Fact, Opinion and Discord

Illustration by Andreea Ilie

…In the post-truth era

It’s no secret: internet discord has become a standard occurrence in the virtual medium, and coming across conversations riddled with insults in your daily scrolling has long ceased to be a matter of chance. One could first wonder if showing little to no consideration for your audience, and writing comments that are condescending, inappropriate, often cruel and rude to virtual strangers could be a necessary evil in the exercise of freedom of speech.

Second, the inability and unwillingness to discern between fact and opinion, and only adhering to the versions of truth that directly mirror one’s opinion is another phenomenon that the internet has brought to light and let it unfold at will. Again, it was precisely its link to freedom of speech that allowed it to remain unchecked for so long, that it translated into socio-political, corporate and individual practice. While allowing and endorsing different versions of truth for every scientific fact may have, at first, appeared to be nothing but a nuisance, it quickly became a real cause for concern- as everything from individual freedom, to global health and wellbeing to the very existence of our planet are now systematically put at risk.

Still, while determining causality in social sciences is a feat in itself -but a necessary one before drawing any informed conclusions- there remain a number of parallels that can be drawn between social discrepancies and people’s tendency to reject objective truth and be prone to inappropriate online behaviour, that could hopefully shed some light on the phenomena.

It seems that internet conflicts are more likely to arise between those whose circumstances have prevented them from speaking freely, because they have been systematically silenced, mainly by history and the present circumstances that arise from it. It could then be that vulgar online behavior is more likely to arise out of severe social imbalance than out of free speech, as the former becomes yet another symptom of the rather significant gap between the top 1% and the bottom 99. Capitalism, after all, has allowed the educated and the elites- not always part of the same category- to engage with high-quality content and shield themselves from the masses, when necessary.

Whatever valuable information, power and ability to understand and control one’s circumstances that the internet seemed to have promised to all, now appears to not have trickled down much, and without surprise. Wealth and wellbeing remain safely in the hands of the few, while the rest are left to battle circumstances they need to escape, if they are to progress. In theory, both categories can access the same information and use it as means to achieve their desired ends, but here lies the trap: only a select few know how to do that.

Frustration and anger naturally ensue, as unfair practices are widely known to ruffle everyone’s feathers and lead to high levels of unrest, both at personal and social levels. As a species, we would have never functioned if we left it unchecked, and we only evolved because we constantly challenged injustice amongst individuals and social groups. There’s little wonder, then, that aggressive online behaviour is a prevalent symptom amongst the disadvantaged, the marginalized or the heavily scrutinized groups and communities, whose voices are never heard otherwise: the very young, the elderly, the poorly educated, the victims of widespread social and political injustice, those who never learned how to communicate because they were never allowed to do so, or those who have simply come from a long line of generations who spoke to an empty audience. They all need to be heard.

We have all been democratically exposed to endless information, true; we were all assured that knowledge is power, and power affects change, but what good is any of that to those who were never taught how to use it?

For decades now, the internet has provided a platform for everyone to wear their hearts on their screens. Many then chose to stand up for global social, political, economic and cultural justice and equal rights, as the only real means to bring themselves and their communities out of the dark. Many fought and lost, even more fought and won. Many, however, as a result of the same social and personal circumstances that fueled the work of social activists, have chosen to limit their contribution to their cause by only expressing their discontent, and in doing so, they left behind all standards of propriety and good taste. They started relentlessly lashing out at perfect strangers who seem to be antagonistic towards their own world view. However, the shock value of things said and done does not necessarily guarantee that people end up being heard, or have their statements valued. The internet, after all, does not guarantee that your message will reach your intended audience, and more often than not, it doesn’t. The right people never actually stop and listen- except for friends and family members who are now suddenly exposed to certain language they never thought you had in you, yet there it is, posted publicly, popping up on everyone’s feeds. Therefore, inappropriate use of language across online media not only does not equate meaningful social representation, but in the long term, it could lead to further marginalization. Hit that report and block button. A harder feat to overcome online, than in real life.

When that is the case, filtering their thoughts and feelings down to rational arguments to present in their interactions is a step that many come to acknowledge as a necessary one to take, yet it is a step that still lays far ahead in their future. They’re just not there yet, and without surprise. So should we all just patiently ride their transition out, devoid of judgment? Still, regardless of the choices we make along the way, to ignore or to respond, to interact or shut ourselves out, it could be that the social risks that lack of critical thinking and involvement in the face of antagonistic actions pose, far outweigh the benefits of our momentary peace of mind.

