August 17, 2015

Online Activism, Framing, and the Guilt-By-Association Fallacy

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 5:51 pm

If you’ve spent any time at all looking over political blogs, political debates on social media, or online comments for political articles, you will have noticed a type of argument that is repeatedly made by both left and right.  It goes something like this:

“You’re arguing for X [relatively mainstream opinion with which I disagree].  The person/group Y argues for X, but they also argue for Z [non-mainstream, politically extreme or fringe issue].  Defend that!”

If that sounds like a fallacious line of argument to you, you would be correct in thinking so.  It is a named informal fallacy, guilt-by-association.  In this instance, it is used in a twofold way:  to dirty both the debate adversary and the mainstream issue by associating them, respectively, with a radical entity and a fringe cause.

As I said, I’ve seen this done time and time again by both sides.  It is occasionally called out when one party is on the ball and recognizes the fallacy (whether they associate that term with it or not). That doesn’t necessarily mean that the person making the fallacious argument is going to back down, of course.  As social science studies into the topic are increasingly finding out, ideology trumps logic and empirical evidence in, well, pretty much everyone, if allowed to.  It can happen with any kind of ideology—political, social, religious, anti-religious, or intra-disciplinary (such as taking a hardline position on a controversial topic in a science—as a scientist).  Unfortunately, most of the time that this fallacy is called out in an online debate, the person using the fallacy only doubles down on it.  The usual gist of the doubling down is something like, “I don’t care if you don’t agree with view Z.  It’s still your side!”  –Sometimes with the pivot of “Why don’t you agree with view Z?  Not progressive/conservative enough?”  Which is a dodge from the original debate, but one that puts the attacker at a clear advantage if the opponent takes the bait, since doing so requires the opponent to defend himself instead of sticking to the topic.

However, more often than not, the guilt-by-association fallacy is not called out.  The debater confronted with the guilt-by-association fallacy who doesn’t recognize it will feel compelled to defend another member of his own “side.”  Humans are a deeply tribal species, another social science finding that I have long suspected to be true.  We are driven to defend “our own” against “the other.”  I rather suspect, in fact, that the social media use of the guilt-by-association fallacy is a contributing factor to the radicalization of the left and right in American politics.  People who, before the rise of Facebook and Twitter, would not have been adherents of fringe views—seeing such views as, indeed, fringe, and feeling no obligation to defend them—are now being put on the spot by aggressive online “activists” who have access to search engines and networks of ideologically oriented websites that sometimes even list pithy, fallacious “talking points” for online political brawls.  They are being compelled to view people as part of their “tribe” whom, in the past, they would not have, and are acting accordingly.  Eventually, some of them do come to agree with the fringe views simply out of a sense of maintaining solidarity with one’s “team.”

That brings me to my final point, and it is, to me, the most disturbing one.  I don’t think that the “masterminds” of such tactics sites care that they are encouraging anti-intellectual forms of debate.  I certainly don’t think they care that they are contributing to political radicalization.  I remember a number of years ago, when this type of online activism was first coming into its own, how the concept of “framing” exploded in the political blogosphere, and they were very open about what they were trying to do.

It was not the smooth marketing of “real” politics (not political campaigning, mind, but rather, deal-making and persuasive lobbying among elected officials and interest groups).  In that environment, people are generally wiser to fallacious arguments.  Half the people there, if not more, have legal education.  In fact, I am pretty sure that this is why horse-trading does exist.  To get something done with a truculent would-be ally, one must promise something tangible or concrete, or make an objective-sounding argument for why they should sign on.  Fallacious appeals to emotion won’t cut it.

No, this “framing” that burst on the online grassroots scene around 2007 or so is something quite different from that.  The point of it, as its originators proudly state, is deliberately to appeal to emotion, including the emotion of revulsion for an opponent because of guilt-by-association with a more extreme opponent.  It is to take advantage of a widespread lack of critical thinking or logical analysis, and to play off the most primitive evolutionary parts of the human brain.

If this were the only way to get things done in politics, then it might be justifiable.  But the fact is that this is not the case.  In reality, this type of politicking is responsible for the rise of polarization and the inability to get anything done now, because it discourages people from stepping out of their reactionary knee-jerk “lizard brain” responses.  I don’t see that it benefits anyone at all, except perhaps the PACs and firms that thrive on the ability to present their political opponents as crazy inhuman aliens who cannot possibly be reasoned with.

I’ve said before that I consider this type of populism to be anti-intellectual in the extreme.  This is, by now, a running theme of this blog.  Here’s yet another bit of evidence for it.

March 20, 2009

Our Privacy Wasn’t Taken. We Gave It Away.

