Exploring Controversy Online

Living in a First-World nation in the 21st century, most of us have access to an exorbitant amount of information. If you are reading this post, then you are one of over 4.1 billion human beings that are estimated to have access to the Internet.1 This estimate is the result of a staggering 1,052% increase in Internet users from 2000 to 2018. As the number of users mushrooms, so does the bulk of information that is disseminated on the Web. Note that increasing our exposure to a diversity of information does have some serious buttload-of-information bonuses—cross-cultural dialogue, cultural diversity, (increasing) freedom of thought—you could write a book on the pros. On the flip side, the expectation that we have the capacity to sift through this sea of data without a thoughtful strategy seems to be unrealistic. This is especially true when websites and advertisers are proactively working on strategies to disseminate information to users. Since the beginning of the Web, researchers have been tackling information overload with filtering and summarising strategies,2 and Web engineers are continually improving search engine algorithms.3 This tug-of-war, between smattering consumers with information and attempting to mitigate the damage, is not going to end any time soon. Nevertheless, as we impatiently wait on better algorithms, we can strategically improve our ability to explore what we want to explore and digest what we want to digest. In this post, emphasis will be placed on the need for acting strategically when we explore controversial content online.

To start, we need to think critically about bias. Imagine that you are exploring abortion, transgenderism, or the Israel/Palestine conflict. You start with a Google search. One hour in to your exploration, and you are inundated with ad hominem attacks, angry threads, dichotomous conclusions, and a smorgasbord of attempts at emotional manipulation. Clearly, this is not working. All sources have bias, but there are a number of questions that are particularly useful to weed out material that should not be wasting your time: Where does the information come from? Would the author have a reason to distort the information? Are there counterarguments? Does the author appear to understand the other side? The more controversial the topic, the more necessary it is to dive deeper. If necessary, find the original data yourself and draw your own conclusions by asking experts who can interpret the data from different perspectives. False and exaggerated information is (unfortunately) all too common in the softer sciences, so this will be particularly imperative with controversial social issues. Note that the ability to understand research, wrestle with logic, or consult experts on multiple sides of an issue are strategies that can be practiced. It is possible to continue to take steps closer to reality, but we have to pray for wisdom, dig deep, and be persistent.

One of the issues with online exploration is that there is too much propaganda and ad hominem debate covering up thoughtful articles. By the time we find something worth reading, we are exhausted from wading through trenches of manipulative pathos. This is where boundaries are extremely useful. We need to boycott posts that do not spur us on toward critical thinking. Other than for entertainment purposes (hilarious Youtube videos are recommended): Unfollow posts mocking Trump and Obama. Stay away from Yahoo! News and Buzzfeed. Be wary of sites that sound like advertisements. Other than your mother-in-law’s soapbox or your best friend’s fix, refuse to spend your time soaking up information that aggressively messes with your emotions, rather than prompting you to think critically. When we read an article that provokes deeper thought, our emotions will also likely be triggered. We may even feel frustrated and confused if the article or video is challenging. Nevertheless, this emotional exchange is worth the sacrifice when it pushes us to think in new ways and, hopefully, take action. We can practice the art of strategically giving and declining our emotional investment, instead of letting another celebrity trigger our anxiety or depression.

Some scholars may argue that valid and reliable research emerges primarily from academic databases and peer-reviewed publications. With this in mind, why are we bothering to improve our Googling skills? Databases are the optimal starting point for finding academic sources; however, using databases to address everyday questions is not feasible. Academia is becoming increasingly specialized. As a clinical psychology student, part of my lifelong journey will involve familiarizing myself with search terms that mesh well with the growing body of clinical psychology research. Nonetheless, when I want to research string theory as a theoretical framework in physics, my ability to be effective at interpreting empirical articles is quite limited. Instead, I am looking for someone who can summarize the evidence in a way that allows me to engage in critical thinking and come to my own informed conclusions. These types of articles can be found in databases, but they are also found on other respectable sites online. Likewise, it is worth noting that some research that does not get published is methodologically robust, and may remain unpublished due to conclusions that do not fit with the goals of an academic journal or null findings (aka, publishing bias).4 As a result, meta-analyses are increasingly including or controlling for non-published research.5 In sum, databases are an optimal starting point for researching controversial topics, but we still need solid search engine skills.