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It seems reckless, however, to try to understand the reasoning behind internet word battles without first conducting a proper inquiry into the root causes of this phenomenon- other than social imbalance- that has millions ranting away at perfect, often faceless, strangers.

A good starting point in that direction would be looking at the increasingly blurred line between facts and opinions, in what now seems to have become the post-truth era- and this is a practice that is guaranteed to lead to intense frustration on all sides of the argument.

As such, when the distinction between fact and opinion is called into question, as it very often is, insult seems to organically ensue as a form of opposition to criticism; it is often countered with the argument that factual and constructive criticism is nothing but an exercise in being judgmental towards others, personally. Offense is immediately taken. Not everyone can be ‘right’, yet many demand to be considered so, against all odds, and fail to accept an opposing side of their argument. Voices are raised in all caps, many dismissing hard evidence that disproves their point of view and declare their personal beliefs to be consistent with objective reality. They claim that these can be demonstrated to be true, with evidence. However, when the latter is demanded, it is rarely provided; and when it is, it is often unsubstantiated. And when it fails to meet the standards of its own definition, the ones who offer it then respond not by carrying further research on the matter, but by declaring themselves entitled to their own opinion and of living life on their own terms, without interference from external parties or their fact-checking habits- which to a certain extent, many would find unethical to disagree with. It is a statement designed to bring an argument to an end by anyone with an ounce of tolerance, but is it, in fact, ethical to let it rest?

It surely adds fuel to the fire to react, but still, it begs the question: should we allow entitlement to believing and spreading erroneous information as a form of self-expression still go unchecked, even as that invariably leads to actions that negatively impact others, often across the globe? If it weren’t for social regulation and not minding one’s own business at the right times throughout all space and time, coupled with an innate desire for survival, hence progress, would have our species, to the chagrin of Planet Earth, made it all the way to 2019?

If it weren’t for all that philosophical ‘fluff’ that started meekly and then rose to demand better socio-economic and political conditions for all throughout history, we’d still have racism, fascism, abuse and discrimination and hate crimes of all sorts and we’d still be doing each others’ heads in with sharp objects instead of words at the slightest cause of discomfort. We might still be letting our children die of preventable diseases because medicine and hundreds of years spent in research have come to be believed by many to be either a scam, or a massive conspiracy designed to wipe the [constantly growing] human population off the face of the Earth- or both. We might still be resisting all forms of hard evidence. Oh, wait.

Regardless of where we stand, we can always easily fall on the side that history will deem the oppressor’s. But we wouldn’t know that now, would we? We’re then left wondering whether truth lies in hard, demonstrable science, or hard-core conspiracy theories that only superior intellects, devoted to a life off the grid, can access.

To an extent, the conundrum is understandable: relying on the pool of unchecked opinions available on the internet and then spreading these not only as one’s own, but as facts demonstrable by individual or collective common sense, is a reaction to our current circumstances. Many have become so lonely and isolated, insecure, and scared as a result, cast away on remote digital islands, frequently trashed about by a constant influx of information, and making sense of it, learning, and moving ahead takes time and effort. It feels overwhelming just to think of it, and we are not innately wired to take the hard way out, not without a good enough reason and certainly, not without a hard enough push. So choosing the truth -and by extension, one’s perception of reality- that is easier, quicker and more comfortable to grasp, while ignoring anything else that could challenge it, becomes a conscious, safe choice.

We spend a great deal of time alone, save for the company of cheap illusions- the products of an overworked global marketing department and the world’s poor onto which the development of the rest currently relies- all of which can now be accessed for the small fee of an internet connection. We wake up, eat, live, function, pray for and sleep in the company of make-believe worlds populated by next-door neighbourly characters that mimic, but don’t depict, reality. A setup of well-lighted, believable illusions is that which we are drawn to, with which we soon begin to constantly compare ourselves to, to which we aspire to, the only type of existence we come to perceive as real.

We’re constantly being told it should all come quick and be easy and feel downright fantastic- the existence, the self-worth, the strength, the knowledge, the power, the choices, the validation, the acceptance, the comfort, the respect, the companionship, the support, the love, the happiness, the success- oh, the success!-, the fame, the glory of living life as you being you and everyone else taking time to look your way, without the slightest preoccupation other than cheering you on.

