How one internet hater made me learn something important.

On Sunday, I found a whole lot of traffic coming to my site.

Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 2.41.21 pmThis would normally be great news! The clicks were leading to a piece I wrote a few weeks ago about the ABC documentary The Killing Season. It was a scathing attack on how the media airbrushed itself out of the political intrigue. I knew it might lose me some friends in the media establishment, but I thought it was a story worth telling.

But when I traced back the link that was directing all the clicks, I found this:

Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 2.45.06 pmThe piece had been fairly well received. Until yesterday.Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 2.42.43 pm

The author of these epithets is not some lonely nut-job. His blog is otherwise quite good and he has a lot of readers.

But he had quite mistaken my take-down of the media.

I had a bit of trouble grasping what had gone wrong. How could what I wrote be seen as a defence of the media? It made no sense.

I drafted several extremely rude and contemptuous replies to his blogpost but then deleted them and spent more time pondering.

I believe I’ve unwound the problem. And in doing so came to a sort of epiphany.

The problem for this reader started when I tried to do a bit of structural analysis of why the media behaves as it does.

I wrote:

“The political journalist’s job is absurdly stressful and difficult. I doubt many people could imagine how precious time is for a working journalist. Deadlines don’t just loom. They crash down. There is scarcely time for typing, let alone time for reflection.

Pondering the role of the media in shaping political events is a job for retirement. Their job is to get stories out the door. Now.”

He interpreted this as me excusing the behaviour of the media, and that set him off.

Explaining is not excusing.

You can do analysis that says: Behaviour X is prevalent in a certain population because of these structural factors, and still condemn each instance of that behaviour.

For example, domestic violence in indigenous communities, killings in America’s inner cities, obesity in contemporary Australia, lying among politicians.

In each case, the people who bash their partners, kill their neighbour, eat so much they get fat, and tell untruths have done the wrong thing. They should change their behaviour.

But the heightened prevalence of these outcomes in these communities is not because they are a uniquely vile set of people.

There are structural explanations – things about their economy, society and unique incentives that make these transgressions more likely. Not inevitable for any individual, but likely in a population.

Pointing out structural explanations is risky: It has an extremely strong history of making people very upset.Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 2.22.47 pm Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 2.14.35 pm Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 2.12.40 pm Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 2.11.42 pmPeople think you’re letting bad people off the hook. I disagree.

I think explaining why problems exist is more useful than berating wrong-doers.

Berating can only get you so far when the incentives haven’t changed. Pointing out structural problems helps us improve our society.

To see why berating won’t work, let’s look at it statistically.

Let’s agree the government does a lot that is wrong. What are the odds that the entire parliament is composed of people with a sense of ethics that falls far below the national expectations? The odds seem low that all 150 MPs are selfish liars. In fact politics, with its lower pay and higher scrutiny, ought to attract more ethical people than some other careers. A structural explanation for their behaviour is likely more useful. Same for journalists.

The circumstances/context of a group of people are important to understand because:

1. We can potentially change the circumstances;

2. They have a big influence on people’s behaviour.

It turns out, despite what our fundamental myths like to tell us about the nature of character, that human behaviour is shaped far more by circumstance and priming than we like to admit. Personality and character have a role. But not always a defining role.

This is where I got excited.

Spending a lot of time around the internet, one often falls into debates where good behaviour goes out the window. I’m guilty of this. I see someone saying something factually wrong, and I type a mean response. I swear I’m trying to be nicer, but without always being successful.

So is the internet bringing out haters who always existed? I say no. It’s the circumstances that make haters.

Something about anonymity, the invisibility of intentions, and the ability to dredge up someone’s history to make a neat little narrative of their motivations can turn good people quite nasty. They can turn especially nasty if they think you’re providing excuses to their sworn enemy.

Acknowledging the internet incubates nastiness is an important first step. It allows people who want to male the internet more civil to introduce changes, like using our real world identities more, doing reporting and moderation of comments, and hopefully many others that haven’t been invented yet.

So I don’t hate the guy who misunderstood my blog and called me all those names.

I bet if he and I sat down face-to-face we’d get along just fine.

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

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