KCRW wanted to understand how online conversations can go terribly sideways when the subject is difficult. In this case, it’s about wearing masks. Here’s part of a conversation that happened on the Nextdoor app for the Los Feliz area:
Person 1: “[She] is asking that we all do the epidemiologist-recommended thing that will save lives. You’re acting like an entitled brat. Big difference.”
Person 2: “You’re the only one here name calling, so who’s really the brat? You don’t like my point of view, keep scrolling. *There’s absolutely nothing you can say especially at this point that would make me think you have any credibility so....”
Person 1: “I think the person selfishly insisting that she has the right to endanger the lives of her neighbors is the brat.”
This conversation goes on like that for 16 days and 428 comments. Seventy people end up weighing in. Name-calling, ad hominem attacks, and some vicious emoji-play are the norm.
Like many fights about masks — online and in real life — it has all the charms of a scream-fest between a MAGA hat-wearing, don’t-tread-on-my-face conservative and an obsessed-with-CDC-stats, good old nanny-state liberal.
But this one is different in one particular way: Almost everyone who weighs in (with the exception of the occasional conspiracy theorist) agrees that wearing masks is important. How have we gotten to the point where we’re even arguing about agreeing about masks?
A closer reading reveals that this mask fight is about tone and civility, and about parsing the ever-evolving rules for when to wear masks, and what it means to be around people. But even with plenty of common ground, the people in this Nextdoor thread chose the path of most resistance.
“Sometimes it's irresistible to get involved in these things. It's just like, you see somebody say something that just seems totally wrong, and you just have this strong urge to jump in there and correct it,” says Jonas Kaplan, a cognitive neuroscientist at USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute. “Having gone down that path, I know it's fruitless. And so I have to resist it myself, but sometimes it's very, very hard to resist.”
Kaplan and his team study how beliefs form, and if they can be influenced by messaging. He’s seen a lot of the cognitive pitfalls we stumble into when we have online conversations. One of the main ones is baked right in: a failure to see those words as representing real people.
“One of the things that people often fail to do in these kinds of arguments is to try to understand the argument from the other person's point of view,” he says. “And to understand what are the values and beliefs and motivations that underlie the other point of view, and to try to connect with those, to try to connect your argument with those values.”
And that’s how you get nuanced statements such as:
“I really want this mask thing to end, and ironically the best way to do this is WEAR A F@#$'N MASK! I mean that in the kindest way possible.”
Another problem is that people are sort of dumb about processing information.
“It's so hard to correct misinformation and to change your mind. Once you have a belief in there, the first belief that you form or the first thing you hear has such an advantage over the later ones,” he says. That’s called anchoring bias — putting all this weight on whatever piece of information you hear first.
“This is something we saw go wrong with the whole mask situation. Because first we were told that masks aren't going to help against this thing,” Kaplan says. “And so people started forming beliefs around that, and then those beliefs become difficult to change. So there's a sense in which the first story wins.”
With so much conflicting information out there, anyone can find justification for their point of view, even if the information is totally false. Since everyone can custom-build their own truth, none of the facts and figures that participants in the Nextdoor conversation lobbed at each other really had any value.
And it may be that getting at the truth just doesn’t matter anyway. In the brain, strong emotion can basically bulldoze rational thought.
Jonas Kaplan saw this happen in a brain imaging study he conducted about political beliefs. When those people with the strongest emotional attachments to their beliefs were challenged by conflicting information, they just shut down.
“They ended up having some kind of a negative feeling when they felt attacked, and they closed down and didn't take in the information,” he says.
So people jumped into that Nextdoor conversation because they had strong feelings about the subject, which is exactly what prevented them from being able to actually have the conversation they wanted.
Person 1: “If that’s your only motivation, why did you feel the need to call me unhinged?”
Person 2: “I didn't call you unhinged. I said ‘You sir sound unhinged.’”
On Nextdoor and in the wild, intelligent and passionate people are intelligently and passionately not listening to one another anymore. That’s why the thread is both so long and so devoid of purpose. It’s the husk of a conversation, with all the meaning sucked out. We’ve been reduced to scared kids, our emotional brains blaring so hard we can’t hear anything else.
Kaplan co-authored a paper in 2016 that fretted about exactly this:
“Data on any topic — from climate science to epidemiology — must first be successfully communicated and believed before it can inform personal behavior or public policy. Viewed in this light, the inability to change another person’s mind through evidence and argument, or to have one’s own mind changed in turn, stands out as a problem of great societal importance. Both human knowledge and human cooperation depend upon such feats of cognitive and emotional flexibility.”
And as in the case of our Nextdoor fight, our own brains get us into online fights about stuff we already agree on. To fix the internet, we really should first redesign our brains.