The Erosion of Rational Discourse

Have you ever posted something controversial on social media and minutes later, an avalanche of every possible opinion you can think of showed up, and many you never even imagined?

How did it make you feel?

The human species faces existential crises on many fronts. The wisdom from sages to scientists says that our fundamental job is to unite. Yet it seems as though a growing number of people are more interested in being right.

To face these challenges, our task is to find a way to work together to solve the collective problems that we face, together as one human family.

Yet we also face a growing pandemic that is poisoning our cultures — and I am not talking about Covid-19.

“I believe one of the greatest human failings is to prefer to be right than to be effective” - Stephen Fry

I often wonder if the effects of social media are doing more harm than good. The sharing and debating of divisive information warfare is commonplace.

Oftentimes people don’t even read the article or consume the content, they simply look at the headline and react, or worse join the bandwagon of the other comments.

Conclusions are often made based on the tendency toward bias, without doing the critical thinking or asking the important questions before lashing out with poison and false punditry.

This erodes rational discourse and creates a kind of “social nervous system” gone haywire.

This puts relationships at risk, lifelong friends de-friending each other, families unable to communicate due to the different news sources they watch, and people publicly throwing each other under the bus, all in the name of being right and trying to look like the smartest person in the room.

That’s not even the worst part. Some believe that our very democracy is at stake.

Whether or not you agree with that, we are definitely living in bizarre times where it takes a significant amount of bandwidth to really know what information sources can be trusted.

How Do We Cut Through The Noise?

The signal-to-noise ratio is a measure used in science and engineering that compares the level of the desired signal to the level of background noise. This is an apt metaphor to describe much of the conversation on social media of a sensitive or political nature.

With knee jerk reactions running amok and a signal-to-noise ratio that leans more and more towards the noise, there is a real risk in getting sucked into these types of squabbles if even a single word is off-putting for anyone reading who is trigger happy..

What I am talking about is the virus of our collective social psyche that I am currently calling — HEADLINE HYSTERIA.

In this article, I will aim to make a prognosis, outline the symptoms and how we might find the remedy for the sake of effective human collaboration that is so desperately needed right now.

Headline Hysteria goes far beyond headlines, but that is where it starts, and where the virus is usually contracted.

If you spend any amount of time on social media (and most people do) you will notice that it lives in a kind of soundbite culture where dis-information thrives and spreads. It often then gets re-hashed, remixed and re-distributed all within a matter of a few days, and sometimes even hours.

When it comes to anything of a political or sensitive nature, what I have often observed is a compounded effect of trigger happy keyboard warfare. This is usually the most susceptible environment to contracting Headline Hysteria.

You don’t have to look much further than the 2016 election to see that “keyboard warfare” is not simply a euphemism but an unfortunate reality infecting democracy on a very real and tangible level.

Think about your own personal experiences. I wonder if you are reading this now and can think of a few examples of when you have participated in the sickness of Headline Hysteria — perhaps giving or receiving?

I have been previously infected by this virus at times. It’s tempting to get sucked into these conversations, especially when rampant opinions mischaracterize your intentions.

Now that I am aware of this virus, I recognize just how damaging it can be and have developed a few remedies to keep me from getting infected. I hope this article can do the same for you.

My Road to Discovery

Growing up steeped in counter-culture — I have had my fair share of time in the depths of punk rock, anarchy, conspiracy theory and the like.

This has given me a strong dose of skepticism of big brother, and so needless to say I have gone down the rabbit hole of studying the ‘powers that be’, their growing centralized power and their effect on the global population.

A little over 20 years ago, I decided to grow up, put my big boy pants on, evolve my perspectives and earned my respect as a creative professional, entrepreneur and business leader. I have become a known expert in the areas of brand development, direct marketing, public influence and the shaping of strategic messaging.

This makes me at least somewhat credible to comment on this topic since a marketing campaign often involves what type of headline will get the most response, and how we position the copy often dictates the success or failure of a campaign.

My roots remain in the dissent of anything authoritarian or over-reaching on individual dignities, human rights, and personal sovereignty.

Most of my friends are artists, filmmakers, impact entrepreneurs, activists and free-thinking, independently-minded people. Usually very awake, aware and conscious-minded folks.

Needless to say, after getting over the shock that many people I know suffer from Headline Hysteria, I dug into the diagnosis, did some analysis and believe I have found a remedy.

Identifying the Symptoms

Before you can find a cure to any disease, you must first accurately diagnose the problem.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” - Albert Einstein

Each of the symptoms listed below can be grouped into an overall set of psychological techniques I have defined as ways to W.I.N.

W.I.N. stands for Weaponizing Intellectual Narcissism.

