Teresa Goertz, August 16, 2019
In our age of continuously growing amounts of online information and knowledge production, accompanied by increasing accessibility to online resources and (perceived) increased media literacy of the general public, traditional authorities and experts (e.g. scholars; teachers; doctors) on the validity of fact-based knowledge, sanctioned by society as having successfully demonstrated their expertise within well-established systems and institutions of knowledge production, tend to be rejected by the general public in favor of home-grown “research” and opinion-formation, which often happen online. While critical thinking, an act of analysis and evaluation of presented information or issues, is desirable in a democracy, which is based on its members’ ability to make informed decisions independently, it becomes problematic when those performing critical thinking are no longer aware of the difference between hard facts and opinions based on personal preferences or beliefs.
Online platforms, and social media such as Reddit, have become places repeatedly sought out by members of the general public as trusted sources of valid information. At the same time, however, it is such platforms that contribute to the myth of increased media literacy, i.e. the ability to critically examine and question one’s sources of information. One subreddit serving as an example for the fallacies of anonymous debate is the subreddit r/changemyview. Here, Original Posters (hereafter abbreviated as OP) are invited to come with the intention to have other users change their mind on issues of their (the OP’s) choosing, provided arguments of the commenters are convincing to them. In the quest for most convincing views, discourse on this subreddit blurs not only the lines between expert and personal experience, but also between facts and opinions. The resulting research question of this essay is therefore not, whether or not or how often discourse on r/changemyview results in an emphasis of personal experience over expertise but rather how and where the liminal space between the two comes into existence.
The Reddit Myth
Myth-making is a central feature of reddit, although it was probably never intended to be. When Roland Barthes discusses the workings of mythologies, he sees myth-making as essentially rooted in language because it is a type of speech, a form of communication to transmit a message. Explaining this type of speech, Barthes draws and builds on Ferdiand de Saussure’s theory of semiology. While de Saussure upholds that signs consist of the two principal components “signified” (concept) and “signifier” (sound-image), Barthes takes this concept further by stating that signs can also become signifiers for other signs. This phenomenon he calls second-order systems. In his day, Barthes’ concern originated in the (ab-)use of signs in advertisement and the skillful manipulation of connotations associated with particular forms of denotation. (Also see Bartes, Mythologies). Today, this understanding of mythology is also applicable to social media.
In the context of Reddit and its subreddit r/changemyview, it is worth considering how the platform as a whole creates myth and how myth-making relates to r/changemyview. In the Reddit “About” page, Reddit defines itself as a “home to thousands of communities, endless conversation, and authentic human connection” (“The Conversation Starts Here”). By using the terms “home”, “community”, “conversation” and “human connection” to describe their website, the creators of Reddit draw on the optimistic, human-centered connotations of these words and re-inscribe them onto the abstract concept of a life-less and dehumanized website. Effectively this establishes and normalizes in Reddit-users’s minds the idea that Reddit is a natural location to have human-centered discussions. In the subreddit “/r/changemyview” myth-making continues in further dimensions. Most importantly, based on the subreddit’s name, discussions within this subreddit are collectively labeled as concerning “views” but it is unclear whether users are aware of their crossing the thin line between holding an informed or uninformed opinion and acknowledging or lacking understanding of hard facts. Any user who has an active Reddit account is authorized or even invited to make their contribution to conversations in r/changemyview, but it is rarely considered whether a user is qualified to participate in the formation of others’ views.
Media Literacy, Critical Thinking, and Anonymity in CMV
Forming opinions and holding informed views, in any discourse including to but by far not limited to social media discussions, is closely linked to critical thinking, the ability to analyze and evaluate information presented and issues at hand. As a continuation of critical thinking, media literacy can be understood as the ability to distinguish credible and trustworthy online (re)sources and to understand and detect possible biases of resources. In the case of r/changemyview, allowing any and all users to participate in any conversation, as long as they are willing to have a conversation with commenters and are open to changing their view (“Rule E”), and encouraging them to explain why they hold a certain view (“Rule A”), implicitely ascribes to users of r/changemyview the ability to apply critical thinking as well as media literacy skills.
Generally speaking, however, it appears that rather than promoting an understanding of what sources to trust, the very fact that discussions happen on this social media platform and not on platforms or forums frequented by approved experts on relevant topics seems to point towards a rejection of expertise and expert knowledge production and preservation. Moreover, while allowing for and promoting user anonymity throughout Reddit implies the opportunity for focusing on and valuing what is said over who says it, anonymity on social media at the same time comes with the risk of devaluing the expertise of traditional knowledge authorities (e.g. scholars) by allowing equal opportunity to all users, experts or non-experts, to voice their opinions. In fact, if anything anonymity might actually underline the notion that no-one on Reddit is an expert, even if users are free to provide information about their profession to increase their credibility. The problem here, however, lies in the reliance on the honesty of users because other than in real world public life, society-approved markers of expertise, such as degrees or certificates from traditional institutions of knowledge production, such as schools or universities, are not required as proof of expertise.
