Aaagh! Someone is being annoying on the internet
The struggle to resist 'educating' people who don't think like me is REAL
Try stepping back from trying to win arguments with facts and look instead at the cognitive processes and curious dynamics of our fraught relationship with 'truth'.
It's easier said than done.
Every controversial issue is a black hole with an irresistible graviational pull on my opinion.
But that way madness lies. Those pesky other people are invariably just too stupid and misinformed to share my opinion, no matter how aggressively, snarkily, politely or articulately I try to persuade them.
Take the Covid vaccines...
I did. Both jabs. But that's not the point here.
So, it’s a lazy Sunday morning and I'm grazing content on LinkedIn. There's a post from a Covid vaccine sceptic who appears to be worried about all the usual things that a certain type of person seems to worry about; the type of person who is generally disposed not to accept the consensus on the seriousness of Sars-CoV-2 or the efficacy and safety of the vaccines. The vaccines that we know are working. See? I can't resist weighing in with my opinion.
Type of person is the salient phrase above.
This is because the more I read about personal belief styles of any sort, the less convinced I am that we have all that much control over them unless we really examine our process for adopting an opinion. In other words become mindful of what goes on in our thoughts when confronted with someone else’s thinking.
I keep reading and hearing that the nature vs nurture debate in relation to personality is largely settled. The scientific consensus seems to be that what matters most in personality formation is how we're constructed and not how we're brought up. Or even the environment we grow up in.
So there seems to be a prima facie case to suggest that, for example, I'm fully vaccinated because that's the type of person I am. I trust the sort of people it feels right to trust. My peers tend to be quite similar in this respect. Ultimately, my personality and cognitive traits predispose me to being ok with hosting a spike protein from Pfizer. It's much less about intelligence than 'the sensibles' like to think. You know, the sort of people who love to nit-pick and logic chop to find holes in any argument, the conclusion to which they reflexively want to resist. You might be one yourself. I have long form for this too.
I notice that the information journey I took before making the very easy decision to get vaccinated asap was less sophisticated than the research phase I undertake when buying, say, a new piece of musical equipment. If I said that I’d weighed all the evidence on Covid vaccination I’d be lying. Really, it just seemed like a better option than dying or having long Covid and I happily jump in a car that, statistically, I might be killed in any time. So the risk seemed acceptable, when small numbers of people were dying from blood clots and so on. I’d go so far as to say it was a no-brainer. Ironically true, because I burned less brain energy on the question than I do when planning what to buy at the supermarket.
I certainly didn't read any of the scientific papers produced around the vaccine development or testing. After about a year of Covid-19 news I grew impatient with most media coverage. It was largely being produced for clicks via emotive headlines. I then outsourced my fact-checking to Zeynep Tufekci, who was reading the papers and correcting frequent media misapprehensions about them1. (This raises another topic around the problem of expertise and trust. There will be a separate discussion of this in a future Rarely Certain, hopefully with a brilliant guest contributor some of you may have heard of).
But back to LinkedIn and the post in question. The one that makes me desperate to react with a comment. To educate this f*****g idiot and his f*****g idiot followers.
It's a picture of Chris Whitty. He is the UK government's former Chief Scientific Advisor and now Chief Medical Officer for England and Chief Medical Advisor to the UK government.
The poster has captioned the photo with the fact that Whitty has no children. The author is (rhetorically) asking his audience if they would accept medical advice for their children from a man who has none himself.
Lots of people are agreeing that Whitty's childlessness is salient to his advice that children be vaccinated against Covid-19. They reason that Whitty therefore has no skin in the game if the vaccines turn out to harm children and (as the poster says in reply to someone else) is inevitably less concerned than parents about ‘the future’.
My internal reaction is visceral. This post is stupid. Bad faith. Irrational. Potentially harmful.
It's also weak reasoning. It's inviting us to hold people to an impossible standard. The urge to reply 'do you ever take a flight with a childless pilot?' is among early contenders cascading through my head.
But then I stop. And instead I start digging around the source material I've been collecting about our predispositions to certain styles of thought.
I wonder whether this person is no more able to account for his beliefs than I am for mine.
