Why is online conflict so much more disruptive of organising?

I’ve written a good deal about the positive organisational opportunities created by social networking. Here I’m going to look at one of the strong negatives, the intensification and deepening of conflict as a result of online disagreement . This results in fracturing movements even resulting in people unable to be physically in the same space as each other, never mind work together in a sustainable way.

This piece has been written over many months, and I’ve delayed publication at several points to avoid what I’m saying being mistaken for a specific commentary on the latest flare up. Take my references here as being very general and drawn from a long exposure to political discussion on and offline. I’ve been arguing with people online since 1992. Where I’m referring to specific incidents I’ll make that clear, otherwise I’m talking about patterns I’ve observed rather than specific incidents. This is defientley not about you, dear reader even if I hope its relevant to you.

Supposed opposition to ‘toxic’ online discussion been a focus of a lot of left & feminist writings over the last few months, but mostly from a perspective of trying to firstly blame and then exclude the ‘other side’ of various disputes. The ‘nostalgic left’ has attempted to simply pin the blame for the toxicity on ‘the intersectionalists.’ I’ve argued this is often a dishonest method of indirectly trying to undermine the ideas of that new left through attacking the methodology of a few not very representative people.

The outcome of toxic blame game approach has been to accelerate the formation of groups in hostile opposition to the ‘other side’ and deepen divisions. So if the genuine intention is to create a better atmosphere for discussion within a movement, the blame & exclusion methods of the ‘nostalgic left’ are entirely the wrong way to go about it.

This isn’t, in other words, a piece specifically about ‘call out culture’ at all. I take into account some of the theoretical insights developed around that but its a very much more general one about disagreement on the left, including those sections of the left that are hostile to modern feminism. The left has been subject to vicious infighting long before Marx referred to Bakunin as “a monster, a huge mass of flesh and fat, [who] is barely capable of walking any more. To crown it all, he is sexually perverse and jealous of the seventeen year-old Polish girl who married him in Siberia because of his martyrdom”  The online manifestation is not in itself qualitatively worse than the flame wars that once required putting pen to paper and waiting weeks between exchanges.

Where we came from

People falling out, in politics or elsewhere, is not a new problem. As long as humans have been running around we have probably had enormous interpersonal arguments. 30,000 years ago hunter gather groups probably fractured over whose turn it was to gut the mammoth. Perhaps what really makes us unique amongst life on earth is our ability to have deep, complex disagreements around not immediately present issues and then develop these and communicate them over time and space.

Human culture is in part defined around the possibility of two people who have never met being able to instantly hate each others guts over events that happened before either were born in a land neither have ever visited. OK thats too harsh, love is as important if perhaps often less acceptable to talk about in left political spaces. But for the moment I’m going to make a crude argument for the usefulness of hate. Hate can’t be viewed simply as a negative, it is for instance what enables me to be instantly hostile to a Swedish nazi and to organise with others who share that hostility. Sometimes we can’t all just get along.

That’s an extreme example, and one where extreme hostility serves a useful function. But what I want to write about here are the opposite cases - the ones where broadly speaking we are on the same side but where major disagreements over differences create a situation where it becomes hard to work together. These sorts of disagreements are very, very common too - in western cultures they are probably quite central to the process where we define who ‘we’ are in our teenage years. The human experience includes the ‘I hate you, I hate you, I hope you die’ screaming arguments about cleaning your bedroom that are often then stepped back from, healed and forgotten through complicated personal and groups interactions.

This doesn’t make such anger a mistake. Very often the only way to be heard, particularly if you are in a marginalised position is to be angry. Many teenagers start to carve out their seperate identity through expressions of anger as attempts at parental control that they no longer consider appropiate.

Speaking up for the first time at a political or organising meeting can be very scary, in particular if what you want to say goes against what those with power in the room are saying. My experience of my initial involvement in radical politics was that sometimes it was only through becoming angry that I could find my voice at all and on many axis I’m privileged rather than marginalised. Even after over 25 years I sometimes find this when I’m in an unfamiliar setting. Lenka’s piece on anger & marginalisation in ‘Intersectionality, Calling out & the Vampire Castle’ provides a useful commentary in that regard.