Filed under: Other,Sci/Tech — PolitiCalypso @ 10:08 pm

For several years, the government and private businesses have been increasingly invasive of personal privacy, giving regular people fewer ways to avoid the eye of Big Brother without dropping off the grid entirely and living in a cabin a la the Unabomber and other hardcore Luddites. Things came to a head during the years of the Bush administration, which of course ran an illegal spying operation on the entire American public, conducted through the phone companies and Internet providers, most of which were all too happy to comply. The Democratic Congress later gave this repulsive program the official sanction of the law, effectively rewriting FISA to give the executive branch unparalleled authority to order such spying, and also giving immunity to the companies that broke the law. But at the time that massive domestic spying was being presented openly as anti-terrorism policy, polls revealed some astonishing—and utterly disgusting, in the opinion of this civil libertarian and First and Fourth Amendment near-absolutist—results. Substantial percentages of Americans actually thought that “the First Amendment went too far” and bore revision. A majority would rather have the government tell them they were secure from the terror threat (and such meaningless assurances are all that could ever be provided, of course, unless the government has developed time traveling technology and can see that no attacks occur in the future) than be assured by enforceable law that they could conduct private conversations with other people across any medium. This domestic spying policy was being debated when I was an undergraduate in college, and the college newspaper regularly ran op-eds by students—students!—apparently so terrified of the possibility that terrorists might decide to nuke the appropriately named Starkville, MS, that they said they were willing to let the government see their personal correspondences if it might prevent that. “I have nothing to hide from them, so they can see everything if they want to.” That was the phrase of the day, a statement that also contained a subtext of terrorism accusation towards those civil libertarians who opposed Big Brother.

Although technically among the very oldest members of Generation Y, I went to college mostly with members of Generation X, and that generation is much less libertarian than mine. I recognize that the era of irrational post-terrorism paranoia also influenced how many people thought. However, the seeds for this invasion of privacy were sown for years before, and they continue to be sown now. (Read more…)

January 25, 2009

The Big Surprise: The Blog Has Moved

Filed under: Other,Sci/Tech — PolitiCalypso @ 9:51 pm

And so this is it. This is the big change to the site. The blog has moved, and its appearance now reflects that of the main page. I am also using a different blogging engine, the excellent WordPress.

There are multiple reasons behind each decision. Why did I move, first of all? Well, the main reason is that the purpose of this blog is going to be somewhat different for the foreseeable future. When I started it, I had a professional reason to be as active as I could in the “blogosphere,” particularly the political sphere. I needed a blog that was separate, visually and technically, from my personal hobby site. I needed my “activist identity” to be separate, at least in name, from my personal diversions. However, things are different now that I don’t work for John Kerry or MASSPIRG. My vision for this blog is a more personal, eccentric, interest-oriented one, a blog that has no need to adhere to a strict update regime. If I don’t need full separation anymore, why have it?

Why the uniformity in design? Mainly because I like the effect, and I’m capable, as a CSS nerd, of pulling it off. It bothers me aesthetically for a website to have pages that look vastly different — for each directory to have a completely different color scheme, layout, font choice, etc. It looks amateurish, in fact, and likely is a sign that the webmaster does not know CSS. No way am I going to be guilty of that. As a developer, I feel it would be laziness on my part not to attempt something I was capable of doing and that appealed to me.

Why the switch in blogging engines? This relates to the first Q & A. My old engine, Serendipity, worked quite well, and I have no major complaints with it. It has scads and scads of plugins, and I’d recommend it to anyone who wanted a big blog with tons of features. My reason for the switch was twofold: I found it personally easier to work with WordPress’s themes, and moreover, Serendipity was much slower than WordPress, for me. Evidently the reason for this is some questionable decisions made in the coding of it. When I have a look at the databases’ schemata for each blogging engine, I realize it’s no wonder that S9Y is slower. But, again, that’s not a slam upon that software. It’s just a recognition of the fact that it no longer served my needs, and WordPress did.

So this is why I’ve made these changes.

Now what’s going to happen going forward? Well, there are still some things I’d like to work on, perhaps. I would like to have some level of synchronization between my main RSS feed and the RSS feed for this blog, and I may write something to accomplish that. I’m also quite likely to write a script to keep my main links page in sync with the links on the blog’s sidebar. And, unfortunately for the would-be squatters, the politicalypso domain will still point to this blog.

Speaking of which, the old links will remain operational until July 6, 2009. At that point the old system will be taken down. If you have specific blog pages bookmarked, I strongly advise you to relocate the pages and change your links. After that date, any old links will simply redirect to the blog’s front page. already redirects here, and on that date, the “redirect” page will be taken down.

In view of this, I’ve made it easier to find Katrina-related content (I have reason to believe that most bookmarks are for these pages) by creating a category called “Katrina.”

There are still some kinks to be worked out. You’ll notice that the tags from Serendipity have NOT been transferred over yet. They will be, but this is very time-consuming work, and it may take awhile for the tagging to be complete. Bear with me, and thanks for reading.

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