I ponder the wisdom of boosting his stupid post (yes, I'm totally judging it, whether he can help himself or not) with a snarky reply. Because social platforms like LinkedIn are prone to thinking that high engagement equals high quality content and therefore push it to the attention of more people. If I reply, it will help to make his post more prominent. I don't think it deserves to be boosted at all.
I wonder whether to report it to LinkedIn as misinformation or otherwise harmful content. But no laws are being broken and I'm tired of people policing other people’s speech, so I don't.
It's just a stupid post that has got me riled up.
This is as much about me and the environment in which content like this appears as it is about the original post author. It is playing to a dynamic about which I have come to feel very suspicious. It's a dynamic which trades on outrage and the attention we pay to things when we are emotionally triggered in the way that this post is emotionally triggering me.
And it also plays to a worry I have about censorship, especially by social platforms that appear to me to have no coherent standards on freedom of expression, what constitutes disinformation, misinformation or 'hate speech'.
Then the post disappears. I wonder if the guy himself (he's called Pierre Lawrence and he's the director of a computer consultancy firm called Corkz Ltd, which checks out as apparently real) deleted the post or if LinkedIn removed it. I message him to find out.
I never hear back because, a short while later, his profile has disappeared. Mr Lawrence is no more, at least on LinkedIn.
All of Mr Lawrence's posts had been of the Covid/Vaccine sceptic variety. I'd had enough time to skim through them. They were all annoying to me. But a significant audience had been engaging positively with them. I'd seen nothing that broke any laws. Which kind of annoyed me a bit. He was just sharing opinions. But now his opinions have been disappeared by a social platform. I'm left wondering yet again about the power of organisations like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to determine which opinions are allowed or not. This question used to seem so simple, when I was extremely ideological. Of course there were opinions that were so dangerous (even if they were lawful) that the best answer to them was deletion.
A friend later suggests that there may be commercial reasons for LinkedIn's action against Pierre Lawrence (or Jean-Pierre Lawrence, as he is registered in his directorship). For example, perhaps pharmaceutical companies and the recruiters that serve them are big advertisers on LinkedIn. Fair play. In fact I'd call that fairer play than LinkedIn simply deciding whether or not a view was 'acceptable' or not. Let's not pretend these are anything other than commercial entities, however 'sociable' or chatty they feel to us as users.
But there's a but. Which is about the optics of this.
If 'big pharma' money holds that kind of sway, it plays neatly into the hands of the people who complain about the ethics and influence of pharmaceutical companies. And if ordinary people who disagree with certain opinions are able to swamp a social platform with enough complaints that someone else ends up barred from its spaces, that also plays into the hands of people who claim to be victimised for their 'heterodox' thinking. Little by little they increase their standing as 'heroes' in a valiant struggle against orthodoxy.
It seems to me that there is no possible win here for any of us. Except, perhaps, for the platforms themselves. In this instance, LinkedIn benefited from all the attention that Pierre Lawrence was getting. It was keeping people engaged and feeding the numbers that LinkedIn shows to advertisers. And when it became inconvenient, they stopped it.
I’ve written to LinkedIn to ask about this, because I'm curious. I'll update this piece with any reply that comes back.
We can always comfort ourselves, when deletions like this happen, with the thought that bad content that could influence other people was removed, thereby decreasing the amount of bad influence in the world. Is that how you feel about it?
How would you feel if, somehow, the orthodoxy was that Covid vaccines are an unknowable future risk and you were posting about how safe they are - and then you were banned from LinkedIn?
Saying 'that's false equivalence because I'm right and the Pierre Lawrences of this world are wrong' rests on a presumption that you're right, so try not to pull that one as an argument. It's an opinion. Like his. We'll only know at some point in the future whether it’s broadly true.
Factor in the apparent skew on our personal belief orientations that nature gives us - and that we can't help what we think perhaps unless we closely examine our belief systems - might there be a tiny grain of discrimination here? But...the sort of discrimination most people think is fine.
I don't know. The point isn't whether or not Pierre Lawrence was wrong.
It seems more interesting than that. For example, once I got over my outrage I was much more interested in the effect of his post on me, than the actual content of his post. And I'm more interested in what it means for all of us when certain opinions or words which break no laws are removed from public view.
I still think the post was stupid. Because I'm the sort of person who would think that. But I don’t think the post was wrong. It was just an opinion.