Left argument

These arguments become more complex when we move beyond small groups of people living together and where they become both less trivial and often more abstract. The divisions of the 20th century left for instance can be crudely said to be based around the years from 1914-1928 when sections of the European left made one particular decision rather than another on the exact nature of the Soviet Union. Newcomers often wonder aloud why everyone can’t simply get along while oldtimers get involved in the latest heated fight about whether Cuba is a deformed or degenerated workers state. Long before the internet or intersectionalisty appeared on the scene these arguments often became so toxic that they resulted in physical conflict and death.

In other words this is not a new problem for the left. Bitter arguments about the exact name of the Cuban state formed very real barriers to organising solidarity long before anyone went online. Indeed in many ways the pre-internet left was far less capable of working together despite disagreements, differences leading to actual physical conflict seem to have been much more common in the pre-internet decade that they are today.

Going online

However online communication has introduced a number of additional complexities that tend to both make the impact of disagreement more hurtful and patching things up afterwards more difficult. Regardless of the right or wrongness of people on either side of disputes this is having a major impact on our ability to organise. There is no simple cure, people are not going to stop having arguments on Facebook or denouncing others on Twitter. But if we are self-aware of what the additional difficulties are we can accelerate the process of developing a collective culture that takes these into account.

Why do we need to do this. Why not simply go ‘fuck ‘em’ and reach for the block button? Generally because we need solidarity, numbers and resources to win what we are fighting for and defeat what we are fighting against. We need to maximise co-operation and minimise hostility in order to organise. “Fuck ‘em” as a casual individual decision made in anger needs to examined and considered again and again in the light of what we want to win.

That’s the context in which its useful to individually and collectively understand why online disagreements seem to have a much bigger impact on organising than what went before. Specifically what are these additional difficulties which online disagreement creates?

1. It’s hard to gauge online when the words we use are causing real immediate hurt. If I’m sitting in the same space as someone else there is a large range of visual and auditory cues that I can use to moderate and qualify what I say. I can also often tell when someone is taking a different meaning from my words than what I intended in speaking them. And those in the room with me, watching a conversation unfold, will be more inclined to intervene to reign me back or suggest a time out period is taken.

Online we have none of these indicators. In fact the lack of these sorts of feedback results in us escalating our words in order to make it clear that this is something we deeply care about. Perhaps at a subconscious level we read the lack of expected feedback as a need to increase the force we put behind the words we use because we presume the other person fails to understand how we feel.

2. Mood does carry online. We can’t see that the other person can tell our words are angry. But those on the receiving end often can and this does trigger the emotions that probably evolved in part for feedback purposes. When they feel that emotion but far from that moderating our words we escalate them (because we don’t see that feedback of the hurt caused) that’s going to intensify their response. Which will make us angrier in turn for the same reasons. Perhaps this is why online arguments quickly become polarised to the point that those on the other side are not just wrong but are seen as terrible people.

What’s worse is that preliminary research on how moods expressed online transmit to others seem to indicate that anger is more influential than joy or sadness on Twitter style networks. This would seem to confirm my own anecdotal experience that people I know watching an angry argument on Twitter or Facebook tend to take a side and become angrier in turn in a way I haven’t observed with the same people when we share the same physical space.

It worth mentioning here that although these feedback mechanisms exist in physical spaces they don’t exist equally for everyone. They will be strongest for homogenous groups that share a common culture and life experience. Someone from outside, in particular someone who first language is different to that being used may already be at a very significant disadvantage at reading mood, particularly if the rest of the group is homogenous.

In that sense a significant advantage of online discussion may be that it might actually reduce the impact of marginalisation on people who are ‘outsiders’ in any particular context. A common observation even as long ago as the early 90’s was that on the internet people couldn’t as easly judge you by who you ‘were’. You could choose to present yourself in a way that didn’t make some or all of the reasons why you might find yourself margainalised in physical spaces obvious. There are lots of pop journalism articles that related different ways those perceived as women rather than men and vice versa are treated in online forums.

