Saturday, May 16, 2015

Confirmation Bias and Social Media Debate

As many of you know, I am a huge baseball fan. As a result, I regularly have conversations about baseball on Twitter as well as discussions about education. Today, one of my discussions with a noted baseball writer became contentious to the point where the person with whom I was having the discussion, decided to mute me. NOTE: The responses I sent to him may not be seen on our timelines since I have been muted. If you are interested in some of the responses, let me know. Some of them still appear in my notifications.

While I do have strongly held beliefs on a lot of things, I am not used to being muted, which is essentially a unilateral decision on Twitter to end the conversation and any subsequent communication. In the course of trying to debate some points on baseball, I was also subjected to some very condescending posts through the process. This experience has got me thinking about the nature of debate in the Internet age, education, and faith.

As I think about what just happened, here are a couple lessons that may be useful for all of us:
  1. TRY TO TAKE THE HIGH ROAD. One of the posts sent to me said this: "Reading comprehension a problem?" This is one of four similarly dismissive statements sent my way. It is easy to want to let my sinful nature take over and to generate a snarky and offensive response. Quite frankly, I felt like name calling, but I tried to be disciplined in taking the high road in the conversation. I think I succeeded as I attempted to keep the conversation on the facts being shared. Keep in mind that not everyone else wants to take the high road. With only 140 characters per response it can be difficult figuring out who does and who doesn't, making it easier to get sucked into an unhealthy exchange.
  2. IT IS EASY TO DISMISS SOMEONE WITH WHOM ONE DOES NOT HAVE A PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP. The danger of when an online discussion becomes contentious is that it feels like it doesn't matter if one returns an insult with an insult. I have had some detailed discussions about other baseball issues with Lutheran education colleagues. However, it is easier to want to maintain a level of respect because we have a relationship. With someone I do not personally know, it is more of a temptation to slip into simple insult, a temptation I was thankfully able to avoid in this situation. While I don't often see this in baseball discussions, I see this in political rhetoric all the time, which is likely one reason we remain so divided as a country. We have no qualms about insulting others with whom we do not have a relationship.
  3. ADMIT THAT YOU DON'T KNOW IT ALL. There were a couple times in the conversation where the other party made a point with which I disagreed. I was essentially accused of confirmation bias, only using those sources that support my own pre-held beliefs. We all do that to some degree, so I asked repeatedly for the sources the other party was using. Help me understand your side, I requested. Unfortunately, I never received any sources from the writer. None of us know it all. We all need to be as open to new learning as possible and to analyze both sides of an issue. A corollary to this is to ADMIT IF YOU ARE WRONG should that clearly arise. That is very difficult to do, but that also ties to the idea of taking the high road.
  4. YOU WILL NEVER FULLY UNDERSTAND WHAT IS HAPPENING WITH THE OTHER PERSON. I clearly touched a nerve with my challenges to beliefs that I felt were untenable. When we were in the midst of the conversation it was difficult to focus on anything other than the ideas that I thought were incorrect. However, after the discussion ended, I started to wonder about the other party. What is going on in their life? Is their hostility the result of some life situation? Thinking further, I might have a student in the classroom that lashes out at something I say. But is that student dealing with an issue of which I know nothing? Perhaps their parents are going through a divorce. Perhaps a pet died the night before. Who knows what it might be. Clearly there are opportunities for me and others to take a step back and to be more compassionate and Christ-like, both in the classroom and online.
  5. WORK TO DISCERN WHEN A CONVERSATION IS NO LONGER PRODUCTIVE. This is a real art rather than a science. Unfortunately, this discussion continued beyond the time that it was productive and I did not recognize that. I was attempting to have the other party share resources that supported his side so I could learn more about the opposite perspective. In the end, the writer did not want (or could not) share these resources. For the future, I need to do a better job of discerning when to move away from the discussion.
The percentage of Internet time spent on social media is growing. As a result, we have the opportunity to connect with others and the challenge of consistently doing that in a God-pleasing way in an environment where there are many temptations to stray from that path. In the end, my conversation today likely did not serve to build the Kingdom. While I tried to take the high road throughout, the inability to identify a good time to move on was not helpful. Perhaps the list above may assist each of us in our own social media usage and as we help our students navigate this digital age.

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