the YouTube’s advice of arguing from the common motives rather than with facts). If you can’t be physically present, videoconferencing will still work better than emails.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find any articles on how to protect ourselves from fake news. I just read a lot of articles on how to convince others of your facts. I guess for now, we’ll have to use Snopes.

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