Continuing Challenges in Survivor Blog Communities
Challenge #2 – Listen for the Natural Limits
of Crowd-Sourced Fact Gathering.
A few years ago, I posted an article entitled, Is It Time to Tell My Story? It included suggestions and questions for working through our experiences as survivors of abuse. The two main goals behind doing this were (1) to gain insight by processing what happened to us, (2) so we could share it and hopefully help prevent others from likewise experiencing abuse or help them recover if they’ve been victimized.
One of the frameworks I presented was on different kinds of information. This is important for social media, because – as we’ve seen the trend increasing over recent years – it is full of inaccuracies and outright falsehoods. Some people naively post alt.facts as if they were accurate and legitimate, or disinformation that mixes a bit of truth but the rest is askew, or intentionally inflammatory theories designed to poke people and get a reaction out of them.
Bottom line: If we accept whatever we read at face value, we’re going to absorb a lot of garbage. We need to think critically so we can respond with discernment. Here is what I posted about differences between various kinds of evidences and critical thinking skills:
Facts. Details that are not easily disputed, often related to some kind of concrete document. For instance, the electronic timestamp on an email setting the time something happened, or a line in a phone record that tracks a long-distance call made.
Observations. Something someone has seen, so it is factual at some level, but is not necessarily the full picture, or a fully accurate picture of what was actually there.
Analysis. How facts and observations and documents and any other forms of evidence fit together, plus what seems to be missing and what may be overemphasized.
Interpretation. Opinions of how someone perceives the evidence to fit together in the larger picture, the significance of the event and the evidence, what it means in the flow of history for a particular person or situation.
Coherence. This is about patterns in the evidence and analysis and interpretation, whether what’s there “makes sense” together or if it seems there are gaps in evidence or in logic in putting evidence together. Or if there is an overgeneralization – a large pattern that doesn’t have enough quantitative or qualitative evidence from the situation to support it
Speculation. Opinions of why someone may have done action ABC (“back-casting”), or what could have happened if XYZ had/hadn’t happened instead (“forecasting”). The more facts, observations, analysis, and interpretations available, the more likely that such speculations will be reasoned and reasonable – even if there is no right or wrong answer to “why” and “what if” kinds of questions.
These things make a difference. For instance, I wonder how much of the disastrous attempts at social media “dialog” during the 2016 political season involved wrangling over differences in interpretations and speculations, without clear efforts to figure out the relevant facts. And so, it frequently felt like two sides each yelling at each other with bullhorns. Nothing much got accomplished. There was little persuading with information and reasoning. People tried to overwhelm one another with interpretations and conclusions. Somewhere in the midst of that, the values of civility and the common good showed they’d gotten lost.
In survivor blogging, a lot of the writers I know invest time in “due diligence.” They’re seeking to get their information straight – collecting as many facts and observations as possible so they can sort through what’s relevant to patterns that indicate abuse. If they’ve made a clear case, the “preponderance of evidence” will show it, even if it is not “beyond a shadow of a doubt.” After all, these are case studies for exposing toxicity, not legal trials for determining criminality. But still, due diligence is crucial to presentations that are research-oriented and fact-based. And these are crucial to fostering an understanding of how systemic abuse works, and how to challenge it.
As I see it, there can be a problem involving this critical thinking equation. It’s about the limits of crowd-sourcing facts, and it emerges more often in survivor blog comment threads than in the articles themselves. The articles can present larger underlying issues of theology, organizational structures, movements, institutions, etc., and people can discuss those. This constructive type of crowd-sourcing brings out good questions for further investigation. However, comments rarely give additional facts for research to put together the bigger picture. That’s because few readers typically have been in the very church or ministry situation under discussion, or haven’t been in similar-enough situations to offer relevant insight from their parallel experiences. That isn’t good or bad, it just is.
However, I get a sense that when a comment thread has reached the limit of factual information available, that creates a sort of threshold for when a thread tends to go off-topic. With no more factual pieces at hand to glue into the puzzle, the overall profile seems to tip toward expressing opinions, emotional reactions to the situations, and/or speculations.
And it seems to me that this is the point where it’s most likely to get hung up in “tone” issues, spats among commenters, rants on unrelated topics, injection of entirely different situations that have little to do with the original post. Then the thread gets more unproductive on that topic. It’d probably be better to start new posts where these kinds of comments would be on-topic – especially if the blog is geared to both research (where factual observations, analysis, and interpretations are central) and recovery (where personal story and emotional elements are highly important). When the former runs out in the thread, the latter can run over it.