Saturday, November 12, 2011

Rebecca Watson's Trolls - Why the Skepchick needs a new external relations strategy

Rebecca Watson is a victim. You don't have to take my word for it, either. You can read this post or this one or watch this video. It's so strange that someone who is a public figure and also a rather ardent social critic would have condescending or even violent threats directed towards them. Except that it isn't. In fact there's even a term for those people. They're called reactionaries and they've been around since before the term was coined during the French Revolution.

You see, when you threaten the status and societal benefits of being in a traditionally privileged group (in this case, men) they are going to do everything in their power to fight back. I am not agreeing with this in any way, shape, or form. In fact I consider myself to be a rather staunch feminist. All I am saying is that if you want to be on the cutting edge of erasing male privilege within society, you should fully expect and come to terms with (notice I didn't say "accept") the retaliation that the group you're assailing is going to offer.

The point you receive pushback and feel the need to voice your disgust is is the perfect time to prove that you aren't taking them seriously, however. There is a fantastic political theory out there called the "Spiral of Silence" theory and it basically posits that the less attention you give a fringe group, the less willingness they will have to express their unpopular ideas in public, and therefore less other people will be exposed to them. This is how racism became unpopular in America. We are now seeing the same phenomenon with homophobia which, just like misogyny, is still very prevalent in the media.

It is easy to see what happens when Rebecca responds to someone with traditionally misogynistic views. She isn't going to change the view of a true misogynist just like she will never change the view of a headstrong racist. She can only hope to minimize and trivialize their contribution to the conversation so that other people don't end up agreeing with them on some sort of facial evaluation of the issue. This includes: ignoring, blocking, laughing them off as the joke that they are, etc. It does not include writing a lengthy article where you expose their views to thousands of additional readers with varying levels of critical thinking skills. If nothing else it gives them additional ammunition and allows her traditionally pro-feminist blog to become compromised by the very message she seeks to eradicate.

I'm not saying they're right. I'm simply saying that Rebecca has created a false dichotomy in her mind when she states that the only two choices are a.) respond forcefully through her blog or b.) curl up in a ball and cry herself to sleep at night because the mean old men said nasty things. I agree that those people are bullies...but I disagree that they want her silence. They want her attention. They want to provoke a response and get their message out there as prominently as hers. She has given them that vehicle.

Yet for all the talk of bullying and decrying those in positions of power who want her to shut up, she sure does a lot of that to others...even those who are largely sympathetic to her cause. Take for instance her use of time at the CFI Student Leadership Conference, where she could have used her time to give a rousing speech about the importance of student involvement in the secular movement. Instead she used this time to tear down a specific student's completely defensible position on what she viewed as improper inference to something that was not necessarily implied (which is, arguably, a logical inconsistency on Rebecca's part).

It seems that Rebecca believes herself to be interesting position for a skeptic to take. Any time her methods are called into question she becomes defensive and uses ad hominem attacks on her detractors...which is, of course, another type of logical fallacy. Interestingly enough her tactic for suppressing the comments from UNIFI members is exactly what they have suggested that she do to Metzger, and for some reason it is valid in certain situations but not others. The odd thing is that if she would flip these tactics she would expose a much more relevant discussion on methods and leave out the batty anti-feminist "comedian" altogether.

So what is the end goal here, Rebecca? Is it to promote skepticism and feminism? Or is it to build your reader base and enthrall them with sensationalist responses to those who don't deserve even the most cursory of dismissals? It seems that you have abandoned strategies that are empirically proven to have a positive impact on society in favor of your own haphazard "I'm really pissed in this instance so I'm going to write about it" method. This is not the modus operandi of someone who is truly concerned with skeptical inquiry and social progressivism. These are the markings of an attention seeking media personality. Your move.

*Edited to include further citations*

Slater, M. D. (2007), Reinforcing Spirals: The Mutual Influence of Media Selectivity and Media Effects and Their Impact on Individual Behavior and Social Identity. Communication Theory, 17: 281–303. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2885.2007.00296.x

Woong Yun, G. and Park, S.-Y. (2011), Selective Posting: Willingness to post a message online. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 16: 201–227. doi: 10.1111/j.1083-6101.2010.01533.x

Neuwirth, K., Frederick, E. and Mayo, C. (2007), The Spiral of Silence and Fear of Isolation. Journal of Communication, 57: 450–468. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2007.00352.x

Hayes, A. F. (2007), Exploring the Forms of Self-Censorship: On the Spiral of Silence and the Use of Opinion Expression Avoidance Strategies. Journal of Communication, 57: 785–802. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2007.00368.x


  1. From everything I've read I think that you are misusing the spiral of silence in this situation and it doesn't seem to apply in this situation.

    The spiral of silence depends on there being an actual fear of isolation. Here’s what a friend of mine who has studied Sociology of Inequalities for several years had to say about it:

    “As far as the internet is concerned, I believe that the spiral of silence is something that is less problematic than it is in interpersonal communications. If you believe Berger and Luckmann’s assertion that the further removed you are from face to face conversation, the more likely you are to express “core” beliefs. If the internet is more impersonal than face to face interactions, it would stand that the spiral of silence, voicing a minority opinion or no dissent, would be less of a problem.

    “As long as people feel removed enough from the threat of real reprecussions, the spiral of silence argument doesn’t have much ground, especially on the internet. calling people out can raise awareness of insensitivity, which does have possible consequences, so it is more likely to silence someone or, as the person said, it might just feed the trolls.”

    The book The Social Construction of Reality by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann talks about the different varieties of communication, and the work of Alfred Schultz and his concept of "transcendence of barriers" that looks at levels of interpersonal interactions.

    Also, in the case of someone like Kurt Metzer, it seems reasonable to make his views known to people who read her blog so that they know what kind of person he really is. This may help him somewhat, but it could also create a situation where people who may have been interested in him will now avoid him. I think that overall, Watson posting about Metzer will harm him more in the long run than help him.

  2. You have a valid critique, and I fully understand where you're coming from. I respectfully disagree, however, because of the data within the article "Selective Posting: Willingness to Post a Message Online" which was just published this year. Here is a quote from their findings -

    "...the perceived climate of opinion online and the immediate climate of opinion in the forum influenced the message posting behavior. People were less likely to post a message when they perceived their opinion as minority online or the messages on the forum were the opposites of their opinions. The forum messages were also found to affect the perceptions of the climate of opinion. Messages that were consistent with the original positions of the participants increased the perception that their position was the majority one. It seems to be that the immediate forum or general perceived climate opinion online influenced the willingness to post a message on the forum."

    So I believe this enforces my position while simultaneously debunking the previous research that says that online discussions are removed methods of communication. It also underscores the need for Rebecca to speak out forcefully against sexism, but I would argue in a way that doesn't give validation to the other side.

    This could also be a validation of her strategy in a certain light, and I recognize this. I tend to lean towards the application of this information in this direction, however:
    Giving credence to someone who has little to no relevance on political/social issues and who is primarily viewed as a comedian is not going to change the immediate climate of discussion. It will simply elevate him to a status that he did not previously have before.

  3. I apologize for the culturally insensitive comments made on this post and have taken steps to issue a public retraction on Jen McCreight's article on the situation entitled "Don't Shut Up". I am sorry to those that I have offended.