Here is how you know that you, or someone you love may be suffering from Headline Hysteria and consistently trying to Weaponize Intellectual Narcissism on social media, at parties or any other place where people gather…

They may be exhibiting one or more of the following symptoms:

This is an intentionally misrepresented proposition that is set up because it is easier to defeat than an opponent’s real argument. For example, someone posts a news article about a controversial figure and says “This was an insightful read” — and someone immediately chimes in quipping “How could you promote this dreadful human being, he’s no hero! I thought you were better than this? I guess I was wrong.” What the person commenting fails to recognize is that they made a complete projection and assumed the intentions and values of their friend, oftentimes not even reading the article but just looking at the headline. Instead, they could have simply asked their intentions for sharing it or what they found insightful. A debate for who is ‘right’ ensues.

This is a classic bait and switch technique with prominent origins in Soviet propaganda, that attempts to discredit an opponent’s position by charging them with hypocrisy without directly refuting or disproving their argument. This is commonplace when someone criticizes the current US President, and then someone from the opposite side of the political spectrum says, “Oh yeah well, what about…” and goes on to describe something from a previous administration of the opposing party — without actually addressing the original point. Usually, they will trade links and lines of rhetoric that are basically parroted by their respective punditry class.

This is when someone seeks to attract applause or favorable attention from spectators. This is a very commonplace tactic on social media, especially when people start to develop a following of people who think just like them. It’s a way of being congratulated and boosted up by your own echo chamber without challenging your own bias and community bubble. Sometimes there are hyper-variations of this where people have predetermined lines ready to respond to any challenge of their assessments with a simple copy and paste, but completely avoiding many subtleties within the argument itself. Thereby choosing to only discuss what they want to and completely bypass the deeper distinctions of dialogue.

Similar to Grandstanding, Platforming is a mutated egoic form that is based on the person’s momentum or cult of personality. It’s usually clear if you look closely enough that people who use Platforming as a rhetorical tool will often author well written pontificated posts, and then go repeat some of the same points trolling around various threads on social media. It’s a very obvious form of seeking applause and favorable mention from an audience, much like Grandstanding but with an added effect of seeking to create a personal brand or cult personality of being a credible truth-teller on whatever the topic hand is. Finally, this archetype is often deflecting voices of reason or debate with an attitude of “I am the one in the know, and you are not” — thereby using their position of perceived power to self aggrandize and attempt to further solidify their important status.

People who engage in mobbing are usually rooting-on Grandstanders and Platformers who think like them, adding fuel to the fire and sewing further division and dissent on a thread. Mobbers are especially good at making a conversation thread go sideways when someone starts trolling around and making their opinion loud, the mob begins to form. The next thing you know you have a thread that started with a question about which home remedies are the best for your young child — and within a matter of minutes we are talking about Monsanto’s agenda to have us all on lab-produced space kibble that makes us obedient drones to subconscious commands projected through 5G signals. It gets very bizarre, very fast.

This term comes from the 1938 stage play Gas Light, in which a husband attempts to drive his wife crazy by dimming the lights (which were powered by gas) in their home. When his wife points out that the lights have dimmed, he denies that the light changed at all. The essence of Gaslighting comes into play when you start to question your own reality or that you may somehow be insane or delusional. This technique is not only rampant on social media, but also used heavily by politicians and other public figures.

False Binaries
This is where during the course of a heated debate, one person will impose a choice that the others’ perspective is either A or B, and demand that they tell them which one it is. Usually this is a trap to even respond to because both choices are loaded with presuppositions that support the narrative of the person asking the question. If you take the bait, there is a pre-loaded argument on the other side of either answer. You end up falling for the trap of invalidating your own perspective. Later, you feel manipulated and confused but you are not exactly sure how it happened.

Backhanded Compliments
This is a way of giving you an inauthentic compliment while at the same time insulting you or telling you that you are wrong. You can spot this strategy by looking out for sentences that start with “You are much too wise to fall for this…” or “I always thought you were a really smart person, but…”. This is another trick of the ego to put yourself in a superior position thereby attempting to make any argument made by another to seem not as enlightened, educated or informed on the topic being debated. They are usually sandwiched in the beginning and end of a long pontificated lecture of a self-congratulating analytical thesis. What seems like a compliment is in reality quite condescending, much like patting a dog on the head while telling them they have nice intentions but they are wrong.

Reference Bombing
Within a heated online debate, you will often see the back-and-forth of information warfare. In this case, each person will share a rapid-fire of links and references that deem superior or more ‘fact-based’ than the other. These are often characterized by sharing random blog sites where the authors hide their identity but make bold claims about having the hidden truth. Or sharing a 5 hour long youtube video and saying “Here, get up to speed…” to try and deflect, when instead they could summarize their unique perspective. Layers upon layers of assessments are produced and opinions fly rampant framed as facts. This is often accompanied by sloppy language like “Well the FACT is…” which then is followed by an opinion. Opinions are not facts. They are opinions. Usually biased opinions at that.

