Toxic words and political discourse

By | Mar 7, 2017

Anyone who spends time on social media platforms or in the comments sections of any media website has learned that if one expects a civil discussion – better stick to sports. The level of animosity between online political foes has reached almost fever-pitch. Even news stories not directly related to political issues have become fertile ground for bashing President Trump or clobbering Democrats, depending on your point of view.

This verbal punching has gradually become more and more toxic. It’s no longer a matter of disagreeing with – or even arguing with – people who hold different views; political differences these days often deteriorate into name-calling, spiteful remarks and, in some cases, even threats.

Each side could blame the other, but the left has a history of attempting to silence opponents. In the real world, conservative speakers are barred from speaking on college campuses; citizens rallying to show support for the president are physically attacked; Republican congressmen are shouted down at town hall events.  Dare to voice opposition to the leftist world-view, and one is stigmatized as racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, etc. If you speak out against the progressive agenda, you are dumb, stupid, uneducated or all the above.  Also, you are labeled a something-ist, or you’re something-phobic.

It would be disingenuous to propose that no such unbridled hatred existed on the right, but the same level of aggressive confrontation was confined to a, mostly ignorant, minority. Conservatives and libertarians, for the most part, have always been more interested in getting their points across than shutting down opinions from the left.

After years of being maligned, yelled at and told that their opinions are idiotic – if not downright evil – the political right has become almost as bitter and angry as the left. That vast, mostly unregulated and mostly anonymous plain of existence known as the internet is now awash with the hatred of the left and the reciprocal enmity of the right.

The cyber world of political discourse is now a minefield of toxic remarks best avoided altogether by the faint of heart. The problem has become so corrosive that some private enterprises, sensing many are repelled by the tone of discussion, are considering ways to bring back civility.

In the Liberty Nation article, The Silencing of Your Cyber Voice, writer Kit Perez analyses the scope of free speech on the internet and how Facebook – a decidedly left-leaning company – frequently bans or suspends conservatives who speak out against the liberal viewpoint.

Facebook’s approach, it seems, is less about reducing the level of toxicity in political dialogue and more about shutting down one point of view. As Perez correctly points out, however, “Facebook can limit or ban any speech it wishes to – and while some users scream that Facebook violates their First Amendment rights, this is simply not true.”

The point is that the First Amendment protects our freedom of speech from suppression by the government, but not from the codes of conduct devised by any private entity.

Whilst Facebook’s approach to political debate is distinctly partisan; other media entities are working on ways to lower the confrontational tone. According to a report in Business Insider, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRKbeta has devised a method for ensuring that readers understand an article before commenting on it. Would-be posters must take a three-question, multiple-choice test on the content of the article before they can publish their comments.

In the report, a journalist from NRKbeta explained, “The idea behind the quizzes is that if everyone agrees on what an article is trying to say, they can have a more useful discussion about it.” Additionally, the brief time required to answer the questions gives the reader time to calm down from “rant mode.”

NRKbeta says this approach has already made its comments sections more civil.

Meanwhile, Alphabet – the parent company of Google – is developing a more hi-tech solution to online harassment and abuse. Through their tech incubator, Jigsaw, they are working on a project currently called Conversation AI. According to Jigsaw’s website, this artificial intelligence learns

…how computers can learn to understand the nuances and context of abusive language at scale. If successful, machine learning could help publishers and moderators improve comments on their platforms and enhance the exchange of ideas on the internet.

While this type of computer-driven approach faces massive obstacles in understanding the nuance and context of language, an effective – and unbiased – filter may reverse the trend of ever-increasing unpleasantness across the cyber world. The current toxic atmosphere of ideological debate helps no-one and could perhaps use some objective filtering.

 

(Source: The Liberty Nation, March 7, 2017)

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