Memes instead of arguments: Toxic discussion culture on twitter & co

These are just some random reflections based on my recent experiences with debates on Twitter, Youtube and co. I don’t actually have good ideas for how incentives for real engagement in debates could look like, but since Twitter and co are not going away any time soon, we might need them.

The good thing about Twitter is that you can break out of your filter bubble, that you can directly engage with the opposing side, something which is not necessariliy the case on Facebook and something which has value in times of increasing partizan divide.

However, the attitude in discussions seems to become more and more “Trumpian”: You don’t actually engage with the other side’s arguments, instead you either

  • move on and ignore, optionally block him/her,
  • just make something up, no matter how ridiculous and when asked for a source, you tell your opponent to “Google it for themselves”
  • Or you throw out an animated gif, which is commonly referred to as “meme”, (even though that’s decidedly not what Dawkins had in mind, when he invented the term), whose main purpose is to ridicule and humiliate the other side…

A small illustration to make it a bit clearer: I found a posting, claiming that Clinton won just 51 counties and won the popular vote by only 1.5 million. Both number are demonstrably false. So I responded, provided a source and instead of a response disputing the figures, two accounts posted gifs, one a photo of Trump claiming that his accusers are all pedophiles, and the other saying something derogatory about liberals. Both had zero to do with the question under discussion.

In my experience, this style of “non-discussion” is becoming more and more frequent. More and more posters just ignore whatever their opponent says, throw out something that is likely to provoke an angry response and distracts from the actual topic, so that any dispute on the issue itself becomes just impossible.

I don’t think that there really can be any technical solution to this, no algorithm can or should determine whether your response is on topic, still I wonder what can be done to incentivise real engagement instead of just throwing shit at each other. I do think that one should look into wheather the way Twitter operates rewards this kind of behaviour, or whether Twitter becoming more and more of a cesspool is a consequence of the fact that you have a platform where all political camps, all ethnicitiy, all geographies, all population groups around the world meet, and it is only natural that herd mentality makes them group into tribes which keep waging war on each other, because this tribal mentality is just something evolution has built into all of us… And when you are limited to 288 characters, quick ambushes are easier to wage than thoughtful arguments.

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IMHO people need to gather more to discuss face-to-face. Also, they need to travel more, take fewer selfies, and instead talk more to the locals. Only by experiencing real life outside the digital, virtual bubble, you will come to realize that life isn’t about black or white, right or left, rich and poor, bad and good. It is much more exciting and intriguing than that.

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At the same time, these platforms do give you the chance to interact with people whom you are very unlikely to interact with in any other circumstances.

The thing is: This form of interaction is not going to go away, nor it its dominance, unless humanity experiences some traumatic event which disrupts all those communication channels. So I believe that humans should be educated to behave just as civil in virtual space as they would in real life. I fear that what we are seeing is unfortunately a reverse spillover effect. That is: The anti-discussion style where instead of engaging with each other’s arguments, you just throw out random shit and hope that some sticks, makes its way into real life.

This is an incredibly important point people should be more aware of. Also the precise reason why I have left so many social media platforms, because I could not bare the shallow talking, trolling, and meme firing. Nowadays, your feedbacks are limited to the word limit of whatever your comment sections. And people are getting used to thinking only that much, resulting in zero intellectual sparring. Everyone is busy shouting and screaming without listening to others. In fact, there are no ways to listen to others when nobody is willing to publicly give long lectures sounding boring and lame. We will never be able to ignore the trend of moving online, and will have to find some means to get rid of this toxic discussion culture like you said. Many people are aware of the problem, at least, but seems like nobody has found the right direction and solutions, yet. Thank you again for pointing this out!

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The internet has not changed fundamentally. The lifeblood of an online community is its moderation.

Most online communities before the major “Web 2.0” ones had active moderation based on promoting civil discourse, and were small and inclusive enough that the moderators could keep tabs on all the posts at once and set the tone for the entire community. I see this forum as an example of this type of community.

Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook are part of a new breed of community that has corporate – not civil – moderation. For one, these companies lack the manpower to moderate every post at once. Even if they did, the new corporate-style moderation is based on brands’ relationships with controversies based on demographics and consumer habits, not civility and mutual respect. If the brands that fund the platform are not comfortable with a certain viewpoint, the moderators will de-platform those who hold this viewpoint, even if it’s civil and respectful. Likewise, if the brands deem a certain viewpoint acceptable, the platform will continue to give this viewpoint a voice, even if the discussion turns uncivil and disrespectful.

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Welcome @rexina and I hope you share any ways you find to cut down toxic discussion culture!

thanks to you and @rexina for your thoughts!

