The Polarity of the Internet

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In today’s The Straits Times, Rachel Chang comments about “the power of the Net to polarise”.

She cites the examples of how vocal people on Facebook and their blogs, who have publicised their political views or displayed their political affiliations, have been slammed and harasssed online to the point that one such blogger stopped writing. The empowering voice of the Internet appears to work like a double-edged sword, threatening to slit the throat of the person wielding it in the face of the majority or the powerful.

It scares me sometimes how polarised views on the Internet can get. There does not seem to be room for compromise or discourse, it is very much an “us against them” game in terms of opinion rather than the moderated views across the spectrum. Chang quotes Cass Sunstein of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for his view that people who “interact with others who share the same views… tend to become more extreme”. Of course, “the opposite is also true”, but at least looking at some of the incidents Chang has had to cover for The Straits Times, it appears as if the former applies more than the latter.

I can very much feel for myself this polarity when I visit The Temasek Review. It is considered a source that is less influenced by the government (as opposed to The Straits Times, which some may deem to be a government propagandist body) but I am seeing quite a lot of critical anti-government writing. Ever since I started visiting this website, my rosy views about the govenrment have been somewhat tainted, not in a bad way. At very least, I feel as if I am considering other non-governmental viewpoints that might reallly be the voice of the people and not just what the government feeds to us via the press. It is scary, however, how netizens slam each other for their views, be it pro-PAP or anti-PAP. It is rather heartening that there is much debate about Singapore’s future, and by and large discussion there is rather measured. It can get disturbing when emotions are flared up, as I notice in this write-up. I dare not express my views on this website for fear of being flamed to death by both pro-PAP and anti-PAP netizens.

Democracy… certainly brings about a cacophony that needs to be understood and tolerated, for all in the society to benefit. Hopefully with all the debate online and offline, people will come to a better understanding of what they want for their society. And it must mean dangerous times if arguments on the Internet spill over into real life and disrupt society.

So in essence… take heed online.

And just like Chang, I must add the disclaimer that I expect people to “shoot me nasty, unsigned email messages after reading this column”, if only just to pre-empt comments considering the nature of my writing.

6 Comments

  1. oneiros says:

    I think, the more appropriate term for the phenomenon is “ghettoise” and not “polarise” – although there is a high level of correlation between the two.

    “Chang quotes Cass Sunstein of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for his view that people who “interact with others who share the same views… tend to become more extreme”. Of course, “the opposite is also true”, but at least looking at some of the incidents Chang has had to cover for The Straits Times, it appears as if the former applies more than the latter.”

    As you have mentioned – the internet offers multiple viewpoints on a particular issue – but people tend to (un)consciously look out for viewpoints that correspond with what they feel should be the case. In so doing, they tend to form “closed communities” trading ideas of the same political slant.

    I disagree, however, that it ends there – given the openness of the internet – you’ll notice more arguments (like yourself) outside the common ones that dominate theonlinecitizen, or temasek review. Two particular examples: yawningbread and cherian george?

    That being said – I don’t think of polarity as necessarily bad – with time, people who argue for a particular stand might improve in their rigour in spotting arguments in their favour (dexterity of thought?) and hence become more “extreme” in identifying situations (however trivial) that are symptoms of bias in society. Bad arguments will, (hopefully) with time, become known for their lack of rigour and discarded.

    I dislike your partition between online and “real” society though. We must not always expect debate and reason to always appear in the “civilised” fashion we’ll like it to be. That the internet is viewed as “dangerous”, while silence in society is viewed as “peaceful” is myopic in nature.

  2. Kevin says:

    English Language is somewhat polarizing; it has the tendency to dichotomize ideas and the vocabulary is somewhat bulkier on the extreme ends of any sort of spectrum. And the bulk (in fact almost all) of the stuff you’re reading online is in English so contributes to part of this. Besides, when people are giving just small comments here and there, they can’t make elaborate arguments and will tend to provide their opinions in limited, more extreme vocabulary.

    I believe meaningful arguments online are usually balanced and not so extreme. For those who are becoming more extreme thanks to clustering of people with the same ideas – shame on their pathetic denial of the other poles in nature…

  3. Wei Seng says:

    Yeah I need to qualify my statements about the Internet as dangerous and polarity as bad.

    With regard to the former, while silence in society might be “peaceful” I certainly do not think that that is a good thing. I rather cherish the opportunity to debate and argue, and what I mean by dangerous is when the war of words spill over into violence, as opposed to verbal debates. No doubt civility is hard to observe in conflict but I would think it is certainly preferable to physical tussles or worse still outright war.

    As to differences in opinion being bad, I cant beg to differ more. As much as I may appear to have authoritarian tendencies, I am one who would prefer differences in opinion be voiced out and debated rather than suffer in silence and hence create the impression that there is no different in opinion. I do believe in the diversity of opinions and I hope it can be done as much as possible in less-dangerous ways.

  4. oneiros says:

    Wei Seng, I’m glad you clarified! Regarding mobilising social unrest in the form of physical violence, Daniel little has many articles here, here, and here. I’ll just point out one:

    “We might speculate, then, that unrest is most likely to occur and spread when there is an abuse that affects a large number of people; there is a generally shared understanding of the nature of the abuse; there are effective local activists capable of arousing the indignation of the rank-and-file; there are accessible communication vehicles permitting the spreading of messages of dissent; the population has a tradition of activism; and the state’s managers are ineffectual in damping down the occurrences of protest. These conditions appear most favorable for the dissemination of unrest.”

    Kevin, I believe you’re referring to George Orwell’s essay on “Politics and the English Language“. Daniel Little, again, has more to say on the matter:

    “These examples make it credible that there are in fact alternative conceptual beginnings from which we can analyze the social world. What does not seem to be true, however, is the idea that these beginnings are incommensurable. Instead, it seems persuasive that ideas and statements that originate in an ontology of social wholes can be effectively restated in an ontology that originates in a world of individuals; likewise, materialist and ideological approaches to the social world seem compatible and mutually constructive rather than contradictory and incommensurable. The dichotomies considered here are not exclusive or incompatible. In fact, any adequate explanation of a social process or outcome is likely to need to refer to both sets of categories. And this implies something very similar to the position Strawson and Davidson arrive at: the idea of inter-translatability and mutual comprehension across these large conceptual divides.”

  5. Wei Seng says:

    BTW oneiros your hyperlinks to the articles in your latest comment are not working. You wish to post them again?

  6. oneiros says:

    oO you’re right – all the links (on mobilising social unrest) available here

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