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America's Digital Echo Chamber Problem

TEDx Talk Speaker Theo Wilson has gone undercover in alt-right forums. This is what he learned.

Lisa Bennatan:

Theo Wilson has gone undercover in alt-right chats seeking answers to what causes division in America.

He's a public speaker and poet and joins me to discuss his experience and thoughts on the digital echo chambers Americans find themselves in.

Theo, thank you so much for joining me today. Can you start by giving us a little bit of background about yourself for those who might not be familiar?

Theo Wilson:

I guess I'll start with the part that's relevant. I did a TED Talk in 2017 entitled A Black Man Goes Undercover in the Alt-Right.

And that TED Talk has opened a lot of doors to speak about how to have conversations with folks who are difficult. And the polarization that we're facing in this country has a lot to do with the algorithms of our social media.

Lisa Bennatan:

Could you kind of sum up that story you gave there?

Theo Wilson:

Yeah, so essentially, I was making my own Black Lives Matter content. This was during 2014 into 2015. And it went viral in and of itself.

I started noticing that I was getting trolled by not only some folks who were pretty damn racist, but who had the same misinformation or, shall I say false information—it ain’t misinformation, they were lies.

I didn't realize that we were living in digital echo chambers until a friend of mine told me about the echo chamber effect long before anybody was discussing it.

So I created it on my own, first on YouTube.

And then when I discovered that these YouTube channels that were racist and alt-right had their actual channels and websites, I got pulled into the world of the alt-right before they were even really called that.

And for eight months, I basically gave myself brain damage as an alternate persona named “Lucius25.”

And the TED Talk was about how I realized that there was a spectrum of radicalization. Some of the folks are really hateful, and some of them had honest questions that were misinformed by the political landscape. And those are the folks worth talking to. And that's what the talk was about.

Lisa Bennatan:

You said that there are some folks worth talking to. Can you elaborate that on that? And what do you mean by that?

And how do you even start to talk to people who may be so different or may think so differently from you?

Theo Wilson:

Well, at the time, I was the executive director of an organization called Shop Talk Live, which had used the barbershops in the black community to hold dialogues of critical importance to the black community.

But there was a time where a Confederate leaning gentleman saw common cause in one of our topics, which was really suspicious of the government. As you know, black people in general in this country have had a bad relationship with systems of oppression.

And this Confederate guy had felt the same way from his angle. And he shows up in the barbershop with a Confederate-like symbol on his hat.

And after we calmed the brothers down, who was ready to get at him physically, then we had a conversation. That's one way we did it. But the other one is to have organized civil discussions on online platforms. So there's multiple ways, but they're worth having.

Lisa Bennatan:

And how do you keep that temperature lowered where voices aren't screaming? I mean, maybe they do sometimes, but how do you navigate that?

Theo Wilson:

I don't always succeed.I must be honest. There are times where I have to go away from the table or the computer screen.

But generally, the strategy is to acknowledge that they're not stupid.

They have data that brought them to that conclusion. And they're not necessarily wrong for how they reasoned, right?

People really want to feel like they actually have a reason to feel how they feel.

So there's a way to affirm folks in terms of their process without affirming where they landed. And then you ask them: “are you willing to have a grown folks discussion with me in an adult tone?”

And if they are, then you let them speak and you have discipline in not interrupting. And then you say: “I need you to do the same for me.”

And that's generally the mechanics of how those have to happen. But you have to affirm that people are rational beings that concluded what they concluded for a reason.

Lisa Bennatan:

Would you say the world is more divided now than it was six, or 10 years ago? Or how do you feel that the current state of America is?

Theo Wilson:

We are certainly more divided than we were even six or seven years ago. There's no question about it. We can't even agree on the outcome of presidential elections anymore.

And we have people that are stoking the business model to create more division. So there's no question that we're divided.

However, one silver lining is that people are deeply disgusted with how hot the temperature is.

And even those who may be purveyors of the division are looking for a way out. They are looking for a way out. I've seen multiple signs of that from presidential candidates that may be third party to people that I've talked to who are generally seeking brotherhood but don't know how to say it.

Lisa Bennatan:

What are the consequences of not having discussions like the ones you were talking about earlier with people who disagree with you?

Theo Wilson:

Bloodshed, violence, death, mass shootings, terrorist attacks, you name it.

One of the things I said in the TED Talk was that conversations are some of the last tools that people have before they start picking up guns. If nobody talks to certain people, then they'll just pick up guns.

A lot of people are politically isolated as a symptom of personal isolation. And a lot of the trolls don't have much socially going on in terms of human connection.

If someone doesn't engage them like they're rational folks before they are pulled down the spectrum of radicalization, they will kill people. And that's how important these conversations can be.

Lisa Bennatan:

Do you have hope that things will get better?

Theo Wilson:

Yeah, I have hope in the fact that human beings are relatively cyclical. If we endure peace for too long, sometimes something must be won in drama.

But also, if we end up engaged in too much violence, rhetoric of division and conflict, we also tend to get hungry for a peacemaker. And the peacemakers may have been saying the same things during the time of peace, but the fact is the hunger gets greater, the hotter it gets.

So that's where my hope is. It's just, I wish we could find a way culturally off of the cycle of boom and bust when it came to peace and war.

Lisa Bennatan:

You might not have the answer to this, but do you think that Americans are mostly divided or alternatively, that social media and maybe the media are just giving those voices a bigger megaphone and really Americans might be less extreme, but just those voices don't get heard as much?

Theo Wilson:

Americans are certainly less extreme than the mainstream would have us to believe. And the reason why you know that is because media profits from fear.

Fear drives the news cycle.

When you really drill down and take surveys of people, whether it be Gallup polls or what have you, we tend to meet in the middle on a lot of things.

A friend of mine, Bill Shireman, he has a theory that suggests that there is a middle 70% of us who are rational enough to try to find our way through.

There's extreme 15% on either side. Either the extreme MAGA or the extreme woke who ain't talking to nobody and don't want you to talk to nobody either and since they're so loud the people in the middle 70% think that they don't have a way forward when they do. I think that that's what's pertinent about where we want to be and that is, I guess, a bright spot of hope if you want to take it there.

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