I guess there is no way leading us back to the golden 1990s, before the September that never ended, there is no way back to the internet of the pre-Google times that was community of nerds and university students.

So we need to find new ways. At the same time it makes sense to explore factors that made it more civil back then. I suppose at Twitter, the 288 character limit plus its support for animated gifs are part of the problem. Usenet was almost always a text only medium. Also, one way in which it did support engagement is that when you did a quote-reply you could place your responses precisely after the paragraph or sentence that you were commenting on, so you could actually disect your opponent’s posting sentence by sentence. Neither Twitter, nor Facebook, nor even popular forum software such as Discourse (which I guess is used here) have an easy quote function (in Usenet postings just as in email, you simply need to have the line start with "> " to mark it as a quote. Well, that may be a technicality, but one which for me makes reasoned discussion more difficult today than it used to be.

But what I want to point out is that at least theoretically, there is also value in the fact that Twitter allows you to interact with folks you are very unlikely to stumble into in real life. In a TED talk, Megan Phelps-Roper narrates how it was Twitter that made her leave the Westboro Baptist Church. This may be an exception. but obviously it is also possible for conversations on Twitter to change minds and hearts. I wouldn’t want to give that up and retreat to my own little digital village with members of my tribe only.

Isn’t there? Aren’t we doing “old internet” right now?

You mean, like this? :slight_smile:

Replace “Twitter” with “the internet” :slight_smile: It’s a common internet experience that has nothing to do with Twitter or any specific platform. I had a similar experience to hers when I was exposed to new viewpoints on “old internet” sites like Metafilter.com, which is still operating under the same management even after being semi-de-platformed by Google in 2014. (A word to the wise: don’t trust Google!)

But I digress. My point is that there’s nothing intrinsic to Twitter or Facebook that makes discussions toxic or positive. It’s technically possible for Twitter to be made into a 100% civil and respectful place. But that’s not a priority for the moderators of these platforms. As public companies whose primary duty is to their shareholders, it’s not even an option for them anymore; their business model won’t allow it.

Dear Vasyugan,
Thank you for describing so clearly the ongoing turmoil I have been witnessing from a distance and sometimes experiencing directly when it comes to how people interact online thinking I guess that it has no consequences whatsoever .
The vicious circle of attacks, negativity and drama that can be found online and in online interactions are unfortunately a reflection for me of a core social disease linked to the fear of others that is becoming so oppressing that attacks are becoming normal interactive ways.
Hopefully they are ways to "reeducate " or simply remind people of the simple and healthy ways of interacting with each others. This is actually my mission and I hope I will succeed !!

Kind of, but this is tedious, because you first have to find how to insert the text of the message you are replying to as quote and then, if you want to respond inline, you have to manually put closing and opening quote markup before and after your response. In good old email/usenet style, you just insert yourself between two quoted lines and you don’t have to do any formatting.

It is an irony, that none of the modern discussion platforms makes quoting as simple and straightforward as it was on the Usenet 20 years ago. Just as if developments thought we don’t need that anymore, because nobody is having real discussions any more where you respond to your adverssary’s arguments in detail, rather than just calling them a nazi…

I think manually placing opening and closing quote markup is too much to ask of most users. And personally I also don’t really like it. It would be good if the builtin editor in Discourse could do this for you, so that you could place the cursor within a quote and choose something like “insert response here” from the context menu.

I agree that it is possible, but I think that Twitter’s 280 char limit is more conducive to a hit-and-run style of engagement. In 280 characters, you are forced to be brief, you can’t afford to quote your opponent, therefore Twitter isn’t conducive to civil debate. Right now, animated gifs, mislabeled “memes” have become so prevalent, and in most cases, they come without any comment, their sole purpose seems to be to ridicule and humiliate. I don’t think that is is because most twitter users are assholes but because they have the experience that those eyecatchers generate attention and responses.

Again, I think the value of twitter lies in the fact that you get to interact with people with whom you would never interact in real life, and I clearly think that this has value. And if the tone of engagement would always be super calm and civil, it would probably be a boring place. The good thing about the otherwise crazy Trump era is that it gets more people interested in politics, because suddendly, having become this totally bizarre reality tv show, politics have also become more interesting.

The fact that the platforms are accountable to no one, no voter, not taxpayer etc. is a real problem, because you don’t have any rights towards them, they provide their services for free and so they can just block you for no reason and there is absolutely no recourse for you.

Happened to be right now: A week ago a twitter account of mine got blocked for alleged “automatic behaviour”, that is, twitter seems to have falsely identified it as a bot. I have submitted several appeals and emails to Twitter, but I have gotten no response. So the least that regulators should legislate with regard these de-facto monopolies to is some degree of accountability towards their users. There should be some instance where you could e.g. appeal account suspensions, and this instance should be obliged to respond within a certain time. The user should have more than zero rights vis-a-vis these companies. they are so immensely profitable, that they should be able to employ some more real humans who take care of these cases.

