Public Discourse: Inverted Totalitarianism, Threshold Models and Cell Phones | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |

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By Douglas Moran

Public Discourse: Inverted Totalitarianism, Threshold Models and Cell Phones

Uploaded: Feb 21, 2016

Online discussions are an important part of public discourse even for people who don't participate directly. Much of what they hear from others may have come from online discussions--directly or several steps removed--and if the results of their discussion are to reach a non-trivial audience, it will likely be through online publication and discussion. Consequently, the quality and participation in online discussions has a significant impact on the overall public discourse. This is a general rumination, provoked by various discussions about what is happening at multiple levels of politics.

Inverted Totalitarianism (2003) is an interesting analysis that totalitarianism can be achieved with the opposite approach from conventional totalitarianism (Fascism, Communism). For example, power doesn't need to be centered in the government and organized hierarchically, but rather the government can be merely a subservient agent to collaborating power centers. Conventional totalitarianism calls for mass participation by the population, which it controls through mass indoctrination and omnipresent propaganda. The inverse is to keep the population disengaged and apathetic, for example, with trivialities such as celebrity news. Dissent is not suppressed, but disrupted: Rather than "Resistance is futile" it is "Participation is futile". The latter is the more effective because potential opposition is dissipated at an earlier and smaller stage. Recognize that it isn't important whether the disruption is orchestrated, or whom performs it, merely that it happens.(foot#1)

Analyses such as this are useful in encouraging consideration of whether you are getting too close to a tipping-point or edge that you wouldn't have otherwise realized existed.

In the early days of Internet discussion groups (pre-1993) September was a dreaded month because college freshmen would gain access without adequate instruction in "netiquette". However, this was a temporary annoyance because the groups had established cultures, acknowledged leaders (formal or informal), and members willing to stand-up for the culture and back the leaders. The new arrivals tended to be quickly schooled in expected and acceptable behavior. That all changed with Eternal September (aka Black September) in 1993 when AOL unleashed its subscribers on the Internet groups (Usenet). There was a large pool of AOL subscribers that regarded discussion groups as not being for productive use but for entertainment, with combative exchanges and bullying regarded as legitimate "fun". This barbarian horde combined with those that didn't understand netiquette overwhelmed the established groups and many of them became vastly diminished or effectively disappeared. What was then regarded as being a "troll" or other form of miscreant has become the norm on many Internet forum, comment sections,...

This distorted sense of what is acceptable and normal has made it increasingly hard to moderate comments. A number of major news sites eliminated or reduced comment sections partly because it had become too expensive to deal with all the abusive comments and partly because the toleration of abusive behavior had gone on so long that they had alienated and lost the audience they desired. Other sites decided that allowing abusive behavior was profitable--it supported their advertising revenue ("eyeball" count / page hits).

Threshold Models:
The basic problem in reestablishing a culture of appropriate discourse is that there rarely is a good starting point: Any enforcement can be seen as picking on someone whose offense is not that different from others. And even when someone clearly and repeatedly violates the rules of the group, too often the response of many other members is "Where's the harm of just one person doing this?"(foot#2) Research into the behavior of physical mobs provides interesting insights. An early notion of mob behavior was based on a belief that only societal constraints kept people from behaving in evil ways, and that the anonymity of the mob negated those constraints and allowed evil to emerge. Another concept used the analogy of a contagious disease to explain the spread of various bad behaviors, turning a crowd into a mob. The problem with this formulation was that it allowed anyone to be the provocateur, and held that everyone was equally likely to be "infected". A 1978 research paper "Threshold Models of Collective Behavior" claimed that people had different thresholds for joining in, and that there was a wide range of thresholds. There would typically be a very few willing to cast the first stone, and a few more who wouldn't go first but would go second. And so on. And that there was often a significant pool of people whose thresholds were so high that they weren't so much as "joining" as much as giving in or going along with the majority. The take-away from this research was that you had multiple opportunities to prevent a crowd from turning into a mob, and that you should pick your opportunities and who you target (mobs don't have leaders, but rather enablers). The flip side of this is found in marketing, with its concepts of "Early Adopters", "Influencers",...

A similar set of observations and theory underlies the Broken Windows Theory of Policing (1982). It claimed that minor things such as broken windows, graffiti... encouraged criminal activity because they were interpreted as the sign of a weak, uncaring community--one that was unlikely to counter the criminals. Unfortunately, these valid observations and reasoning were too often taken to an absolutist extreme (zero tolerance). Unlike Threshold Models, it doesn't encourage thinking about flexibility of when to respond and how.(foot#3)

Cell Phones and Texting
All the above may be irrelevant ("You couldn't have told us earlier?") because people are having increasing difficulty participating in significant discussions. It is hard to find someone who doesn't bemoan the effect of increased use cell phone texting--the combination of spelling, grammar and composition deficiencies that render so many non-trivial messages as difficult to understand, with some incomprehensible. The costs (effort) of typing incentivize the sender to shift costs to the recipient (effort understanding). But this is not just the senders being rushed or sloppy--in situations where they need to do better, they often fail. I hear this from people interviewing job candidates, trying to make major purchases,...

Beyond the problems with the individual messages have come larger problems in the conversations and discourse. It has long been observed that written messages don't convey multiple categories of information, with a partial response being the creation of emoticons. However, these observations pre-date email, going all the way back to handwritten letters (then telegrams,...). Texting exacerbates the problem, both by being short and by being sent from devices that make typing slow, laborious, difficult,... A prominent author on the effects of electronic devices on the quality of communications is MIT Professor Sherry Turkle. She and others claim that the overuse of texting causes people to have difficulty understanding the perspective of other participants in these exchanges. These claims are vague and ambiguous between whether people are neglecting to make the effort, or that the skills and reflexes failed to be develop, or had atrophied. Because Turkle is focused on the building and maintaining personal relationships, she uses the term empathy for this.