Beyond databases, we also use encyclopedias with frequency. Wikipedia is the most popular online encyclopedia, ranking 5th among all websites in terms of the number of visitors and page views.6 When I edited Wikipedia,7 I started to think critically about whether there are particular biases associated with large-scale online encyclopedias. Wikipedia editors tend to be younger, college-educated men. Highly politicized or controversial pages are sometimes dominated by a small sector of editors that tend to have the same viewpoints8 (although this is the norm, rather than the exception, when it comes to summarizing controversial topics). Moreover, they also tend to be individuals that are tech-savvy (not older professors) and have the time (aka, money) to edit Wikipedia articles. These forms of bias are really not exceptional. That being noted, what is most striking to me is the effect of overusing a single encyclopedia on the type of error that is accumulated over time.

To illustrate this point, imagine that a Wikipedia editor incorrectly misrepresents a source—this type of error happens frequently. The mistake is subtle, and therefore is overlooked by anyone who does not have the time to learn how to edit Wikipedia. Thus, a massive volume of readers are prone to repeating or disseminating that same subtle mistake. Error variability decreases compared to if we all make different mistakes because each of us checked out dozens of sources independently. Thus, even if Wikipedia had diverse authors coming together to create a single summary, when millions of people read the same summary, our conclusions are less diverse than if millions of consumers would have read different library books or published articles. This is true for Yahoo! Answers, Wikihow, or any information site that Google’s algorithm shoots to the top of the list. Popularity gives information power, regardless of whether the information is spot-on or inaccurate. With this in mind, am I suggesting that we should stop using popular websites to explore controversial topics? Not exactly. The point is that the way information is presented to consumers in the 21st century does matter. All sites have bias, but we need to be extra wary to investigate the source and content when the information is controversial.

Even if we become savvy at locating articles that promote critical thought, we are still swimming in a sea of data. Whether you meticulously organize your files or approach them with flexibility, we all may benefit from new ways to reliably store and digest useful information. There are a variety of ways to do this. Perhaps, you “star” certain webpages or block certain sites. Or, maybe you journal a few minutes after reading or save the top articles on the subjects that matter the most. Personally, I save articles on my Google Drive. One of the benefits of saving articles is that they become easily searchable. Moreover, we are more likely to remember information when we search for articles that we already digested, rather than starting from scratch over and over again. Nonetheless, my method is far from ideal given the volume of articles, and the time that it takes to organize the information. Perhaps you have a good method to share with us? Together, we can develop better tactics to navigate online information and effectively explore controversial topics without being bombarded by emotionally manipulative clutter. My hope is that the less time we spend anxious and hungover after the latest ad hominem news bite, the more time we will be able to spend figuring out what is true and lifegiving.

  1. Internet World Stats. (2018). Internet users in the World by regions. Retrieved from https://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm 

  2. Saxena, D., & Lamest, M. (2018). Information overload and coping strategies in the big data context: Evidence from the hospitality context. Journal of Information Science, 44(3), 287-297. 

  3. Wagner, C. S. (2014). Proactive search: Using outcome-based dynamic nearest-neighbor recommendation algorithms to improve search engine efficacy. (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 10132897). 

  4. Dickersin, K., Chan, S., Chalmers, T. C., Sacks, H. S., & Smith, H. (1987). Publication bias and clinical trials. Controlled Clinical Trials, 8(4), 343-353. 

  5. e.g., Dworkin, E. R., Menon, S. V., Bystrynski, J., & Allen, N. E. (2017). Sexual assault victimization and pscyhopathology: A review and meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 56, 65-81. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2017.06.002 

  6. Gray, A. (2017, April 10). These are the world’s most popular websites. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/04/most-popular-websites-google-youtube-baidu/ 

  7. I only edited Wikipedia for a few months with any consistency. I still have my account, but I do not know whether I will return to the time-consuming labor of debating with editors behind the scenes on controversial pages. It is exhausting, depending on where you start. Perhaps, this is why Wikipedia desperately needs more editors. 

  8. Montellaro, Z. (2015, Nov 18). How does political Wikipedia stay apolitical? Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/11/how-does-political-wikipedia-stay-apolitical/450948/