3. It’s hard to get away. In physical space situations a conversation that reaches a certain intensity of anger will often result in people storming out of the space that it is happening in. They may then avoid that space / those people for considerable periods of time, perhaps permanently. In situations where that is not possible (e.g. work) the result will often be either a formal or informal intervention to sort out of smooth over the conflict.

This doesn’t happen so much online. Internet forums do occasionally build to a critical mass of anger that sees a group depart and set up their own forum. Normally that’ss a good thing as the disadvantage of splitting numbers is balanced by the advantage of restoring functionality to the twin sets of emerging conversations.

The particular problem of Facebook

But things don’t work that way on Facebook. There isn’t really an alternative because Facebooks attraction is that it’s where you hang out will all your friends, relations and that random new person you fancy from last weeks party. That makes the costs of walking away completely to get away from those you are fighting with very large, people do try but often they get pulled back within a couple of weeks.

Facebook does provide the nuclear option of the blocking tool or the simpler one of unfriending people but in big rows which result in a lot of people ‘picking sides’ this can simply mean that while the original primary instigators opt out of contact the topic of conflict reignites with other people who have picked sides during the course of the original argument. Something as simple as a brief minor reference to a months old row can see it explode once more.

The blocking tool has disastrous consequences when it comes to using Facebook as an organising tool, and very frequently these days it is used that way informally if not formally. Conversations and even events become invisible to some participants in a way that may not even be obvious to them but when discovered reignite old rows once more but in new circles.

4. Online is now the real world. I’ve used ‘physical space’ or even the old cyber punk ‘meat space’ above rather than the common but misleading ‘In Real Life / the Real World’ expressions. Those expressions had a meaning a decade or more ago when few people used the internet but today they are misleading when most people have some form of access.

This in itself presents the problem of further excluding those who do not, in particular when they are a small minority in a movement where most have access. The internet has meant that leaderships can no longer monopolise information and communication in a way that was once extremely common. But it hasn’t and probably can’t create a level playing field where everyone has equal access.

I was first seriously exposed to internet arguments in the early 1990s. Back then it was very unusual to even know what the internet was, it was populated by some students and tech workers - and there weren’t many tech workers back then. We had huge arguments on USENET alt.society.anarchy but they were huge rows between me sitting in Dublin and some guy in Indiana. We had never met and we were unlikely to ever meet - for the curious he went by the handle DanceswithCarp.

It was in fact very exciting to meet ‘someone off the internet’ at events like 10 Days that shook London (in 1994 ) or Zapatista encounters ( 1996 ). So distinguishing between our online world and ‘the real world’ made sense, they were two completely separate spheres of people and you had to go out of your way to get them to cross.

Now while we still have those long distance people to argue with our online arguments are now often most intense with people in the same city who we know from campaign groups, social centres and political organisations. Facebook is very much the real world if the people you have a furious online argument with on Sunday are the people you will see at a protest or campaign meeting on Monday. And if the result of that argument is that you feel unable to attend that meeting then you really can’t get much more ‘real world’ than that.

5. We no longer slowly drift apart. After secondary school I lost contact over a span of five or so years with almost everyone I knew there. This was pre internet and partly driven by an almost fatal fight at a party after our exam results came out. Until a short few years ago it was the case that if your interests or opinions started to diverge drastically from former friends or comrades alongside that divergence you drifted out of regular contact. Their new opinions might make you really angry if you heard them but you were unlikely to hear them

Facebook changed that. Different people use it in different ways but almost no one maintains a friend limit below the 150 it is thought to be possible for our brains to maintain ‘real relationships’ with. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar's_number Instead each year we tend to accumulate additional friends and generally only purge old ones in pretty extreme circumstances. Which means lots of people we probably no longer are talking to are getting regular updates of our cat photos and political opinions. And those people will be close to other friends of ours and may have come to be hated by yet other friends, quite possibly without us even knowing. This is a very explosive mix when heated disagreements emerge.

6. Bystanders get sucked in and judged. Political disagreement offline tends to happen with quite a small cast arguing the point and watching. So serious relationship damage is confined to the few who are arguing. With online arguments very much larger numbers can become involved and many of them may not realise how bitter the argument is becoming. With arguments that turn really nasty people will be remembered and judged not only for what they write but even for the simple act of clicking Like under what others have written.

