The Real Problem of Social Media Discourse

It's not the falsehoods coming from a minority. It's the bad taste of the majority.

If you think that the problem with discourse online is the way that it allow falsehoods to spread, think again. Even if you could somehow purge social media of every lie, it would still be a sewer. Twitter, Facebook, the New York Times, and Fox News are outrage machines. The articles and posts that attract approval and sharing are those that make people in one tribe feel more reassured that the other tribe is evil.

I believe that media corporations could improve discourse if they wanted to do so. But I fear that Peter Coleman is correct (in this conversation with Jonathan Haidt) in pointing out that the feeling of outrage actually stimulates a pleasure center. It is addictive in that sense, and a media business model that relies on maintaining people’s attention will cater to that addiction.

There is a less tribal way of approaching political conflict. Psychologist Jonathan Baron calls it actively open-minded thinking. It is a cognitive style that assumes that one can be wrong. One carefully examines evidence as well as divergent opinions that might contain information that could lead one to doubt one’s view. It is the style that good scientists bring to their discipline, collectively if not individually.

Actively open-minded thinking is what Julia Galef calls “the scout mindset” in her book of that title. She contrasts scout mindset with soldier mindset. A scout tries to form an accurate map of the territory. A soldier tries to defend territory.

When it comes to beliefs, a scout is trying to arrive at accurate beliefs. A soldier simply presumes that his beliefs are accurate and then proceeds to defend them at all cost.

If you are in scout mindset and someone challenges your point of view, you try to understand what the other person is thinking. You try to follow the logic of their position. This is known as cognitive empathy.

If you are in soldier mindset, you try to dismiss the motives of anyone who challenges your point of view. You convince yourself that the other person is trying to achieve some selfish objective, such as gaining power over others.

Could Twitter or Facebook analyze politically-freighted posts to determine whether they follow scout mindset or soldier mindset? I am pretty certain that this is possible. My experience with the Fantasy Intellectual Teams project is that there are intellectuals with scout mindset on both the left and the right, and that one can find them engaging in discourse that earns points in our scoring system: playing devil’s advocate; putting odds on propositions; pointing out caveats to their viewpoint; engaging in substantive debate (not shouting matches or ad hominem attacks); raising ideas that stimulate discussion; showing a willingness to change one’s mind; evaluating research critically, not simply citing studies that support one’s point of view; and steel-manning the other side, trying to articulate and respond to the strongest arguments against one’s point of view.

Based on this experience, I believe that it would be possible to train an artificial-intelligence system to distinguish scout mindset from soldier mindset, just as Gmail has learned how to filter out spam. Twitter or Facebook could train a computer system to filter out nasty political rhetoric. Fox News and the New York Times could have computer editors that reject stories that press the outrage button while being uninformative or misleading.

But, again, I do not believe that these organizations have the incentive to change. Our best hope is that other media rise to displace them.