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Rightside Norms, Accuracy Norms, And Internet Garbage-Fights
It's easy to be an ardent rightsider, but it's also bad
A while back there was a somewhat esoteric internet controversy involving Erik Kain, a video game and TV writer at Forbes. One day, a social-justice-oriented Twitter figure with a bit of a following accused Kain of being “one of the original founding members of the alt-right,” the alt-right, for those lucky few unfamiliar with the term, being a racist far-right movement that spreads its hate online, often in irony-soaked ways designed to appeal to young people.
Kain isn’t one of the original founding members of the alt-right. He is a liberal. Claiming Kain is one of the original founding members of the alt-right makes about as much sense as claiming I am one of the original founding members of The Beatles. Understandably, Kain responded with a bit of anger and indignance that someone had publicly claimed he was a founding member of a movement centered around the dissemination of meme-y racism.
What was fascinating to me was what happened next. A bunch of people popped up on Twitter to denounce Kain, but none of them responded to the actual claim that had sparked the fracas. Rather, they exhumed and recirculated all sorts of old gripes and grievances, many of them related to their belief that Kain hadn’t been sufficiently critical of GamerGate in his coverage of it (for what it’s worth, in a Twitter-direct-message conversation Kain said that he felt that that was more or less a fair criticism with regard to one early article he wrote on the subject). Soon the conversation had nothing to do with whether Kain was, in fact, a founding member of the alt-right. Rather, the participants seemed to be responding to a different question, posed implicitly: Is Erik Kain Good or Bad? For those deeply invested in this controversy, it appeared to be quite important to yell — well, to tweet, at least — Erik Kain is Bad!!!!!
I found this weird. Maybe I’m naive, but I feel like if someone makes a big, bold claim that X is true, the subsequent conversation should revolve around X. If I claim that Donald Trump one time dropkicked a puppy into the Pacific Ocean, it seems important that people respond to that claim rather than to a bunch of other claims like Is Donald Trump a good person? or Is Donald Trump a good president? The idea that he dropkicked a puppy into the Pacific Ocean — which, to be clear, I have no evidence to support, though on the other hand A Lot Of People Are Saying — is quite specific and would seem to merit discussion and evaluation!
I’ve been thinking a lot about both the Kain episode and others like it lately — situations in which people aren’t arguing about what they should be arguing about — and I think the easiest explanation is that different people on the internet are operating from very different sets of norms. One way to understand these sorts of controversies is to posit two different sets of norms: accuracy norms and rightside norms.
Accuracy norms are about, well, accuracy: People who subscribe to accuracy norms are most concerned with spreading true claims, and with debunking false ones. Rightside norms are about being on the right ‘side’ of a given controversy: People who subscribe to rightside norms are more concerned with showing that they are on the right side of a given controversy, and that the people on the other side are morally suspect, than they are with accuracy, at least in a zoomed-in sense.
I’m using phrases like most/more concerned with, which allow for some wriggle room, intentionally. I don’t think you can cleave people neatly into those who are only concerned with accuracy and those who are only concerned with rightsidery. But I do think you can broadly divide most people into one of the two camps, generally speaking.
During Kainghazi, anti-Kain Twitter users with a penchant for rightsidery seized hold of the conversation. They flooded Twitter with all sorts of claims about Kain that had no connection to the bizarre and wrongheaded notion that he is a founding member of the alt-right. It seemed important to bash him performatively, for the rightsiders to heap up as much evidence as possible of his deep moral failings. It wasn’t about the actual claim that sparked the controversy. Rather, it was about dividing the world (or Twitter, at least) into Bad people who might ‘defend’ Kain — read: point out that a false claim had been leveled at him — and Good people, who understand that Kain is Bad, full-stop. The fact that the whole thing was launched by a plainly false accusation ended up being totally irrelevant to the ensuing conversation. Because for people who subscribe to rightside norms, the actual truth value of an actual claim often doesn’t matter. Rightsiders are so into an urgent sort of groupishness that specifics are often too much detail to worry about.
I think rightside norms are pretty bad. And it’s interesting to examine how the incentives that prevail online promote these norms. If, at a friendly real-life dinner consisting of people who spend too much on Twitter, you claimed Erik Kain is a founding member of the alt-right, your dinnermates would either look around uncomfortably or gently push back — “I didn’t love his coverage of GamerGate, sure, but isn’t that a bit different from the idea that he founded a hate movement?” You’d be hit with that feeling of having said something members of your group disagree with.
But online things are so, so different. Dedicated Singal-Minded readers will recall Brian Earp’s theory that a lot of internet outrage stems from the fact that on sites like Twitter, there is a deficit of “passive negative” feedback — the skeptical body language and other cues which indicate, at least to sufficiently socialized humans, that maybe they are beginning to bumble down a rhetorical road best left untraveled. There’s none of that on Twitter. In addition, there’s something like the opposite — you will often be punished for expressing reasonable, majority opinions. During the heat of the Kain blowup, any member of the anti-Kain social-justice-oriented cohort who had said “Really, guys? Come on…” would have immediately been dogpiled. “You’re defending Kain?” the dogpilers would have asked. Or: “So I guess you’re a GamerGate sympathizer now?” This isn’t normal behavior in real life, but on Twitter it definitely is.
If you’re in a group in which rightside norms prevail, you face a weird set of incentives:
1) It will often harm your group standing to point out that a false claim is false
2) It will often benefit your group standing to pile on a figure who has been unfairly accused of something by broadcasting evidence pertaining not to the claim in question, but to his or her broader (ostensible) moral worthlessness
3) It will often benefit your group standing to punish those who seek to debunk false claims against ‘bad’ figures
Imagine experiencing all this over and over, outrage after outrage. Because every day there’s a new outrage that must be responded to — whaddya gonna do, sit on the sidelines? You can see how in the long run, especially among people who spend too much time online — that is, exactly the sorts of people who become deeply involved in third-tier internet controversies like Kainghazi — this could skew one’s approach to understanding the world, weighing evidence, and so on.
...Right? I could be wrong about this. Let me know if I am, or if somebody else has already figured this out more tidily than I have. I’m open to the idea that I’m missing something, or that this general model could use some further refinement.
Questions? Comments? Responses to this newsletter that are really about other stuff? I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @jessesingal. Today’s lead image is of a 1959 Utrecht garbage situation, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.