7. It used to be quite easy to create and maintain several different public personas. We might have one for family, another for work, a third for friends and then yet another for our political circle. Unless you are very restrictive about who you accept as a friend on Facebook you can’t really do the same online, you are forced to perform all these in the one space.

It’s very unlikely that we will know what the reality of work & family spaces are for our political Facebook friends, or that they will know ours. That means there are going to be additional forces at play in determining their response if we choose to challenge them on their profile rather than our own. And likewise I will have costs others will be unaware of if they challenge me on my own profile. Both will be completely invisible in a way that, for instance having my family members in the same room as me at a meeting would probably not be.

8. The lengthy monologues. In online discussions we get to talk over people without limit. If you are in a physical meeting everyone else in the room is probably not going to sit through one 10 minute, 1200 word rant never mind several. Online you can do that over and over, perhaps without even reading, never mind understanding the clarifications and points that have been published when you are hammering away on your latest devestating comment. This is pretty much the opposite of effective communication which is instead based around really listening to someone else's perspective, understanding it, and responding.

I’ve deliberately stayed away from what sort of issues people fall out around. For the purposes of this discussion that doesn’t matter - what I write above will apply to the most pointless argument about the right way to style a poodle as much as the political issues that drive us (apologies to Poodle fanatics). An uncle recently had a huge falling out in his choir, at least partially driven by the sort of things I outline above.

I’m also not dissing anger as such here - I think there are major issues with simply framing anger as the problematic element, for a longer discussion of why see that Vampire Castle piece . The problem with the non-specific framing I’ve used above is that its very easy to see anger as the problem because we can’t see the cause of the anger and consider how legitimate that may be. We can’t see that anger may be necessary to be heard above the existing relationships of privilege, maginalisation and power.

But that doesn’t absolve us from the need to recognise, as humans have evolved to do, the huge burden the expression of strong emotions including anger can place on group stability. I’m also suggesting that burden is greatly increased because of the lack of expected feedback we receive when we are angry online. It is that element above all that we need to be very self-aware of and consider how to offset.

If its the case that the heat of an argument online is going to stop or limit the ability of people to work together in campaigns than we have to be very sure that heat is worth while when we choose to express it. We need to avoid the default ‘anger is an energy’ setting that only looks at whether or not it feels good in the moment to be angry. The problem in saying this though is who is this ‘we’ I’m talking of and who gets to make such judgements? Very often those who complain most about online anger are those with the most power, people who not used to others being able to speak back to them.

Those who have power in particular situations can afford not to be angry - the power they have means that all other things being equal they are likely to get their way because they will be listened to. Those who are marginalised on the other hand may never really be ‘heard’ except when their words are illuminated by the force of their emotion.

We have to look at the relationship of power involved. Anger directed down at those who have less power in situation is almost always going to be both illegitimate and counter productive. Anger directed up at those with power will in many cases be the only way that those who are ignored draw enough attention to get listened to rather than not even noticed. That means a willingness by those with power in such a situation to be willing to receive and even learn from anger without retaliation in kind. The exact opposite of the far too typical ‘don’t you know who I am’ reaction that those with rank in a particular situation often exhibit. Lastly someone who is marginalised in one situation may have power in another.

The most difficult situation to judge in this regard is also perhaps the most common one, the dynamics of peer to peer anger where there are no consistent imbalances of power within and across the group involved. I’d suggest that here too the use of online anger should be limited and carefully thought about. It shouldn’t be excluded but it should be delayed and shifted to offline facilitated situations built around obtaining useful outcomes.

Doing it

How do we shift online discussion culture towards those objectives. Well the good news is that it may not be that difficult. Online anarchism suffered badly from what were called ‘flame wars’ but it turned out it was easy enough to stop these through simple transparent protocols that people who used such spaces were expected to follow. This was fiercely controversial at the time - we had to construct new spaces like the Organise list to allow this to happen. But the result was not only the ending of flame wars but creating and maintenance of a number of projects of international co-operation. Similar methods were used for indymedia.ie which is probably why it remained useful years after most of the ‘say what you like’ indymedia’s had sunk beneath the weight of racist, sexist trolling. This wasn’t done through the creation of ‘free speech’ zones free of anger but almost the opposite, by banning marginalising behaviours directed at those with less power, in particular racist or sexist slurs.

