Virtually Speaking

Second Life along with the First.

Blood Feuds and Fear Politics

Any veteran of internet discussion boards knows what I’m talking about — show me a discussion forum and I’ll show you a commonality of interest that binds the posters together, but I’ll also show you cliques, herd mentalities, “common wisdom” and prevalent attitudes that do not permit dissent. A large percentage of this Common Wisdom is based on subjective opinion and the Scourge of our Modern Era: The Internet Meme.

When Gutenberg invented movable type it changed the course of history – with cheap books came knowledge.  With knowledge came power.  The old pecking order, starting with the Church, was upset and a new one arose.

Knowledge is power today, more than ever before.

The Internet’s impact on society may outdo Gutenberg. No longer is news and communication the sole province of TV networks, phone companies or the Postal Service. The impact of the Internet goes much deeper and wider than the printing press – instantaneous and cheap communications have created new horizons for community creation and new interpersonal dynamics. Knowledge is now distributed to anyone with a computer, whether they have a PhD or a GED. One man can create a website, call himself “The National Association of Truth” and give himself the appearance of authority out of all proportion to his true credentials.

The wave of information we enjoy today has a much lower signal-to-noise ratio than ever before. For every truth being passed around in email or on web discussion boards, there are likely to be ten bogus rumors and outright lies. Fact checking has become a business in itself that only existed in the sanctum of print and television newsrooms until now.

In recent history, we’re all aware of the role blogs played in exposing the CBS News gaffe over forgeries of Bush’s National Guard papers. The vox populi first speculated on the forgery but then was able to confirm the truth — with a very loud, resounding thud from Dan Rather’s career.

That’s one for the blogosphere. But does it mean that blogs and web boards are replacing the news networks?

They may do so in terms of folk wisdom and widely accepted truism, but truisms are not truth. For us to arrive at the truth, we should demand accountability, credible sources and independent verification. All too often, the mob opinion on your favorite web board has none of these assets. Mostly we see wishful thinking, paranoia, and gossip being passed off as fact (buttressed by copious links, links to links, and “my link is better than your link” link wars).

Our definition of “Fact” may be the first casualty of the Blog Era.

American Politics may be the second casualty.

The election of George Bush II in 2000 did more to polarize the American political landscape than anyone since Abraham Lincoln. The political discussions I’ve witnessed and participated in since 2000 have broken friendships, set fire to web communities and – far from convincing anyone to change their minds – only radicalized opinions and made everyone, on all sides, more sure than ever that they are 100% right and the other guy is 100% wrong. In reality, none of us – not a single one of us – knows the whole truth.

My unscientific opinion is that the Left currently dominates the blogosphere (with some notable exceptions on the Right), while the Right has taken to Talk Radio. One of these information sources is no better or worse than the other for accurate and reliable information. Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh are 90% hyperbole (I know, I’ve checked their facts) on one end of the spectrum, and the Left Wing truthout.org and commondreams.org are the same on the other end.

Fox News, the whipping boy of the Left, uses many of the same wire services as CNN and yet, because they also feature independent opinion pieces which can be mistaken for “objective news”, they’re accused of being in bed with the neo-cons. (Conveniently forgotten in their rush to marginalize is the CNN staffer who spent many nights at the Clinton White House as a guest.)

It’s as if our political landscape is no longer about real issues. It’s about mud-slinging, lies, and disinformation. It’s about whether you are Blue or Red. There can be no middle. No purple or lavender, no shades of moderation. Pick a side, you’re either with us or against us. In this brave new electronic world, your political choices say more about your personal character than all of your charity work and well-raised children. You’re either a “loony liberal” (a favorite Talk Radio term) or a “neo-con” (spat rather than spoken). Some have even suggested that if you’re in the middle, you’re a wimp for not having an opinion!

Our major political parties understand this and do everything they can to foment the suspicion and paranoia — making voters afraid will garner more votes than making them think.

Here’s an experiment. Don’t try this at home:

Take a moderate position on the web discussion board of your choice. Avoid insulting anyone or denigrating their opinions. Point out that extreme opinions tend to usually be wrong, and that Conspiracy Theories normally arise from a potent combination of fear and lack of facts. I’m betting you will be mischaracterized, ridiculous strawmen will be erected in your honor (the more reasonable you are, the stronger the pull of strawmen arguments – they gotta find somewhere to gain traction) and you will be personally insulted and belittled by the extremists on both sides, sometimes with the most odious and offensive epithets. You can’t win.

Either you’re for ’em or you’re agin’ em.

Such is the diary of my participation in internet political and religious discussions over the years. I’ve tried different tactics to avoid that final meltdown. But ultimately and sadly, sometimes there are only two choices: either avoid talking politics and religion altogether or distance myself from the idiocy.

People aren’t going to change on my account and I wouldn’t expect that. But I can change myself. I can preserve my own sanity and simply avoid the vexation of coping with mob mentalities. It’s not “running away” – I have never run away from expressing my opinion. But I do practice self defense. In my real world there are far more important things to worry about than arguing with anonymous fear-mongers on my computer.

Civility appears to be a thing of the past. The rise of Fear Politics and the veil of anonymity have turned much of the internet into a blood feud with no winners. Only losers.

June 15, 2007 Posted by | Internet | Leave a comment