“Most misunderstandings in the world could be avoided if people would simply take the time to ask, ‘What else could this mean?’ ” - Shannon L. Alder

How the Virus Spreads

The aforementioned W.I.N. strategies are some of the most common ways that Headline Hysteria spreads.

When several of these symptoms show up in groups of people debating on social media, places like Twitter and Facebook are common places to be infected.

You know you have been infected when you develop a fierce desire to defend yourself to clear up a misunderstanding, or you spend hours or days thinking about how to respond to someone’s comment but you are afraid it will get even worse. You walk away feeling like you have been somehow manipulated, but not exactly sure how.

To be seen, heard and recognized for one’s value in the world is a healthy human desire.

It becomes a slippery slope when that desire turns into an obsession.

Combine that with the reality that most people are walking around with some form of either shame, abandonment or betrayal. Oftentimes combinations of all three.

Those trauma patterns become the filters through which many people unconsciously shape their perspectives and use language. The expression is filtered with an unconscious bias to protect themselves while pointing fingers at the perceived perpetrators of their unhappiness.

Now give people a supercomputer in their pocket, with an array of globally connected social platforms with hot topics streaming directly to their fingertips with unfettered access to sharing their opinions, and you’ve got a potent recipe for an outbreak.

Finding the Cure

The great news about the cure of Headline Hysteria is that it comes simply by making a choice.

Social media has been responsible for amazing connections, business opportunities, raising money for great community causes and beautiful art being shared around the world. It’s created an interconnectedness that we share in a way that has never come close in previous generations.

This carries with it the danger of the well being poisoned relatively easily. I myself have at times drank this poison and been infected by the virus.

Sometimes, some of the smartest people we know will drink the poison while claiming to have the antidote. That perspective is in itself its own kind of poison.

The cure is found by simply making a choice.

The choice to be the person to engage in rational discourse when publicly discussing hot topics or simply not engaging at all.

Much of this involves choosing to ask effective questions and doing a great job of listening. Most people choose neither.

Let me be clear — this isn’t about always playing nice, or diluting your message. It’s about creating a clear signal.

10 Strategies For Creating a Clear & Rational Signal

  1. Ask questions before making assumptions
  2. Give the listener of your comment the benefit of the doubt. If you find yourself wanting to point fingers, cast doubt or shame… try pausing, taking a breath and ask a good question instead.
  3. Learn the art of “Non-violent Communication”
  4. Be clear on your big idea before you communicate
  5. Keep in mind that so much of communication is non-verbal. It’s very easy for online comments and other forms of text-based communication to be taken out of context or the tone of the communication to be assumed. Take the time to read carefully and state your words mindfully.
  6. If someone posts a link to a piece of content and you decide to engage, then consume and consider the content first, don’t just comment on the article or mob into the momentum of the other opinions
  7. Don’t assume other people’s intentions, education level, or values simply because of a comment they make or a link they post. People are complex, emotions are complex, psychology is complex. Respect that.
  8. If you are using any of the Ways to W.I.N. above, maybe ask yourself why? Are you more interested in making a point than making an impact?
  9. Finally, as many of the timeless teachings across cultures and generations will offer: Know Thyself. The more you know your ‘self’ — the less you will find the need to explain yourself or prove anything to anyone else.
  10. We live in a world where the real facts are some times hard to come by. Research information from many different points of view. Don’t take everything at face value, and be willing to challenge your existing beliefs.

Final Words

The essence of language has two main parts. The part of one individual to make themselves understood by another (or many), and the ability on the part of that other to understand what was in the mind of the first.

This is all about the signal-to-noise ratio metaphor. We really need more of a clear signal in the world right now. Be the person to create a clear signal. Reduce the noise. Stop the spread of this virus.

This practice takes daily discipline. It is so easy and often subtle to get sucked into other people’s rhetoric and agenda.

Making the choice to opt-out of Headline Hysteria is a great start. Making the choice to be a better, more respectful and more clear communicator is even more important.

Be part of the cure by committing to creating a clear signal.


Footnote #1: I am aware of the origins of the word ‘Hysteria’ and it’s misogynistic roots. In its current context which is “exaggerated or uncontrollable emotion or excitement, especially among a group of people” — which is how it is being used here, and not exclusive to any gender in any way.

Footnote #2: The use of the words virus, pandemic, outbreak and other similar terms in this article are intended solely for metaphorical purposes. I am not a licensed health professional nor am I professing to cure, diagnose or prevent any illness. Anyone with serious mental health concerns should consult a qualified and licensed mental health professional.

is an agent of possibility and challenger of rhetoric

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