An argument with people who seem deaf to opposing views, instigating conflict, tribe against tribe, is probably a common experience for social media users. Some believe that it is so common that it should be the subject of a new field of research‒erisology, named after Eris, the goddess of discord in Greek mythology.
The proposal came from Swedish blogger John Nerst, but is also popular among online commentators who believe that the dynamics of today’s debates, and especially that of word wars that are causing real inquisitions in the online world, deserve their own scientific field.
“Erisology is the study of disagreement, specifically the study of unsuccessful disagreement. An unsuccessful disagreement is an exchange where people are no closer in understanding at the end than they were at the beginning, meaning the exchange has been mostly about talking past each other and/or hurling insults. A really unsuccessful one is where people actually push each other apart, and this seems disturbingly common,” says Nerst.
The study of argumentative discussions, of debates, is by no means new. Are online debates so problematic and so frequent that they merit scientific study? Or are we instead guided by what seems to be common and serious? Researchers have differing opinions.
Is there a need?
Emily Thorson, a political researcher at Syracuse University, is not convinced that rude discourse in the online world is such a worrying phenomenon that a new field of study must be invented. “I’d argue that much of the dysfunction we see in online interactions is just a symptom of much larger and older social problems, including but not limited to racism and misogyny. Our time would be better spent addressing those issues”, she says. If this is true, then it would mean that the respective discussions are not dysfunctional, but work exactly according to the purpose of the interlocutors, who tend to not even try to understand each other, but only to impose their own point of view.
What Thorson means is that the Internet as a medium of communication does not change anything in people, who suddenly turn into image assassins and “grammar Nazis,” but only reveals what is already bad in people. Performance artist Marina Abramović showed this in an experiment she performed on herself. In just 6 hours, strangers went from stroking her with a feather to tying her to the table and tearing her clothes in public. Of course, not everyone did that. But the experiment is not remembered thanks to the 99% who stroked her with a feather, but thanks to the 1% who held a loaded gun to her head.
A similar phenomenon is happening in the online world. Many people are silent. They notice and they move on. However, the minority that goes to extremes in such a public way sets the tone. “Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story,” Popular Science magazine said when they announced that they were shutting down the comments section on the website, noting that most comments, especially anonymous ones, undermine the integrity of science and lead to a culture of aggression and mockery that impedes substantive discourse.
From bad to worse
Perhaps the biggest problem with online speech is that, left unsanctioned, it has a contagious effect. In 2012, studies showed that only 13% of Americans had been victims of some form of harassment on social networks, and in 2017 the percentage had already risen to 41%, of which 18% had been subjected to severe forms of harassment. It is not a surprise that 62% of Americans saw online harassment as a major problem of social networks.
This is a problem that needs to be solved in various ways, some more problematic than others. The UK government, for example, has recently launched a public debate on a bill that requires all websites that allow users to create and share content or interact with each other to be, to some extent, responsible for any “potentially dangerous, though not necessarily illegal” speech.
Critics say it is the first attempt made by a government in a country that respects democratic values to censor public discourse. The proposed bill is written so loosely that it would target large areas of the Internet, not just social media platforms, but virtually any site that maintains an active comments or reviews section, from news sites to video game forums. Law enforcement would be extremely subjective since it does not refer to illegal actions according to the law, but only problematic in the opinion of those who would declare themselves harmed. Critics fear that a legislative framework is being created that will limit freedom of expression on the Internet depending on the cultural sensibilities of the time.