I recently participated in a meeting of computer scientists where the topic was ”fake news”. The implicit assumption was that ”we will do this tool x that will show people what is false information, and they will become informed.”
However, after the meeting I realized this might not be enough, and in fact be naïve thinking. It may not matter that algorithms and social media platforms show people ’this is false information’. People might choose to believe in the conspiracy theory anyway, for various reasons. In those cases, the problem is not the lack of information, it is something else.
And the real question is: Can technology fix that something else? Or at least be part of the solution?
The balanced view algorithm
Because, technically, the algorithm is simple:
- Take a topic
- Define the polarities of the topic
- Show each user an equal number of content of each polarity
=> Results in a balanced and informed citizen!
But, as said, if the opposing content is against what you want to believe in, well, then the problem is not ”seeing” enough that content.
These are tough questions and reside in the interface of sociology and algorithms. On one hand, some of the solutions may approach manipulation but, as propagandists could tell, manipulation has to be subtle to be effective. The major risk is that people might rebel against a balanced worldview. It is good to remember that ’what you need to see’ is not the same as ’what you want to see’. There is little that algorithms can do if people want to live in a bubble.
Introduction. Here’s an argument: Most online disputes can be traced back to differences of premises. I’m observing this time and time again: two people disagree, but fail to see why that is, although for an outside it seems evident. Each party believes they are right, and so they keep on debating; it’s like a never-ending cycle, and that’s why the online debates to on and on to ridiculous proportions. The media does its best to aggravate the problem, not to solve it. In similar vein, newsfeed algorithms are likely to feed into polarization. I propose here that identifying the fundamental difference in their premises could end any debate sooner than later, and therefore save valuable time and energy of the participants, and save the society and individuals from much chagrin.
Why does it matter? Due to commonness of this phenomenon, its solution is actually a societal priority; we, the society, need to teach especially young people how to debate meaningfully so that they can efficiently reach a mutual agreement either by one of the parties adopting the other one’s argument (the ”Gandhi principle”) or quickly identifying the fundamental disagreement in premises, so that the debate does not go on for an unnecessarily long period, wasting time and causing socially adverse collateral damage (e.g., group polarization, increasing hate and bad feelings).
In practice, these nice principles seem to take place rarely. For example, changing one’s point of view and ”admitting defeat” is extremely rare if you’ve looked at online debates. It is almost dominant that people stick to their original point of view rather than ”caving in,” as it is falsely perceived. A good debater should give credit where it is due: the point is to reach a common agreement, or agreement of disagreement, not winning. The false premise of winning is the root cause of most adverse debates we see taking place online.
While there may be several reasons for not seeing the other party’s point of views, including stubborness, one authentic source of disagreement is the fundamental difference in premises. Simply put, people just have different values and worldviews, and they fail either to recognize that or to respect this state of reality.
What does that mean? Simply put, people have different premises, emerging from different worldviews and experiences. Given this assumption, every skilled debater should recognize the existence of fundamental difference when in disagreement – they should consider, ”okay, where is the other guy coming from?”, i.e. what are his premises? And through that process, present the fundamental difference and thus close the debate.
My point is simple: When tracing the argument back to the premises, for each conflict we can reveal a fundamental disagreement at the premise level.
The good news is that it gives us a reconciliation (and food for though to each, possibly leading into the Gandhi outcome of adopting opposing view when it is judged more credible). When we know there is a fundamental disagreement, we can work together to find it, and consider the finding of it as the end point of the debate. Debating therefore becomes collaboration, not competition: a task of not proving yourself right, but a task of discovering the root cause for disagreement. I believe this is more effective method for ending debates than the current methods resulting in a lot of unnecessary wasted time and effort. In addition, the recognition of fundamental difference is immune to loss of face, stubborness, or other socio-psychological conditions that prevent reconciliation (because it does not require admittance of defeat, but is based on agreement to disagree). Finally, after recognizing the source for the fundamental disagreement, we can use facts to evaluate which premise is likely to be more correct (however, facts and statistics have their own problems, too, e.g. cherry-picking).
The bad news is that oftentimes, the premises are either 1) very difficult to change because they are so fundamentally part of one’s beliefs that the individual refuses to alter them even after shown wrong by evidence, or 2) we don’t know how we should change them because there might not be ”better” premises at all, just different ones. For example, is it more wrong or right to say ”We should help people in Africa” or ”We should first take of our own citizens”. There seems to be no factual ground to prioritize such statements. Now, of course this argument in itself is based on a premise, that of relativity. But alternatively we could say that some premises are better than others, e.g. given a desirable outcome – but that would be a debate of value subjectivity vs. universality, and as such leads just into a circular debate (which we precisely do not want) because both fundamental premises do co-exist.
In many practical political decision-making issues the same applies – nobody, not even the so-called experts, can certainly argue for the best scenario or predict the outcomes with a high degree of confidence (for example, economists have known to be wrong many times and contradicting one another according to their different premises about how the economy works). This leads to the problem of ”many truths” which can be crippling for decision-making and perception of togetherness in a society. But in a situation like that, it is ever more critical to identify the fundamental differences in premises; that kind of transparency enables dispassionate evaluation of their merits and weaknesses and at the same time those of the other party’s thinking process. In a word, it is important for understanding your own thinking (following the old Socratean thought of ’knowing thyself’) and for understanding the thinking of others.
The hazard of identifying fundamental premise differences is, of course, that it leads into ”null result” (nobody wins). Simply put, we admit that there is a difference and perhaps logically draw the conclusion that neither is right, or that each pertains the belief of being right (but understand the logic of the other party). In an otherwise non-reconcialiable scenario, this would seem like a decent compromise, but it is also prohibitive if and when participants perceive the debate as competition. Instead, it should be perceived as co-creation of sorts: working together in a systematic way to exhaust each other’s arguments and thus derive the fundamental difference in premises.
Conclusion. In this post-modern era where 1) values and worldviews are more fragmented than ever, and 2) online discussions are commonplace thanks to social media, the number of argumentation conflicts is inherently very high. In fact, it is more likely to see conflict than agreement due to the high degree of diversity, a post-modern trait of the society. People naturally have different premises, emerging from idiosyncratic worldviews, values and personal experiences, and therefore the emergence of conflicting arguments can be seen as the new norm in a high-frequency communication environments such as social networks. People alleviate this effect by grouping with likeminded individuals to get psyhochological rewards and certainty in the era of uncertainty, which may lead into assuming more extreme positions than they would otherwise assume (i.e., polarization effect).
Education of argumentation theory, logic (both in theory and practice), and empathy is crucial to start solving this condition of disagreement which I think is of permanent nature. Earlier I used the term ”skilled debater.” Indeed, debating is a skill. It’s a crucial skill of every citizen. Societies (and social networks) do wrong by giving people voice but not teaching them how to use it. Debating skills are not inherent traits people are born with – they are learned skills. While some people are self-learned, it cannot be rationally assumed that the majority of people would learn these skills by themselves. Rather, they need to be educated, in schools at all levels. For example, most university programs in Finland are not teaching debating skills in the sense I’m describing here – yet they proclaim to instill critical thinking to their students. While algorithms can help in feeding people balanced content, the issue of critical thinking is not a technological but a social problem. The effort of solving it with social solutions is currently inadequate – the schooling system needs to step up, and make the issue a priority. Otherwise we face another decade or more and more ignorance taking over online discussions, making everybody’s life miserable in the process.
More writings in English.