We’re not narcissistic, not more than past generations, and certainly not more than we’ve ever been capable of- we’re downright lonely. Painfully lonely. That’s the modern anomaly.  Feeding ourselves illusions is a form of palliative care, it’s the essential oil to our despair, and it’s caught on simply because it’s become the easiest to reach, as we’re being constantly handed it. 

We’ve all reached, at some point, for the ten easy steps that are guaranteed to bring us in close reach of desired outcomes and we almost always end up lost amidst false pretenses. The despair that then arises from not being able to meet these artificial ideas, from feeling you’re always less than, inadequate, unworthy, is understandable, and also understandable is why many, then, resort to taking shortcuts, to knowledge, information, improvement of all sorts in hopes that they’ll meet them. With social status determining educational achievement, and with education laying at the core of one’s ability to exercise critical thinking, the higher the incidence of many coming to reject objective truth, and to refuse to acknowledge anything else that doesn’t come by quick, digital word-of-mouth. They’re tired, too; too overworked to have any energy resources to tap into for extra debate and reflection- that is reserved for the privileged few. To stay afloat, then, many purposefully blur out the difference between fact and opinion until they come to believe there isn’t any, as what else would there be left for them to rely on if the easy way out is locked shut? How else could they hope to matter? How else could they keep going if their entire world view is challenged, on top of keeping a job, paying bills, raising a family, making themselves heard, staying sane in the process?

Enter aggression in speech and manner, a product of all of the shortcuts we take in trying to get a grip on reality.  The want of being more, and the fear of being less-than is palpable, in a world where it seems to be in one’s immediate reach to have a glorious time if you dedicate enough time and energy to adding bended truths to a never-ending fantasy reel, and then spend the rest of your time telling yourself yours is as real as others’ is fake. The 1% is, after all, as out of reach as a trip to Mars- engineered at great cost, and carefully enough so that the majority of the population will never actually be able to make it in a lifetime.

In the face of that, then, many go to extremes to feel validated, ironically, against the standards of the few. In a desperate attempt to find immutable support and confirmation, in times when change can be the only constant, they start defending their own thoughts and feelings aggressively, while positioning themselves at a safe enough distance from physical consequence- so, online. However, there are risks that these actions pose to society at large and we walk a fine line by letting them go unfiltered.  There are people and lives involved, and with all the sadness that may come attached to that realization, it becomes clearer every day that a significant portion of the input of those not sided with progress is nothing more than an array of challenges we, as a species, will collectively overcome, if we are to survive.

One side of this story will be left behind. But history will ultimately decide who’s right and who’s wrong. We don’t have to be around to see it, to decide on it, to feel entitled to have a say in it, for it to happen. It would be grand though if this, too, weren’t another cause for divide, an incentive to step aside and craft more bubbles. It would all feel better knowing that no one will be left counting their toes in the dirt while the rest of the world speeds by- not the direct result of harsh circumstances, but out of the exercise of their own free will, which is right now, sadly, a product of the former. We have to tread carefully if we are ever to move forward, towards an equitable society.

In the meantime, as we are invariably left to peruse a feed of polemics in our daily scrolling practices, we are bound to find comment etiquette thrown to the wind for some time to come. Whatever you’re following and whatever your algorithms may bring your way, across all social media platforms, but most visibly, across social networking, this has become the norm. Hope is not out of reach, though, as it can be surprisingly easy to respond politely and attempt to educate others, whenever we feel that it could be done; even better, we could transfer that wonderful life off our phone screens and into reality, just by making the conscious decision to live it- out there, in the open. Sure, we have to sign up for all the work and time that demands and we’d actually have to meet people and hold whatever arguments necessary face to face. If, however, we just started off by taking the energy we put into convincing ourselves that what is fake is real, and spent it instead on building ourselves up, the process would run smoother than we might think.

After all, the rules that have been written for us to follow do not stand unchallenged; the seat we have been assigned at the table long after history dealt its cards is not immutable. They are all just very well-established, and they won’t simply be shouted out of place. They won’t go away if we just decide one day that we refuse to see them any longer. It will take an incredible amount of hard work, focus, resilience and perseverance, and the vital ability to not lose one’s temper. A commitment to be made by our generation and those to come.