When a platform such as r/changemyview mainly consists of conversations between non-experts who are not reliably able to distinguish between opinions and facts, they (likely unknowingly) run the risk of blurring the line between getting closer to and finding universal truth and creating their own truth. Once users are no longer willing to, or equally detrimental, no longer able to distinguish the two, they are implicitly undermining the broader public’s reliance on experts and expertise, while critical thinking as a precursor to independent decision making becomes an illusion, further perpetuating the downward spiral of rejecting expertise knowledge.
A Distant Look
In order to better understand the ways in which truth-finding and truth-making work in r/changemyview, it is valuable to take a closer look at conversations and discussions in this subreddit. Because it is the goal of this subreddit to help users arrive at a change in opinion or view, it is reasonable to select conversation threads which actually resulted in the original poster’s (OP) change of view. Because r/changemyview is an extremely active subreddit with thousands of submissions, it is best to make use of distant or machine reading in order to find the previously described threads with changes of opinion. Because r/changemyview makes use of flairs (a kind of tag helping users filter for specific types of posts), in the dataset used for this essay, it is possible to filter out submissions marked with the flair “Delta(s) from OP” which indicates that the OP awarded one or several so-called “Delta(s)” to a commenter who convinced the OP to change their view. Said dataset contains, among others, submission titles (indicating the topic to be discussed) and text bodies (the OP’s explanation of why they hold a certain view) as well as associated usernames derived from a complete web scrape through the Reddit API performed by Thomas Van Nuenen on August 5, 2019.
In order to find representative submissions to be further analyzed with close reading, I calculated term frequency-inverse document frequency (tf-idf) scores for unigrams as well as a range of n-grams on the subset of submission titles marked with the flair “Delta(s) from OP” in order to find relevant phrases and terms providing insights into topics discussed in these submissions. While unigram scores turned out to be less insightful than expected, tri-grams provided a clear sense of concerns in terms of determining discussion topics. The tri-grams with the highest tf-idf scores are “universal basic income”, “student loan debt”, and “nothing morally wrong” (see Figure 1). Because “universal basic income” has a significantly higher score than the other two (0.4 (rounded) vs. 0.2 (rounded)), for my close reading I selected it as the entry point for my close reading. The examples used for close reading are chosen from the list of submissions containing the phrase “universal basic income” in their title (determined computationally by string search, see Figure 3).
Before I undertake the close reading, it should be noted that even though the aforementioned tf-idf scores for unigrams from submissions marked with the flair “Delta(s) from OP” proved less useful for determining discussion topics, the list of unigrams receiving the top thirty highest tf-idf scores contain two surprising results. Due to the fact that I also determined the tf-idf scores for unigrams in all submission titles, regardless of flairs, I am able to compare the tf-idf scores for any given word as it is relevant for the entire dataset of all submission titles or for the subset of flair marked submission titles. Two words stood out with significant scores within all submission titles: “think” and “believe” (See Figure 2). This is highly relevant, because these two terms are closely linked to the expression of knowledge or lack thereof and personally held beliefs. It was at this point in my distant reading, preceding any close readings, that I decided to shift the focus of my essay from moderation practices to considerations of opinion versus fact-based conversations. Reflections on moderation practices in r/changemyview are still an important aspect of this essay but are in much less focus than previously intended. Instead, resulting from the surprising distant reading results, close attention to the use of phrases such as “think” and “believe” became much more relevant in the following close reading of user conversations.
A Closer Look
In my close reading of r/changemyview submissions, at this point, I am less interested in what opinions users hold and rather want to understand how their attitude and expression of critical thinking and media literacy influences the distinction between opinions or views and hard facts. As expressed in the above discussion of the relevance of Barthes’s concept of myth-making for social media platforms such as reddit, mythologies are essentially rooted in language and therefore it is crucial to analyze users’ choice of words.
