Abandoning Facebook two years ago, because I was tired of prejudice, I persisted with Twitter for a while until it too seemed to have become a place filled with name-calling, hair-pulling and face-scratching.
Starting teacher training last September, I was advised that I should have a Twitter account to access the wisdom of the best theorists and practitioners. Having no desire to be re-acquainted with the vitriol I had previously encountered on Twitter, I opened a new account and sought to follow those who had interesting or constructive things to say, yet even the most anodyne posts can sometimes seem to provoke angry comments.
What I have learned is that there is no point in trying to challenge assertions. At the time of the 2016 referendum on Britain’s departure from the European Union, I pointed to Census figures on immigration. The person whose opinion I had questioned said that the Census figures were made up by the government in order to cover up the truth. Any evidence that might contradict what a person asserts is dismissed as “fake news” or is claimed to be the product of conspiracies and cover-ups.
Writing in TES magazine Dr Christian Bokhove refers to the work of Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler and their 2010 paper, “Research When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions.” The paper presented by Nyhan and Reifler’s paper notes that they had presented similar findings in 2006. The research had uncovered a number of cases where “corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.” The phenomenon they describe is not new, they reference writings from the 1990s. It would seem that for at least two decades people have preferred their own version of events; when confronted with incontrovertible truths, they become more persistent in their assertions. Nyhan and Reifler conclude, “many citizens seem or unwilling to revise their beliefs in the face of corrective information, and attempts to correct those mistaken beliefs may only make matters worse.
The rejection of that which is self-evident has a long tradition. Conspiracy theorists have found confirmation of their beliefs in the attempts to challenge those beliefs; the adduced evidence is seen not as a contradiction of the theory, but as proof of the power of those who are the conspirators. Revolutionary socialists have seen arguments against Marxist tenets not as pragmatic responses, but as evidence of the false consciousness of those who disagree with them, a false consciousness that demonstrates the power of the capitalist system. Christian fundamentalists regard those who reject their “truths” as having been blinded by the devil and see the rejection as merely a confirmation of their convictions. The exchanges that can drive a rational person from social media stand in traditions that date back centuries.
Sometimes, there really is no point in arguing.