Another Smashing Activism Idea: The Bubble Brigade

I have a powerful yet delicate (or possibly just stupid) idea for raising the level of discussion about climate change on the web. It relates to a modern problem: infobubbles, about which I wrote last week.

What’s an infobubble? Why does it matter?
The web is great: it makes me laugh, it makes me cry, it keeps me current on the things cats do. We’re all seduced by it, and we believe that the web gives us unprecedented access to information and it’s making us smarter.

It’s not true. In fact, the web strengthens one of our worst cognitive habits: our unthinking tendency to focus on information confirming what we already believe and to ignore the rest.

Because the web gives us control over information, it makes it easier for us to avoid anything in conflict with our beliefs.  It gives us the power to unwittingly surround ourselves with skewed information to a degree which wasn’t possible before. This cocoon of information I build around myself is my dreaded infobubble.

Even if I know that infobubbles are a problem, I’m not safe. I think I’m smart so I assume that I’m at less risk than all you other yokels. You may have an infobubble, but I don’t.

Alas, thinking that way makes the problem worse. The dilemma is summed up by the old saying: “When one does not see what one does not see, one does not see that one is blind.”

The moment I decide I’m smart is the moment I stop looking for evidence that I’m dumb.

Worse, websites pander to our biases by offering content tailored to certain types of infobubble. Huffington Post panders to one kind of infobubble and the Drudge report to another.

Same goes for climate change. If you believe climate change is a big scary problem, you read Climate Progress. If you think it’s not, you read Watts Up With That.

I think the world would be a better place if we made a concerted attempt to pop our infobubbles.

My Proposal
To organize a group, the Bubble Brigade, who will go out of their way to participate in online discussions amongst those with opposing beliefs, to pop infobubbles. Members will hew to the following commandments:

  1. Your main objective will be to ask questions. Clear, deep, illuminating questions, which highlight conflicting information.
  2. You’ll make no attempt to persuade anyone to your way of thinking.
  3. You’ll be unerringly polite, even in the face of terrible trolling and flaming.
  4. You’ll treat all others as equals, even trolls.
  5. You’ll never accuse anyone of being wrong.
  6. You’ll think deeply about what others say before responding.
  7. You’ll be persistent.

The brigade would operate on a schedule and in concert. If several members of the brigade enter a discussion at once, they’ll be able to play off one another and keep the discussion at a high level even in moments of intense flaming.  That’s key.

If you’ve been in online discussions of contentious topics, you know that conforming to the commandments will sometimes call for superhuman restraint. So the brigade should consist of folks who have the right temperament. Gandhi may be required reading, since he was a master of this approach, and had a knack of turning mortal enemies into friends.

Whether you like my proposal will depend on your faith in humanity. Mine flickers on and off, so maybe I’ll dislike it tomorrow. Certainly, my overwhelming sense that my beliefs are right makes me wonder if I could participate. I’ll go with it for now.

-From the Sea

Posted January 15, 2011 in Smashing Ideas | 4 Comments on Another Smashing Activism Idea: The Bubble Brigade

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  1. Judy says:

    Well said, although I think this proposal misses the masses in the middle, who are probably not visiting sites on either side of the debate.

    You might like to tap into something that’s already happening. It’s called Politifact and was started by a newspaper in Florida but has since spread to newspapers in other states. It’s newspapers doing what they have historically done but presented in a graphic format. Here’s a link to the original, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009: http://politifact.com/

  2. Nick B. says:

    Yep! It misses the “masses in the middle”, by design. The communication challenges are so different between the two groups that I think it best to target one or the other, not both at once. My own linnean heirarchy of climate opinion consists of 5 different groups, each of which benefits from a separate approach, something I’ll discuss (or at least alude to) in my next post.

    Re Politifact: I’d like to see their strategy for getting their findings out in front of the people who most need to see conflicting information; ie people with entrenched opinion. It seems Politifact would need its own Bubble-Brigade-type mechanisms to get to them.

  3. Robert says:

    I like this article. It reinforces my opinion that the internet is a high-gain amplifier of preconceived ideas.

  4. Nick B. says:

    Ha! “High-gain amplifier of preconceived ideas” describes it very well, I think.

This site is about one total amateur’s half-cocked attempts to do something about Climate Change.
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