Free speech & white supremacy: boo(t)ing Nazis on the web

Free speech & white supremacy: boo(t)ing Nazis on the web

Many of my friends and contacts have been celebrating the decisions of companies to fire people identified at the Charlottesville white supremacy rally. Of course, that’s been happening based on intelligence gathered from social pools on the internet–and, like normal, that social intelligence has sometimes been wrong. Kyle Quinn, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas, was misidentified as a protester at Charlottesville and harassed on Twitter. Doxing, as is typical, has brought muddy ethical waters in the wake of Charlottesville.

Emma Ellis of WIRED recently called doxing “a perilous form of justice” because, according to Jared Colton of Utah State University, it “often hurts many beyond the intended target,” including their families, people with similar appearances, or people with the same name. I can only imagine a different Jeremy Johnson being doxed, only for me to be harassed because, apparently, Jeremy Johnsons are everywhere. While the left typically employs doxing to shame and exact social justice, the right more often employs troll tactics, looking to harass people either out of disdain or just “for the lulz.”

In the aftermath of Charlottesville, neo-Nazis have been identified, shamed, and in a few instances fired from their jobs. Moreover, white supremacist websites have been booted from web hosting services and have had their domains rescinded (in the Daily Stormer’s case, even in Russia). Most discussion I’ve seen has cheered on these hosts, but a few people have questioned the free speech implications of booting Nazis from certain parts of the internet. One persuasive argument is that the first amendment is only about government restriction; when it comes to corporations and private individuals, there’s no obligation to give Nazis a platform. Fair enough. But there’s a bit more to it than that, I’d say.

If Twitter and Facebook want to ban white supremacists, that seems to be within their rights. But, strangely, I want to bring up antitrust laws for a second. Part of the argument I’m seeing is predicated on something like a free market ideology: companies get to treat consumers as they wish, as long as they’re not violating laws. So, the argument goes, if you boot the Nazis, they’ll be able to find another home, because it’s a marketplace of ideas. But what happens when the main connections you have are severed? Fine, ignore that Facebook is pretty central to most people’s social lives. What if Comcast decides they don’t want to serve white supremacists?

The internet is so crucial for modern life that–you’d think–access to it should be a basic expectation at this point. If you’re a white supremacist, should a company be able to decide that you simply shouldn’t have access to a central part of modern living? “Ah, but they could go get internet elsewhere!” Well, if we’re talking about their home internet connection, that might not be true. Or they might be forced to use dial-up (cringe). Sure, they’re awful people in a lot of ways, but the furthest end of this “corporations can restrict free speech, but the government can’t” argument is pretty scary. What if Comcast decides it’s not just white supremacists they want to ban, but also far-left progressives?

We may need to closely scrutinize what we’re celebrating when white supremacists get outed, shamed, and disconnected. It might seem like justice–and it is in a lot of ways–but it could exceed the bounds of reasonable response. And while some of us might be happy to not have to share digital spaces with Nazis, radical social ostracizing can lead to even more radical and extreme behavior. I’m not saying we should change our behaviors based on the possibility of white supremacists getting upset, but we should know there are real, tangible ramifications of doing so.

As always, doxing is ethically problematic. It can and does bring justice, but the flip side is harassment and possibly more radicalization. I’ll cautiously celebrate the outing of white supremacists in Charlottesville, but it’s hard to know where we’ll go next.

Posted by Jeremy Johnson in About
Cross-post: Anti-vaccine attitudes & motivated reasoning

Cross-post: Anti-vaccine attitudes & motivated reasoning

See original post here

Many people believe that climate change is fake, that the earth is only a few thousand years old, and that vaccines cause autism. Scientists, intellectuals, and politically liberal people find that more than odd. In conversations with scientists, I’ve seen immense frustration about “science denial,” which is often treated as absurd or ridiculous. I’ve also been part of many conversations in which scientists and academics ask how to “educate” the broader public to remedy the ills of science denial. But it seems that education in the traditional sense will fail to sway the public. Why? Because there is growing resistance to education as elitist.

What’s more, many persuasive strategies do more than fail: they reinforce prior attitudes against science. According to Sara Pluviano, Caroline Watt, and Sergio Della Sala, attempting to persuade opponents of vaccination can create “backfire effects.” Their manuscript, entitled, “Misinformation lingers in memory: Failure of three pro-vaccination strategies,” demonstrates that rather than changing their minds in the face of evidence, people tend to double down on beliefs that vaccines are harmful. The promotion of “facts” has failed, leaving scientists wondering how they can convince people to receive vaccines or to support policies that would mitigate climate change.

In 2013, Dan Kahan outlined what he called “motivated reasoning”–reasoning driven by prior attitudes. Essentially, Kahan’s analysis shows that people tend to interpret facts based on their ideology, rather than generating positions based on facts. Ideology, I would argue, is formed early, and it is increasingly reinforced by social media echo chambers and “filter bubbles.” It’s easy to be cynical if Kahan’s motivated reasoning really is a driving force in society. But there is hope if we broaden our thinking beyond evidence-based reasoning.

Pluviano et al. found that folks who saw frightening images attributed to vaccine side effects were especially likely to oppose vaccination. The images they viewed reinforced their beliefs, but they also point to something we’ve known for quite some time: that images are powerful, and that narratives using images are especially potent. Scientists should recognize that power and use it to generate counter narratives–if, of course, education efforts continue to falter. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth provided strong evidence with striking visuals. While it is difficult to say with certainty how many people were persuaded by the film, it was a step toward creating counter-narratives. Still, in its insistence on data and facts, An Inconvenient Truth may have generated backfire effects in people with what I would call “science fatigue.”

For those who have little interest in digging into data and facts, traditional argumentative strategies–those based on evidence leading to claims–are unlikely to be persuasive. Rather, focusing on scientific narratives might work. We might draw on Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson in their versions of Cosmos to see how dramatizing and narrating science is effective for lay audiences. Scientists can focus on important discoveries that make our everyday lives possible, down to microwaves and cell phones, to strengthen adherence to science in general. Scientists still have a duty to be ethical and to avoid the trappings of propaganda, but we can’t rely on well-reasoned arguments to sway the broader public.

As for vaccines? Show them what polio looked like. Let them see how smallpox ravaged people around the world. Recognize that we have to engage with these attitudes–don’t write them off as stupid, even if you believe anti-vax attitudes are dangerous. Take their concerns seriously, show them the dangers of diseases we’ve eradicated, and hear out their concerns. Such counter-narratives aren’t guaranteed to work, but they stand the chance of reversing someone’s motivated reasoning.

Posted by Jeremy Johnson in About