If you’re on twitter a lot(like I am) you might have heard of this recent trend of people praising Osama Bin Laden.
It’s one of the more popular topics at twitter in the week leading up to Thanksgiving. If you searched for Bin Laden on twitter during that time, you’d have seen pages and pages of people talking about the trend.
This seems to goes beyond just talking about blowback, which is the idea that foreign intervention often ends up making you enemies. Apparently some people are unironically saying that Bin-Laden was right, or even that he was justified in carrying out 9/11. It’s good to understand blow-back, but there’s no justifying what Bin Laden did.
To the casual twitter user, this might seem like a disturbing trend. A lot of people are seemingly defending Bin Laden. But something about this phenomenon is strange to me. If so many people are unironically defending Bin Laden, then why haven’t I encountered any of them in the wild? I have encountered people in the wild talking about blowback, but so far, every post I’ve seen where someone is actually defending Bin Laden was brought to me by someone else.
If encountering an ideologue “in the wild” means that you’re encountered them first hand, then encountering them second-hand is analogous to encountering them in a zoo. If you go to an actual zoo, you can be sure that you’ll see some lions, tigers, elephants, gorillas, and any number of exotic animals. However you’d be hard pressed to find those same animals out in the wild. Even if you go to their known habitats, actually seeing one isn’t always a frequent occurrence.
When people share the posts of their ideological opponents, they tend not to share the more reasonable posts. They’re motivated to share the most outrageous ones they can find so that they make their opposition look bad. They’re also trying to drive engagement, and outrageous posts are good at driving engagement.
The first twitter post I referenced in this entry was brought to you by Libs of TikTok. Libs of TikTok is a conservative social media personality that’s dedicated to sharing the most outrageous-looking posts and actions on behalf of liberals. Usually they focus on trans issues, but over the past few months they’ve been posting about Israel–Hamas war. Libs of TikTok is a sort of ideological zoo. Just like you can go to a real zoo to see the lions and elephants, you can go to one of Libs of TikTok’s social media accounts to see the people who praise Bin Laden.This is not to say that Bin-Laden-praisers don’t really exist. They clearly do exist. A lot of people have encountered them, and you can probably go track down some of those posts right now if you really wanted. But they might not be as frequent as they seem. Libs of TikTok, and other similar accounts signal-boost the ones that do exist. They present a distorted view of the ideological landscape, and make things like Bin-Laden praising seem more common then it really is.
This an application of Alyssa Vance’s Chinese robber fallacy: There are over 1 billion Chinese people. If one out of every ten thousand of them are robbers, that would result in more than a hundred thousand Chinese robbers. That’s a lot of robbers, and if someone wanted to make you think that Chinese people were robbers, they could easily share true examples of Chinese robbers until your attention span was depleted, even if only 0.01% of them actually were robbers.
No outright fake news is needed in order to have this effect. If given a large enough world, there are almost always enough examples of a rare ideology to cherry pick in order to make it seem like a common one.
There are many other examples of zoos on the internet. Reddit_Lies on Twitter is a zoo. /r/ChoosingBeggars on Reddit is a sort of zoo. The algorithms on the typical social media site, that feed you the most high-engagement content have the effect of a zoo. Even a normal news publication is a sort of natural zoo. The news doesn’t tell you about every day normal events. It tells you about rare, exceptional events. As John B. Bogart said, "When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news."
I will admit sense-making based entirely on your personal experience isn’t perfect. Perhaps the reason I don’t encounter Bin Laden supporters in the wild is because of my personal internet habits. A lot of the discourse seems to mention TikTok, which I don’t use. Everybody is in a bubble of some sort, so relying only on your personal experiences does have it’s flaws. But it’s still better than relying on a source that’s distorted in a particular direction.
It’s perfectly fine to do your sense-making based on second-hand information, but you have to be mindful of the forces that bring that information to you. You should understand how the information might be manipulated, intentionally or even unintentionally. You should be aware of the motivations your sources have, and the ways in which they’re likely to spin information. You should understand how they can cherry pick true information in order to distort the bigger picture. If you don’t, then you may find yourself an easy target for manipulation.
Take I wrote on increasing calls in Republican and bi-partisan spaces for a Military intervention into Mexico against the Cartels, and why this would inevitably lead to armed conflict within America itself, along with a possible death spiral of instability in the wider North American region.
