Escaping the echo chamber

Words matter.

Addressing the nation last week during the occupation of the Capitol, president-elect Joe Biden said, “The words of a president matter, no matter how good or bad that president is. At their best, the words of a president can inspire. At their worst, they can incite.”

In The Globe and Mail last Friday, Jana Pruden wrote:

On Wednesday and ever since, finding ways to express what happened and describe the people involved was the subject of much debate and discussion. On social media and in news outlets, the conversations played out in real time.

Were those who stormed the building protesters, insurgents or insurrectionists? A mob? Terrorists? Was what happened a protest or a riot? An occupation or a coup?

Words matter.

Sally McConnell-Ginet, a linguist and professor at Cornell University, is cited in the Globe article saying “Words are weapons, and words are also useful tools. It all depends on what people are doing with them.”

Words matter.

When reading, we need to be able to distinguish between language that is insightful and words that are inciteful. Which words lead to constructive engagement and which words are those that are destructive? What facts are being omitted because they inconveniently don’t fit the narrative being set forward? Which authors are consistently reliable and which ones seem to prefer sensationalism over substance?

For years, I have had a concern about the loss of diversity of viewpoints brought on by digital news agents, serving up stories aligned with what algorithms believe we want to read. The old paper-form newspaper was filled with all sorts of stories, including many that we might stumble upon, having no idea that we might want to find out more about gardening or vacations in a far off spot or lacrosse scores. It seems to me that those who rely solely digital news agents and on-demand video programming are missing the serendipitous discovery of stories and shows that stray from our normal comfort zones.

The day after Trump was elected in 2016, I wrote “Diversity of views”, and observed:

I noticed a tweet that said that no one in that person’s timeline was excited about seeing Trump win. To me, that is a problem. So I replied, saying “I tend to learn a lot by reading things that can sometimes make me angry”

I also said “It is a real challenge when we self select digital news feeds, or get algorithmically selected articles served to us on social media based on what is perceived to be what we want to read. Perhaps the advantage of print media was the enforced diversity of views based on bundles of content including more than what we want.”

I have mentioned before that I subscribe to the Toronto Star, not because I agree with its editorial viewpoint, but precisely the opposite: its political slant can infuriate me. I try to read from a wide range of news sources and opinions; I don’t think enough people do the same. I would encourage you to try to do the same.

Prior to Trump’s election, in August of 2016, I wrote “Reading just what we want or what we need?” In that piece, I asked:

Are our students being exposed to sufficient diversity of views?

How do we encourage reading alternate perspectives, consideration of dissenting viewpoints, and engaging in cooperative dialog?

I get concerned that too many people rely on too few sources, making them susceptible to partial truths and disinformation campaigns. We can easily see it on social media.

Words matter.

As I reflected on the events that unfolded in Washington last week, I tweeted:

In February 2016, I wrote “Is social media better at breaking than making?”, reviewing an article by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times. Friedman was writing about Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian Google employee whose Facebook page was credited with launching Egypt’s Tahrir Square revolution in early 2011, that ultimately failed to provide a democratic alternative. He summarized the key points of Ghonim’s review of the failings of social media as an agent of change:

  • “First, we don’t know how to deal with rumors. Rumors that confirm people’s biases are now believed and spread among millions of people.”
  • Second, “We tend to only communicate with people that we agree with, and thanks to social media, we can mute, un-follow and block everybody else.”
  • “Third, online discussions quickly descend into angry mobs. … It’s as if we forget that the people behind screens are actually real people and not just avatars.”
  • “And fourth, it became really hard to change our opinions. Because of the speed and brevity of social media, we are forced to jump to conclusions and write sharp opinions in 140 characters about complex world affairs. And once we do that, it lives forever on the Internet.”
  • Fifth, and most crucial, he said, “today, our social media experiences are designed in a way that favors broadcasting over engagements, posts over discussions, shallow comments over deep conversations. … It’s as if we agreed that we are here to talk at each other instead of talking with each other.”

As we move into a new year, a new administration in the United States, and the new phase in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps we can all be receptive to a greater diversity of viewpoints, improving discussions, engaging in deeper discussions and conversations. Insightful, rather than inciteful, engagement.

A very large segment of society, in Canada and the United States, holds views that may seem antithetical to your perspectives. How do we discuss issues and constructively work together when such a wide gulf appears to divide us?

Words matter.

I look forward to your comments.

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