How social media makes things worse.

A little ways back, I decided that I would try my best to fight misinformation on the Internet. I just found too many people who I respected just off-handedly sharing one piece of information or the other with a tag line “so true” when in fact, it had very little truth about it.

Often, it puts me in a very difficult position. Let me provide an example. Consider this article by Matthew Yglesias from vox.com. In it, he decries “white on white” violence as a retort to Joe Klein’s assertion in Time that “Blacks represent 13% of the population but commit 50% of the murders; 90% of black victims are murdered by other blacks.” Looking at the same statistics Yglesias found that 80% of white victims are murdered by other whites, and felt that this was an ideal time to point out how biased we are when we look at crime statistics.

Racial bias is an empirical fact, as is racism. But unfortunately, Yglesias’s claim that “white on white crime” is a problem is not a fact.

When you look at a statistic and want to decide whether it’s a problem or not, you need to compare that statistic to what you would reasonably expect given the context. For example, if you wanted to see if a coin was biased towards “heads,” you might flip the coin 10,000 times and see what happens. You would expect a 50-50 outcome over time. If the coin showed 80% heads, that’s strong evidence that the coin is unfair.

The mistake Yglesias makes is in assuming an expected value of 50%, which is not the case for race in the United States. If a group of future murderers (any race) were tracked, we would expect the proportion of white victims would be close to the proportion of white people in the population. For the United States, that expected value would be about 72%. I won’t go into whether an 80% result is statistically significant or not. In general, a good amount of social behavior is homophilous, meaning that like tends to want to hang around with like. While it is not a problem if people marry inter-racially, it turns out that, in general, people marry someone of their own race. Given that many murders happen at home, we would expect some level of homophily in the result. This could be because of racism, preferences or both, (likely both), but in the end this white-on-white crime scenario is not so far from the expected value that it represents a serious social problem.

On the other hand, given that the population of black people in the US is 13% and black on black crime is 90%, this is very strong evidence that black people are disproportionately killing other black people. If we were to assume that the white-on-white crime scenario was caused by generic homophily, then this suggests an extreme case that might have other causes beyond simple homophily.

The problem, of course, is that a radical right-wing racist interpretation of these statistics could be that Black people are inherently dangerous because they are black. It is possible, even by pointing out the faulty statistical interpretation by the vox article that I could be tacitly supporting these racists.

It is not as if others like Tim Wise haven’t already covered these interpretations in great detail all ready. On the other hand, it would be naive to think that anyone reading the Internet is going to go through the data, or even bother to read the entirety of Wise’s take-down of the extreme right-wing view.

On the other hand, the 90% black on black violent crime is about as solid evidence as you can get that institutions in the United States are heavily stacked against black people. It’s not just that, but also that rather than face the reality of this dire inequality, we’d rather share stupid, half-factual memes than work to resolve the problem. It is a difficult and controversial question to decide whether the benefits of sharing the statistics because it could result in judiciously increased support for African Americans would be outweighed by the use of such a statistic by racists to support their racist ideas. We also would have to consider the impact of sharing the statistic on the level of trust African Americans would have for their political institutions.

But, when we share something with a “so true” what is it that we actually mean by this? Well, I think it has something to do with what is symbolically true, rather than empirically true. For example, if you ask someone “do you believe in equality?” They’ll probably say “yes, absolutely!” But then you can ask them: “great – then how should be divide this pie that i baked?”

Deborah Stone covers this topic in detail in her amazing book Policy Paradox – The Art of Political Decision Making. Under highly politicized circumstances, dividing a pie is no easy task. You could say “all equal” but that fails to take into account that someone paid for all the ingredients and did all the work to make the pie. If they made the pie, maybe they should be able to decide how it gets divided. What if someone is gluten intolerant and can’t eat the pie? Do they get none, or should they be given the right to sell the pie to others in order to buy some cake, but the others have nothing but pie to offer. So maybe our pie maker should forget about making the pie and just give the ingredient supplies to the others. But there’s no guarantee that the others have the skills and abilities to make pie and cake on their own…

There is, of course, no correct answer here, and at the end of the day, someone is going to be upset. The best we can do, is provide reliable and trustworthy information to the group to show that we’ve done our best to try and be as fair as possible given all other alternatives currently available to us. But there is power inherent in what “problems” we decide to focus on and how they are framed (eg. maybe this is a pie productivity issue rather than an equality issue).

But to not frame the problems would create even worse outcomes. Left to our own devices, we are more likely to find ourselves in the clutches of tyrants, not less.

But there is one outcome worse than doing nothing: that is spreading incomplete or untrustworthy information. If we continue down the road of “gotcha” talking points, the end result will be polarisation and conflict. The only thing worse than an unequal distribution of pie is a mass war over the pie – that will only result in people getting hurt and the pie likely being destroyed.

In short, it behooves us to think closely about the information we share and how we present it. Some will say “but then you just have tone policing.” Well, no. If you only have a symbolic argument and you state it in ways that denigrate others, I think it’s quite justified to ask the person to calm it down. If the tone of an argument is a barrier to understanding, in particular because it gets in the ways of understanding the intricacies of the issue, then yes tones should be policed. Although perhaps time and place are considerations. There is a reason I have left this topic until well after the Ferguson protests, for instance.

2 thoughts on “How social media makes things worse.

    • Thanks for the vote of confidence. It’s horribly unsettling to try and make a point these days, and not just because perhaps there will be repercussions. Of course I would not want to give racists and homophobes a line on which to cast their hate. On the other hand, I am not sure that spreading ineffective counter-arguments does any better.

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