Reading the comments section of virtually any news source on social media is the type of sobering experience that calls into question whether or not this whole human civilization experiment was actually worth it. Reading the comments section of one’s hometown newspaper is even worse, like cringing with embarrassment over a drunk uncle at a wedding reception propositioning all the bridesmaids or a grandparent with full-blown dementia saying horrible, casually racist things at the Thanksgiving dinner table.
I think newspaper comments sections are the primary contributor to what social psychologists call pluralistic ignorance, the inaccurate belief that extreme outlier views represent the norms of the larger group. In other words, when we read the paranoid, provincial ramblings of lunatics on social media, we come to believe that these are, in fact, the views of the majority.
My hometown paper, The Canton Repository, has been running a series of articles about Covid-19 cases in Northeastern Ohio, about the efficacy of masks and social distancing and about the increasing number of cases and deaths in the region now that businesses have reopened. Predictably, the comments on these articles are vitriolic and insane. They include, “Scam scam anything to control us”, “I bet the Electoro-20 Virus vanishes on November 4th”, and “Wearing masks just keeps people from developing immunity to the virus.” When I read this, I have to remind myself: pluralistic ignorance.
As a rule, I don’t engage in debates on social media, but I do do this thing sometimes where I type up a snarky response, sit on it for a few seconds and then delete it without hitting send. It’s not that I’m afraid of debate. I just think the internet doesn’t need yet another aggressive dick arguing about everything. So, the other day on one of these Covid-19 articles with its predictably absurd responses, I typed without sending, “Thanks for your contributions, everyone. This has been another edition of Medical Advice from People with High School Diplomas. Tune in next time as we uncover the truth about vaccinations based on a half remembered biology class from 25 years ago and some shit we read the internet the other day.”
A few caveats here. I’m not denigrating a high school education or diploma. For well over a decade, I have devoted my career to providing a piece of the experience that leads to that diploma. I do see its value. I’m also not saying that people with university degrees are inherently superior to people without them. Or necessarily smarter. I know that brilliant autodidacts do exist. I also know that alternately yelling at one’s own tv and screwing around on the internet for years does not count as being self-educated.
I’m not saying that I know any better about infectious diseases than the guy spouting pseudoscientific stupidity in the comments section of a news article. I mostly likely know more about education than he does. Probably literature, journalism and international travel too. I know more because I’ve devoted the time and deliberate practice to developing some expertise in these areas. As for how to stop a pandemic, I’d guess he and I are equally unqualified.
And maybe that’s the point I’m making. We all need to rely on other people to trust when it comes to topics about which we have no expertise. Even someone ranting about how Chinese 5G signals are going to turn us into subservient automaton hordes after the government tricks us into being microchipped via Bill Gates’s Covid-19 vaccination has chosen to accept someone else’s explanation for what’s going on in the world. Some of us choose to trust medical professionals while others choose to trust internet crackpots.
Of course in reality, we don’t actively choose who to trust as much as we choose who not to trust. That 5G conspiracy theorist’s stance has less to do with an abiding belief in political talk radio hosts or fringe YouTubers than with a philosophical lack of trust of experts and academic elites. Taking a side in a polarized issue is in fact more of an act of opposition than of allegiance. Ideological tribes are formed based on what they reject rather than what they espouse.
For me, it’s much the same. It’s not that I define myself as someone who blindly trusts experts and official explanations by default. It’s just that contrary theories–those proposed by the most obtuse and obnoxious voices on social media–are so much less plausible that I tend to side with the experts. And, often, those contrary theories are shared on social media by some guy from high school I haven’t seen in 25 years.
In fact, I’ve come to call this The Guy from High School Rule, which states: when unsure about a divisive issue, determine what side the guy from high school is on and align yourself with the other. (Note: this rules assumes that every issue neatly lends itself to binary opposed sides. Thankfully, this seems to be exactly how contemporary discourse operates, so the rule often works.) Here’s a recent illustration of The Guy from High School Rule from someone else’s very funny tweet.
More caveats, I guess. Many of the people I went to high school with have grown up to become accomplished, intelligent, thoughtful people. And this has only a weak correlation with whether they have high school diplomas or PhDs. Obviously, The Guy from High School Rule does not refer to these people. It is true, though, that the most small-minded, bigoted, unsophisticated things I read on social media come not from the acquaintances I’ve made professionally or in university but from…The Guy from High School.
A few more things about The Guy from High School. He’s generally politically conservative but not always. Frequently, he still lives in his hometown and his formal education ended in high school, but that’s not always the case either. He’s not even always a guy from high school, and I may not have actually gone to high school with him. What is true, though, is that he’s someone who lives his life in open hostility to contemporary culture and any kind of social progress. He wants disenfranchised people to just get over it. He thinks of political parties like sports rivalries and devotes a lot of time and energy to insulting the other team. Maybe he’s never been particularly political at all, but for some reason he’s come to revere Donald Trump as a deity and savior of the human race. He thinks climate change is bullshit. He doesn’t see the value in being kind or compassionate or care at all about his personal responsibility to not spread a deadly global pandemic within his community. This week, he was up all night on the 4th of July blowing shit up for freedom, much to the annoyance of his neighbors, who he thinks can kiss his ass. And he’s all over the comments section of his local newspaper’s social media feed.
And so, whether I spend a good deal of time reading up on a particular issue or just sort of blindly apply The Guy from High School Rule, I know I’m going to end up on the opposite side of this guy. And, yes, I’m only half serious here about any of this. Some days, the rule feels more applicable than others. When I read my local newspaper’s comment section, it feels like the unified theory of everything.
One of the ways social media has affected us is by providing the opportunity to keep in touch with everyone we’ve ever met. I’m not sure that was ever meant to happen. Maybe we’re supposed to outgrow each other, live separate lives and fondly remember the times we’ve had together instead of having to be disappointed by seeing what our old acquaintances have become.