There are several milestones I like to celebrate that others just don’t notice. For example, the discovery of a whole new Sci-Fi creation, like the graphic novel Saga, or the creation of the ultimate granola bar. (Chili Dark Chocolate, as if you all didn’t know.)
This week I am celebrating a whole different type of a giant leap for mankind: the perfect Facebook fight.
Facebook, like other forms of social media, is famous for people taking shots at each other. Studies have even been formed to help figure out why we are so quick to get so animated when we have a computer between us and the other person. I have encouraged certain clients of mine to avoid Facebook altogether, since they have a propensity either to start something or get involved in whatever fights are already going on. I have worked with many young people who find themselves within an hour of Facebook-ing being told things like “I hate you,” or “You should kill yourself.”
A LOT of people have adopted the policy of never reading the comments following a link, article, or meme. Not a bad goal, but I find myself unable to turn away. For me reading the comments is like taking society’s temperature. It tells me how many red-hot jackass areas we have at any given time.
At least I tell myself that, when the little voice in my head tells me that I need to read the comments or somehow, somewhere I will miss some type of game-changing content. It’s a sickness everyone, please help me.
Luckily this time my weird impulse led me to the perfect Facebook fight. The fight was perfect in two ways: it showcased how quickly things can go off the rails, AND demonstrated the traps of web-based communication, especially in terms of web-based dickishness.
Here is what happened:
(I should add that I will be altering a few details, and not including any of the FB users’ identifying information. I don’t want to commit any web-based dickishness of my own).
I read an article about a group of Americans somewhere flying the confederate flag at some event, because people are often the worst. Not a bad article, but also not a new subject. I actually read a lot about race relations, and I didn’t feel that this broke any real new ground. So, of course, I gave in to my compulsive need and did a scroll through.
Someone made the following post:
My great-great-grandfather fought for the confederacy, and I can honestly say that I have NEVER considered that flag to be a part of my heritage. It is just a racist emblem and we need to let it go.
Once again, nice but nothing shocking. There were the expectable responses, cries of agreement mostly. Then, five or six responses into the thread, I found this:
Why don’t you just go get a swastika tattooed on your face as well? Don’t you realize that they stole that emblem from Buddhisism, you uneducated fool.
(I should add that I am changing a few items of language in these posts)
Five or six unrelated responses later, the Original Poster (OP, y’all) fired back at the angry thread jumper:
Why don’t you and your hillbilly friends go and make love to each other while flying your confederate flags in you beat up old truck, you toothless hick.
Around this time, dear alert reader, you may be picking up on what I was seeing.
You are a piece of excrement, just another racist good old boy.
That’s right, these two dudes were in total agreement, and still grudge-threading like nobody’s business.
I’d like to see racist piles of garbage like you rounded up and sent to their own country.
This continued for around 7 back-and-forths, getting to the point where they were calling each other Nazis. It was probably just barely shy of threats of physical violence when a third person:
I don’t know about everyone else, but I am sure enjoying watching (tag second guy) and (tag OP) agreeing without realizing it.
This triggered guy #2 to swim back upthread and read more carefully the comments he had been responding to, because a few miutes later he wrote:
Oops. Sorry dude, it looks like we agree.
OP came back with:
No worries Bro!
All was immediately right with the online world again, and no one had to think about this ever again. Except for us Over-Anlyzers. That wonderful other compulsion of mine kicked in, and I started to ask myself: How does this happen so quickly? How do things go off the rails this quickly?
It happens all of the time, just not always so dramatically and well preserved. It is actually well within the realm of human nature. This FB argument reminded me of some things I picked up in research classes that I was academically constricted to take.
When psychological researchers plan studies to learn about the way we do things, they are always worried about a dynamic called confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is what happens when we look for a specific result, one that we expect to find. This expectation can be so strong that we look until we find evidence to support it, exaggerating what we find. Sometimes we can even manufacture the evidence, or misinterpret the data. This is often an unconscious reaction, one that we don’t even realize we are doing. Every word in this sentence links to articles & studies about how this is a thing. Some of them are pretty cool, for you Easter Egg hunters.
This has horrible ramifications for scientific study, which prides itself on objectivity. The desire to avoid this bias is what led to techniques such as the Double-Blind study, in which many of the people recording or interpreting data are not told what the goal of the study is.
Confirmation bias is what makes you fight with your partner, because you knew “what they were going to say anyway.” It can make you avoid a job interview, break up with someone prematurely, or cancel plans with friends. It can make you avoid starting new exercise or health regiments.
Confirmation bias is the reason why these two dudes, even if they are usually even-keeled polite sorts, went poop-flingingly crazy 2-3 comments into an online chat with a complete stranger. It is why we all do the same thing sometimes.
It is the reason we don’t read an entire post before reacting to it. Our expectations of how people will react are so strong that we often start to prep before posting. Keep this in mind the next time you read the OP comments in anything shared that is the least controversial.
In fact, something like 60% of shared articles on Social Media have never been viewed by the person sharing them.
Being in a hurry can escalate it. When arguing, especially online, we are eager to get in that next jab, to challenge their rebuttal, or get to our next witty anger. This leads us to make quick decisions about what we will say. Quick decisions are not always good decisions. I’ve written recently about making poor decisions while in our fight-or-flight mode.
One of the reasons that this is my favorite Facebook fight is that the two posters calmed down as quickly as they had ramped up. Deep down most of us don’t want to be the more effective online dick. When given the opportunity, these two guys were happy to notice that they didn’t need to fight.
Notice when it happened. When the third party pointed out what they were doing, they took the time and put forth energy into evaluating what was happening. Louise Rasmussen, a writer for the website Global Cognition, argues that while there is no real cure for confirmation bias, you can reduce it’s power over you by looking at things with more flexibility. The more all or nothing we are on a topic, the more we will fall into biased thinking.
This is also the key to short-circuiting confirmation bias in communication. You take the time to read, listen, and think about what another person is trying to communicate. Maybe even ask a few questions for clarity. Maybe you will find out their opinion makes more sense to you. Or maybe you will find out that you agree with them a lot more than you thought.
Maybe a LOT more … c’mon guys … Nazis?
Photo: Getty Images