"Empathy" is too narrow a term because it requires identifying with other perspectives, not just understanding them. I have increasingly seen this in physical meetings: Speakers whose intent seems to be to persuade instead antagonizing those that don't already agree with them. It runs the gamut from misrepresenting facts, analyses, statements by other speakers... to disingenuous and transparently false claims to demonizing others.(foot#4) On several occasions I have talked to prominent voices for those positions and suggested that they try to rein in those disruptive speakers, only to be told that the attempt had been made and failed: Even after it was pointed out, those speakers were oblivious to the negative effects of their behavior. Its bad enough when someone in their late 20s is unable to read basic facial expressions and body language of someone sitting 10-20 feet away, but it is unsettling when you see it in someone in their late 30s and beyond.

Another observation by Turkle and others is that the culture surrounding texting allows the participates to drop in and out, often invisibly. One effect of this is that those conversations tend to be shallow--and reportedly many participants see this as a major advantage of conducting them by texting. Various authors have noted that this can lead to an uncomfortableness and ineptness when a deeper conversation is needed. Others point out a decline in the ability to have an efficient conversation, pushing it to a productive conclusion.(foot#5)

Note: Although I have mentioned Turkle multiple times above, I recommend against her recent book.(foot#6) Instead I would recommend reading one/some of the numerous articles and interviews generated by the marketing of the book. Because of Turkle's prominence, she will often be mentioned in writings by others, and thus including her name in your web search term can be useful.


1. Discouraging participation has a long history. A few examples if you haven't thought about the many ways this happens:
Example 1:
Negative advertising became a staple of political campaigns in the 1980s. One of the insights was that it was easier to get people to not vote for your opponent than to get them to vote for you--a vote not cast for the opponent was effectively a vote cast for you. From what I read, demonizing your opponent to gain votes is relatively ineffective--for people already likely to vote for you, it modestly increases their motivation to cast that vote. And the cumulative effect of negative advertising for various major races in an election is thought to be a significant factor in people not bothering to vote at all.
Example 2: Incessant and annoying trivialities:
In the late 1990s, various friends who had been self-confessed "news junkies" said that they had stopped watching TV news. They described it as coming in two stages: Initially, they would turn off the news at the first mention of "Monica Lewinsky", but then realized that this typically came so quickly that it wasn't worth turn on that show.
Example 3: Designated blowhards:
A number of acquaintances have developed similar strategies for watching the PBS NewsHour: They hate the mindless recitation of that day's talking points by the anointed shills. Since this occupies about the first third of the program, they wait before turning it on--and sometimes forget altogether. One friend observed that the likely audience is both capable and likely to read those talking points elsewhere, so what it the point of having them spoken loudly and insistently by someone unwilling or unprepared to discuss the issue at hand?
An interesting contrast: In the interview with Republican Presidential candidate John Kasich on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert of 2016-02-17, Colbert quickly read through Kasich's established talking point (from Kasich's Communications Director) and said "Now that I have said all that, you can't. You have to answer my questions." It was instructive that Kasich, unable to pivot to his canned responses, was flummoxed by even some softball questions (Rubio redux).
Example 4: Elite/insiders are the only audience that matters:
The Democratic Party Presidential Debate hosted by MSNBC (February 4, Durham NH). Various people I talked with said that they turned off the program early on when the moderators seemed intent on pushing the candidates to behave like bickering children, and were largely successful (questions about the definition of "Progressive" and who deserved that label). To me, it was unclear if MSNBC wanted this debate to be more like the Republican ones, or if they were clueless about what they were doing, or if they didn't care about a larger audience ("preaching to the choir"). Aside: Many political movements have died because they became more interested in arguing over definitions and in ideological purity, and uninterested in accomplishing anything. "You may be 'dead right', but you are still dead" is an admonition that most people encounter in their teens in Drivers Education but don't remember.

2. The problem of someone protesting about a moderator attempting to deal with her disregard for the rules was the subject of a 2015-November-06 Guest Opinion and comments at Palo Alto Weekly/Online. This is cited only as optional background and not for further discussion here. Guest Opinion: A Scofflaw? Not I--just a good neighbor.

3. Broken Windows extremes:
Example: in New York City, the Death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYC Police for selling cigarettes individually. Aside: Why is this illegal? New York State has the highest cigarette tax in the US--$4.35/pack--and this encourages smuggling from other states. Since the tax stamp is applied only to cigarette packs, loose cigarettes are presumed to have not been taxed.
Example, again in New York City: Aggressive stop-and-frisk targeting primarily young, minority males.

4. To be a "lie" requires it to be false, knowingly so, and intended to deceive. Question: If the only deception is self-deception, does that count? Some common phrases used to describe this are of being in "a bubble", "an echo chamber", or "a reality-distortion field".

5. Example: "It might sound like a funny question, but we need to ask ourselves: Is there any 21st-century skill more important than being able to sustain confident, coherent conversation?" from My Students Don't Know How to Have a Conversation: Students' reliance on screens for communication is detracting--and distracting--from their engagement in real-time talk by Paul Barnwell, The Atlantic, 2014-04-22.

6. More on my recommending against Sherry Turkle's book "Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age": My Amazon Review. Other reviewer found that much of the contents of this book was a rehash of what was in her earlier books, but I don't have enough of a recollection of them to make that judgment.

An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.

The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particularly strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", don't be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.

If you behave like a Troll, don't waste your time protesting when you get treated like one.