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Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Intemperate language on social media can land you in hot water

Last month I wrote a blogpost about incivility and intolerance on social media and the response to that was good. This time, I wanted to talk about a correlate of that: use of intemperate language online. In the earlier blogpost, I mentioned that the most extreme views are the ones that are shared the most. People unthinkingly share tweets and links that contain content that most closely conforms to their own views, and if the expression in them is high-flavoured and persuasive then it gets shared even more.

To illustrate how this can work in real life, though, I would like to point to the experiences of two commentators (Osman Faruqi and Asher Wolf) who complained last week about trolling, threats, late-night phone calls, confrontations in the street, and messages left at doorsteps.

Both Faruqi and Wolf have a lot of followers. Faruqi in the latest case was prosecuting arguments in favour of banning single-use plastic bags in supermarkets. He said early one morning that people had called him on his phone in the middle of the night and said things that had disturbed him. He didn’t know how his phone number had been discovered and shared. Then Wolf entered the conversation and detailed the things that had happened to her over a period of time.

While I in no way condone the types of actions that these trolls are perpetrating in their effort to silence people whose views they disagree with, and think that they are criminals, it doesn’t surprise me that these two commentators would be faced with these kinds of responses from people in the community. The follower count tells part of the story. But the other part of the story is not necessarily what they have been saying, but how they have been saying it. Use of intemperate language might lead to more followers, shares, and retweets, but it will also most likely lead to trolling, threats and late-night phone calls.

It's a paradox. The nature of Twitter itself determines to a certain degree the type of language that is used by people who have accounts. The more high-flavoured and extreme the expressions used, the more likely that other people will reward the author by sharing what they write. This dynamic is pre-determined by the platform’s architecture.

We need a new consensus on the kinds of language that we use on social media. The current method of using strong language, sarcasm, taunts, dismissals, threats, belittlement, and denigration is not working. The result of using this kind of language is that the conversation actually gets shut down before any information can be shared.

Here’s an example conversation that happened recently online. One person put up a tweet that went like this:
FARMERS CAUSE CLIMATE CHANGE! scream people who live in a concrete box, surrounded by bitumen, tearing down trees to plant lawns, letting their animals run wild & killing native animals while eating imported foods & burning coal to power their tv, internet & air conditioners.
I replied to the retweet with this:
Not sure that's an entirely accurate characterisation of the metro-rural divide. One big problem that urban voters have however is the socially conservative positions of National Party politicians, who stand in for people living in the bush, in the public sphere.
The retweeter and I had a bit of conversation, which I won’t relay here, and then I brought to his attention the fact that the ABC’s ‘7.30’ program had aired three special episodes about the drought in rural Australia. I said that this kind of programming helps governments to take steps to give financial assistance to farmers during droughts. He said:
I think you are spot on, that we need to connect rural and urban with stronger links. By articulating different perspectives we can bring ppl together.
Prosecuting arguments using strong and persuasive language is part of the democratic process. Good policy emerges from the contest of ideas in the public sphere. Our leaders in Parliament often use intemperate language when making their points on the floor of the chamber in order to persuade people to agree with them. So we are not given good role models to follow. But I think that the online world is a place where the rules are slightly different from the House of Representatives or the Senate. In those places, there are strict rules and conventions that determine the order in which people can speak, what they can and cannot say, and even whether they can be taken to court for saying things that defame people living in the community. It is a highly artificial environment, but even so the language used there is often unworthy of the nature of the debates taking place.

Online, we only have the dictates of our own consciences to follow when participating in public debates. We are all responsible for the nature of debate. I was reminded of this when I was walking to the city along a busy street in the morning one day recently. There is a bike path where cyclists coming into town from the western suburbs ride. A woman was on the carriageway crossing the street against the signal when a bike approached where she was walking, heading east at speed. As he rode closer, the cyclist yelled out, “Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi!” Each syllable more expressive than the one that preceded it.

I thought it was meaningful that there were nine syllables in his delivery. In English the natural line of traditional poetry has ten syllables, so the number ten has special significance in our language when used for rhetorical purposes. The final syllable was set aside for the physical impact that threatened to take place, or for the thoughts of the pedestrian as she went across the road. When she had got to the footpath unscathed I looked at her. She was well-dressed, had brown skin, and wore earrings and makeup. She could be any woman going to work in the morning and minding her own business. But she had contravened a convention and in fact broken the law.

If we use strong language, then we have to expect that people who disagree with what we are saying will also use strong language. If we are disrespectful, likewise. Discussions can very quickly spiral out of control into a mutual slanging-match. We have to watch our tongues if we don’t want the way we talk to be turned back on us in turn. A corollary of narcissism is violence. (Because it fosters disrespect against ideas, against language, against people.)

I thought about the way social media really looks when I was walking back from the city on the same trip that morning. Near my house is a large construction site bounded on all four sides by streets. The streets are not busy but you still have to watch your step, especially with the noise of the excavation machines working in the pit behind the flimsy plywood fence that has been erected around the building site. A metre beyond where you are walking if you walk along any of those streets, there is a deep pit which is being hollowed out for the purpose of building an underground carpark for the apartment building under construction. But when you are on the footpath you never think of it. It’s still there however, with the machines at the bottom working away to take the floor of the space even lower all the time. You wonder when they will have finished going down.

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