I think you pointed out something very important here: This behaviour isn’t an outlyer but it is the norm (when dealing with members of the other tribe). So when you make your first steps in this environment, you learn that this is the standard behaviour there, and you are more likely to adopt the same stye.

I was a bit hesitant inserting words like “has become” bere “the norm”, which would have implied that in the good old days, everything was better. I don’t think it necessarily was. Even in the 1990s, discussions on the usenet that I witnessed often became pretty heated, they also were “wars” between (at least) two opposing tribes. Humiliating and ridiculing each others was also an important part of the game back then.

But the difference was that you didn’t just throw out animated gifs, you couldn’t just bluntly ignore everything your opponent had written and just hurl an insult their way. You had to deal with the text they had written, in whatever way. I do think that the standard quote-reply mechanism had a part in that. You were expected not only by the other participants but by the technology itself, to actually respond to the text. Back then, this quote-reply style wasn’t just a technical thing, it was a generally accepted convention, it was a central part of the usenet culture. It was practised. The quoting mechanism still exists today in email programmes, but it is rarely used properly. Today people are used to top posting rather than inserting their responses after the invidual passages of the quote they are responding to.

This is how it is today. I think that any change that encourages actual engagement with the contents of the post one is responding to would be a good one. I just don’t have the creativity to imagine how this could look like in practice.

I guess there is a fairly simple rule which could make a huge difference: Don’t say anything to people online you wouldn’t say to them in face-to-face conversation. This wouldn’t entirely end twitter wars, but it would have a civilizing effect, I believe. I wonder how programme design could support this, that is remind participants, that these are all humans (except for those who are bots, of course!!). That again, would be a question to user interface developers. Of course, any such cues should be “intelligent”, in the sense that they should only apply when the probability is, that the person is really a human and not a bot.

wanted to share this article with everyone

Just one small addition: Another class of non-replies I often see are links which are thrown at you without any substantive argument. Often there is no comment at all, or it just says “watch the video” or something of that sort.

This appears to be the pinnacle of intellectual lazyness, and the expectation behind it seems to be that my adversary will have to argue it out with the video I sent him and the video will do all the work for me. In my optionion, this is just as bad as the reverse, claims that are thrown out without a source. Or it is even worse because I don’t even go through the trouble of formulating a claim.

I used to fall for this but now I usually ask my opponent to first explain why I should go watch the video. What really convincing points does it make? And it is quite disappointing that more often than not, I don’t get any substantive answer. I was hoping that this strategy would have some educating effect, in the sense that when you want to participate in a discussion, you should at least be familiar with the arguments of your very own side.

I am not of the opinion that everything used to be better in the past, but I think that these three non-discussion strategies which have now become so ubiquitous, namely thowing out memes, saying “Google it for yourself” and throwing uncommented links at you were quite rare when I began using the Internet.

Back than you still had “real” conspiracy theorists who still had a full conspiracy theory and took the pains to lay it out for you, be it anti-vaxers, 9/11 truthers or what have you. Today, even having a full conspiracy theory seems to be rare. I wonder whether this decay of discussion culture is related to the shortening of the attention span and I wonder if there is any research into it. Does anyone know?

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Well I think we need liveleak and alternatives to the handful of megacorps that own all media now and control the discourse through censoring or disseminating misinformation through the stranglehold on the audience. And this is not the first time this has happened or been observed.

I was reading an article a while back that was an analogy to current events and the events of the 1940’s. The main comparison was the advent of am talk radio and social media/the twittersphere. There were many, many exact quotes in the article from nazi propaganda czar Goebbels about what a powerful tool radio was and how great to finally not have to trickle down their message through writers and people with brains and opinions. With radio Zessen their reach went from Cairo to Tehran from 1920 onward, only signal reaching those places. By the 40s the nazis were pumping out a nazi state radio the giant wooden kind now associated with retirement homes. Goebbels said of the late thirties Volksempfaenger or in German “People’s Radio” (only the people they approve of I suppose) this machine will bring the voice of the Fuehrer directly into the ears of the worlds 60 million German speakers.

Twitter is much the same the world leaders tweet and they can run their psyops directly with no interference from a viable free press and no opinion formed by the human amoeba who is reading the news for five minutes on the way to wage slavery to stave off the mortgage another week.

It’s done by design and we need to break free. Rage Against The Machine showed us the way 20 years ago, in regards to radio and the media in general, “Fear is your only G-d on the radio, F*ck it, Turn it off!!!”