That works for formal spaces we control collectively but it doesn’t work for Facebook and Twitter where the corporations get to decide what is and is not permissible. Neither are going to provide the tools need for self organised autonomous groups to agree and implement rules & procedures for discussion outside the very narrow spaces of FB Groups. Which are in any case are required to have hierarchical administration structures. We can and do develop our own tools but these tend only to be useful as spaces for already well established circles of organisers & activists. The power of Facebook for organising is precisely the power to quickly bring new people from observer to participant to activist to organiser without having to teach them how to use technical communication tools.

Within these limitations there are two things that can be done
1. Groups can ensure that their informal use of Facebook as an organising tool is formalised with collectively agreed rules & procedures to handle disagreements and ensure discussions remain visible to all.
2. Individuals can deal with strong conflict through more nuanced tool than the blocking one. This is complex because the nature of Facebook means many people use it as a very personal space for sharing family photos and relationship updates as well as a political space. If you have very little time for someone it’s easy to see why you wouldn’t want to share personal information with them. But if you are both working around the same issue from a similar perspective than blocking them will be pretty disastrous for such work.

Unfriending them is one solution if your own posts tend to be friends only, a second is to use Facebook’s Restricted list tool as any ‘friend’ you add to that will only be able to see your public updates and anything you choose to tag them in.

But what is more important is recognising that many online disagreements are actually not trivial but very important and so that rather than being silenced they should be brought off-line, brought into physical space where many of the disadvantages outlined above are counter acted. Humans are meant to have strong, heartfelt and often angry disagreements as part of our decision making processes. Their existence is not in itself a problem, indeed an insistence on cold rationality and emotionless discussion may be a far bigger problem as it will exclude all except those who can perform disagreement in such a manner, skills that are very often tightly connected to privilege.

As humans we have also collectively developed many, many skills and procedures for the handling of conflict in a productive fashion. Some of those are pretty terrible and designed to magnify the power of those who already have power. The court system for instance is constructed in a way to greatly favour those with education and money while pretending to provide a neutral space. But a lot of work has also been done by radical groups to create spaces for discussion that are either genuinely neutral (as with many trade union procedures) or which are weighed to reduce the disadvantages of those who are marginalised and the advantage of those who have privilege will bring with them. Developing such skills & structures online needs to be part of the tool set of all of us who organise to change the world.

WORDS Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )


Amused To Death...

Excellent peice.

If you haven't read it already, 'Amusing OurselvesTo Death' By Neil Postman. This book identifies the importance of real human interaction. It's as revelent today as it was when it was written in 1985! Before the WWW and everybody had mobile phones.


Short addition

Solutions are a whole other question which I only sort of touch on in the last 2 paragraphs . I've also got a whole tangent blog coming out of that mention of Dunbar's number in the text. B

ut briefly in addition I think the problem is the left treats internal conflict as something not real, something that people should get over and move on from. Largely this is because it not only has no formal conflict resolution skills it tends to sneer at the idea of such as being 'not political' Which basically means when times are tough those with the hardest necks stick around and everyone else gets driven out or driven to the margins, a process that also tends to favour those with privilege.

Which gives a self affirming cycle where toughness is the answer and being driven out is proof of inherent weakness.

That tends to recreate a cadre of quite unpleasant people or people who can block out unpleasantness without being massively personally effected.

Which is in effect is an informal conflict resolution process with a particular set of not very healthy self reproducing outcomes.

That used to work because all but the cadre were driven out over time but nowadays people are driven out of the physical spaces but are still around in the virtual ones.

The solution would have to involve taking the sort of facilitation skills needed to bring out conflict constructively as being as important as public speaking or desk top publishing. More so the second as its something that to do well actually requires quite a bit of knowledge and skill.


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