Thoughts on internet etiquette

Pointing out factual mistakes

How do or should we conduct ourselves in public online communication, if someone has posted something factually wrong in a public forum? In my opinion, it is entirely correct to point out factual mistakes, in a reasonable and non-confrontational manner. To put it in a very grandiose fashion, the integrity of the internet as a source of reliable and accurate information depends on the individual actions to correct the mistakes, as the internet is often a rumour mill where the wrong and the fanciful are repeated enough to convince a number of people that they are true. Such falsehoods flourish, because some people seem to look for confirmation of whatever wacky ideas they have, rather than finding out factually correct information: we surely must have heard that dreaded phrase it must be true, because I found it on the internet at some point in the recent past.

The problem is that sometimes people take things personally, when a factual mistake is pointed out, as if they are being attacked. No, it’s their public statements relating to certain facts that are under scrutiny. No one is or can be perfect, but if you’ve published something publicly, then you should be prepared to debate it, and if it is demonstrated that there is a convincing case against your position, then you should accept that. It’s not nice to be proven wrong, and I think many of us have been there in one way or another at some point in our lives, but I’d argue that there is a great benefit, because I’ve learnt something and am unlikely to make the same or a similar mistake. There is also the greater benefit in that correct pieces of information gain stronger traction, thus useful for many others.

It would be different for matters of opinion, and – to make things more complicated – the boundaries between facts and opinions are not always neatly drawn. Facts are, in many instances falsifiable, and should be either correct or incorrect, even if what looks like a single fact is actually a conglomerate of many facts, some of which may be true, and others false. In any case, people sometimes do have very strong opinions issues, and they cannot be reconciled with others’ points of view. In such cases, it does behove us to be civil in our exchanges, even if we are certain in our convictions. Because there are no tonal, temporal or visual cues in online exchanges, and expressions can be more strident when written compared to spoken, debates can degenerate into something akin to a drunken pub brawl, usually until someone heeds the advice of leave it, it’s not worth it.

There are also unfortunate tendencies when communicating online to dismiss people easily and perpetually for a single mistake, i.e. it becomes argumentum ad hominem: because someone has made one mistake, that person must be mistaken at all times, hence he or she could, should and will be treated with contempt forevermore. To err is natural to all men and women, and all of us mere mortals would be dismissing each other in perpetuity at an early stage of our acquaintances, if we were to stick to that kind of judgement of others, and I doubt we’d be all so dismissive of others if we knew them and communicated in person. There is of course the reverse situation: some people suspend their critical faculty with someone, because they believe him or her to be infallible, and conclude that because he or she said it, that must be true.

It is poor form to quote something from a book of quotations, since I don’t know the quote in context, and I may not entirely agree with his views on psychiatry, but I think Thomas Szasz got it right when he wrote: [a] child becomes an adult when he realizes that he has a right not only to be right but also to be wrong. Being wrong is not a crime or something to be ashamed of, but being pig-headed and persistent in error even when there is an overwhelming evidence is childish, and perhaps to be pitied. Besides, getting facts wrong in a publication, especially in something that is essentially ephemeral as in a blog or a forum posting, pales into insignificance compared to things that many people get wrong in life.

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