One of the ways I pass my free time is to scroll through Twitter or Reddit looking for interesting or controversial articles to read. Occasionally, I only make it a paragraph or 2 in before I decide that I don’t trust the author, and that I can’t take anything they write seriously. This can happen even if the article is taking a position I already agree with. Sometimes there’s just something about the article’s style that seems like it can’t be trusted. I was originally going to write a post that contained all the pet peeves that would cause that to happen. However, after I got part-way through, I decided that if I included everything, then this entry would be too long. So instead, I’m writing about each one separately. Pet peeve #1: Portraying your opponent as a caricature.
The thing that inspired me to write about this topic was an article I saw on twitter. It’s an article about a proposed regulation that would force companies to make cancelling subscriptions easier. More specifically, it was about those companies’ reaction to it.
The Federal Trade Commission’s recent proposal to require that companies offer customers easy one-click options to cancel subscriptions might seem like a no-brainier, something unequivocally good for consumers. Not according to the companies it would affect, though. In their view, the introduction of simple unsubscribe buttons could lead to a wave of accidental cancellations by dumb customers. Best, they say, to let big businesses protect customers from themselves and make it a torment to stop your service.
Those were some of the points shared by groups representing major publishers and advertisers during the FTC’s recent public comment period ending in June. Consumers, according to the Wall Street Journal, generally appeared eager for the new proposals which supporters say could make a dent in tricky, bordering-on deceptive anti-cancellation tactics deployed by cable companies, entertainment sites, gyms, and other businesses who game out ways to make it as difficult as possible to quickly quit a subscription. The News/Media Alliance, a trade group representing publishers, tried to refute those customers in its own comments to the FTC. The Alliance claimed its members actually receive “very few complaints” about cancellations. Consumers, according to the Association of National Advertisers, may actually benefit from annoying cancellation friction.
To be clear, I absolutely hate difficult to cancel subscriptions. I also hate so-called “free trials” that bill you if you forget to cancel. Some cancellation processes I’ve encountered were so difficult that they certainly seemed criminal. When I first heard about this proposal, I thought to myself “Finally, someone is going to do something about these predatory practices!”
I agree with the with the article’s apparent position on the proposal. The new rule is a good idea, and it’s needed. Even so, something about the article still managed to rub me the wrong way. Even before I started reading the article, I already disliked it just from the headline alone. By the time I had finished it, I was already trying to find out how the article was deceiving me.
The first sign of trouble was the headline:
Companies Think Their Idiot Customers Will Accidentally Cancel Their Subscriptions if It's Too Easy
This reads like a headline from the onion. You can tell just from reading it that it’s caricature of what they actually said. Companies don’t call literally their customers “idiots” like this. At least, certainly not out in the open.
The article continues:
In their view, the introduction of simple unsubscribe buttons could lead to a wave of accidental cancellations by dumb customers. Best, they say, to let big businesses protect customers from themselves and make it a torment to stop your service.
Again, this message is nothing like what you’d expect a large company to put out. Large companies don’t openly insult customers like this. Large companies also don’t refer to themselves as “Big Business”. This passage even has a little of embedded argument in it. It tells you that it’s a torment to stop your service. Nobody embeds counterarguments in their statements just so you can use it against them. This is supposedly based on what the companies said, but it’s been warped in obvious ways, and it’s hard to tell what the actual statement probably was.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. The article is full of this kind of thing.
Caricature itself isn’t bad if your audience already knows the subject matter, but it’s not a good way to introduce your audience to an opposing position. A caricature, by definition, distorts it’s subject by exaggerating it’s most ridiculous attributes. A caricature of someone’s argument is an exaggerated version of the most ridiculous parts of that argument. In their real statements, there may or may not be nuance and context that make the argument work, but if there is, I can’t expect to find that nuance and context in a caricature. Including it would undermine the idea of caricature itself.
A caricature of a statement is more than just a Straw Man, it gives a sense that the author doesn’t think it’s worthwhile to even check for context. Perhaps they don’t even think context can matter.
Some authors try to weasel their way out of such straw-man accusations by telling you “it’s just a joke”, even though they’re clearly trying to persuade you. A humorous poorly-reasoned argument is still a poorly-reasoned argument. If you have to fall back on “it’s just a joke” in order to defend it, then your point might not be on solid ground to begin with. Saying “It’s just joke” might as well be outright admitting that your argument is without merit.
If you want to actually be convincing, then you should instead, steel man your opponent. Essentially, you provide the best version of their position that you can. Include the nuance and context that makes it work. Then, you can explain why it is wrong.
This way might not feel very good. After all, why help out your opposition by presenting the best version of their argument? But doing so is actually helpful for you. It shows confidence in your own position. If it looks like an argument a real person would believe, then it doesn’t trigger as much skepticism. Perhaps more importantly, it protects you in case your reader learns the real argument from somewhere else. Learning your opponent’s real position won’t sway them as much because you’ve already told them about it. It gives your argument more sticking power.
You can still joke around about the opposing position. Just make sure that I know what that position actually is first. I don’t want to have to guess what their real position probably is.
About Half-way down the article, the author finally included an actual quote,
“If sellers are required to enable cancellation through a single click or action by the consumer, accidental cancellations will become much more common, as consumers will not reasonably expect to remove their recurring goods or services with just one click,” the Association said in a statement.
But at this point, it was too late, the distrust had already started to creep in. The author had already shown that he didn’t care very much how the companies’ actual statements worked.
I looked a bit further into it to figure out what the companies’ real statement was. The quote above, comes from a statement made by the Association of National Advertisers Their full statement can be found here.
This is the part where they talk about “click to cancel”
Requiring “simple” cancellation is a difficult standard for businesses to implement, as there is little detail provided to guide them to understand its meaning and how to comply with this ambiguous requirement. If sellers are required to enable cancellation through a single click or action by the consumer, accidental cancellations will become much more common, as consumers will not reasonably expect to remove their recurring goods or services with just one click. Such accidental cancellations could cause consumers to miss out on essential deliveries of food, water, or medical products, and could create the inconvenience of requiring the consumer to register again for a service they did not intend to cancel in the first place. The possibility of accidental cancellations could be greater in the mobile environment, which may be less optimized to manage complex processes such as account administration. Consequently, in many instances, it may be reasonable for sellers to require some form of customer authentication, or redirection of the consumer to a medium that best facilitates account administration, before processing a cancellation. As a matter of public policy, permitting reasonable customer authentication prior to cancellation helps to minimize mistaken or fraudulent cancellation actions, which lead to customer frustration and undesired lapses in the provision of needed goods or services. Several state-level negative option laws permit reasonable authentication procedures prior to cancellation,17 and the proposed amendments to the Current Rule should similarly allow companies to verify consumer identities prior to effectuating a cancellation choice.
This statement does make some reasonable points about why you might not want a literal 1-click cancel button. If I click a “Cancel” button in the navigation, at minimum, I would expect to see a confirmation page first. One that says “Do you want to cancel your subscription?” and a button that says “Confirm Cancellation”. That’s at least 2 clicks, one to get to the cancel confirmation page, and one to cancel. If my account was cancelled out of the navigation bar, that would be very surprising to me. Something like that really would lead to unintended cancellations. It also makes total sense to force users to log in, in order to cancel. I don’t want some random unauthenticated person messing with my account settings!
There is, however, one major problem with this statement. The proposed rule doesn’t actually require you to make a 1-click cancel button. “Click to cancel” is just a nickname. The actual requirement is a cancellation process that is at least as simple as the sign-up process, and through the same medium:
The proposal also requires sellers to provide a simple cancellation mechanism through the same medium used to initiate the agreement, whether, for instance, through the internet, telephone, mail, or in-person. On the internet, this “Click to Cancel” provision requires sellers, at a minimum, to provide an accessible cancellation mechanism on the same website or web-based application used for sign-up. If the seller allows users to sign up using a phone, it must provide, at a minimum, a telephone number and ensure all calls to that number are answered during normal business hours. Further, to meet the requirement that the mechanism be at least as simple as the one used to initiate the recurring charge, any telephone call used for cancellation cannot be more expensive than the call used to enroll ( e.g., if the sign-up call is toll free, the cancellation call must also be toll free). For a recurring charge initiated through an in-person transaction, the seller must offer the simple cancellation mechanism through the internet or by telephone in addition to, where practical, the in-person method used to initiate the transaction.
This rule requires a 1-click cancel only if you had a 1-click sign up in the first place. If a company requires authentication in order to sign up, then they can require authentication in order to cancel. If it takes you more than one click to sign up, then it can take more than 1 click to cancel. I sure hope these companies don’t have literal 1-click confirmation-less signup buttons, and I certainly hope they aren’t signing you with no authentication either!
But then again, maybe I shouldn’t be too hard on the The Association of National Advertisers for this oversight. The author of the Gizmodo article apparently didn’t catch it either. That would have been quite a good opportunity to make fun of the original statement, and it would have addressed the real statement too.
I’m not very forgiving when it comes to deceptive tactics. Once I get the sense that you’re trying to deceive me, I become suspicious about the whole thing. After all, if the author has already revealed that they don’t care about informing me accurately, how can I trust anything they say? Even if I already agree with their position, I can’t use it as a source. It’s just too unreliable; the people I’m citing it to would, rightly, mock me for it. It’s just not very useful, and mostly makes me dislike the author and maybe even their publication.