In the submission titled “CMV: Universal Basic Income (UBI) is necessary to offset the effects of automation” user u/Kyles39 opens the explanation of his viewpoint with the words “I was reading up on warehouse work recently…” (see Figure 4). To other users, this may signal that u/Kyles39 has performed research and looked up sources providing information relating to warehouse work. Seemingly, u/Kyles39 has made use of the tools of an expert, but in fact displays a lack of media literacy. While this user highlights that he looked up sources, they fail to mention what kind of sources they looked into. For a trained expert, this would be one of the first questions to ask, because different sources have different levels of credibility or possible implicit biases. For the expert, this problem is blatantly obvious, but to other users it may not be. Instead, as long as no one calls out u/Kyles39 for their lack of critical engagement with sources and the lack of reference to said sources, it is hard to not conclude that other users in this thread accept u/Kyles39’s research as equally valid as that of an expert on the topic of universal basic income, while in the eyes of an expert trained in critical thinking the same language clearly indicates a lack of critical media literacy.
When u/Kyles39 explains his views introducing them with phrases such as “I believe warehouse work, like many other types of work, is extremely susceptible to complete automation” or “As it stands I believe two things,” again, critical analysis of his post should focus on “believe” as the central word. The user’s goal is to present their view in a factual manner, but the use of the word “believe” in that context is curious, as its meaning stands in contrast to the treatment of facts: believing is not knowing. The word choice allows for the following inference: the user, not able to discern between experts holding views derived from the careful long-term study and interpretation of a wide range of factors and facts and non-experts holding views based on personal opinions and uncritical consultation of unknown sources, imposes belief onto an issue that requires detailed scrutiny of and projection-making skills for the matter at hand.
Commenter u/FatherBrownstone displays a different kind of lack of critical thinking. For one he does not question the validity or at least ask for clarification of the OP’s sources. In addition, he makes inadequate use of providing an example to clarify his position. While he seemingly backs up his argument by use of a “case study”, he actually makes a broad claim based in a singular example lacking in context. While an expert study of such a topic as the history of automation would require consideration of various sectors impacted by automation or an explication why consideration of a specific sector (in u/FatherBrownstone’s example agriculture) is justified or relevant, while at the same time acknowledging that the latter approach might contribute to truth-finding relevant to one but not all related sectors, u/FatherBrownstone presents his argument in two short paragraphs lacking in the much needed backing up of his broad claims and beliefs (see Figure 5).
From the above examples it becomes clear that when users seemingly make use of the tools of experts, such as doing research, backing up their claims, and rebutting other user posts, their language quickly reveals to those trained in expert research and critical thinking that their methods are those of non-experts. When users commenting and responding to other users mistake their language as that of an actual expert and the use of phrases such as “I think” and “I believe” are used to validate non-expertly ways of seeking out truth, they unknowingly contribute to the blurring of the differentiation between facts and opinions, truth-finding and truth-making.
In this final section of the essay, it is worth asking what the role of moderation is in the liminality of facts and opinions on r/changemyview. First, it is worth noting that this subreddit’s moderation rules in no way address the issue of expert versus non-expert. In part this is justified, because by Derridian logic, the binary of expert and non-expert is not as clear-cut as may seem. In fact, just as black and white may overlap into gray-zones, experts may be experts in one field but not in another, and vice versa. However, even though trained experts may not be experts in subjects other than the concentration of their field of study, their ability to apply critical thinking to other subjects does not immediately disappear just because they are not an expert. On the other hand, those not sufficiently trained in critical thinking and media literacy might be less likely to recognize the signs of non-expert thinking and argumentation. To return to the role of moderation in r/changemyview, a lack of addressing the expert/non-expert issue perpetuates the notion among members of the subreddit community that anyone is qualified to provide an opinion on any given subject.
Furthermore, the moderation rules do not expressly require users to back up their views and opinions with facts. Instead, it is assumed that users prove the reasons for their opinion in their arguments. In the case of OPs, submissions are expected to contain a five-hundred-character explanation for holding a certain view (Rule A). Explaining one’s view, however, is not the same thing as backing up one’s claims with facts. This way, the blurring of the line between fact and opinion could be considered to be located within the establishment of moderation rules that naturalize the value of personal experience guised as expertise over actual expertise itself. Due to the likely intercorrelated nature of moderation establishing the framework of conversation and debate in this subreddit and submissions and comments influencing the further development of moderation rules, it is difficult, if not impossible to trace which one of the two first incited the growing liminality between opinions and facts.
In order to get a better understanding of the spread of the emphasis of personal experience over expertise, it is necessary to expand both distant and close reading methods of this essay to undergo further cycles of distant-reading-induced close readings and close-reading-informed distant readings to arrive at a greater sample size of submissions and comments surrounding the use of the verbs “think” and “believe” and to estimate the prevalence of posts such as those detailed by u/Kyles39 and u/FatherBrownstone. Nevertheless, regardless of scale, whether the kind of myth-making outlined above (i.e. the lack of drawing a line between opinion and fact) happens intentionally or not, that does not make it any less precarious. Instead, under the guise of seemingly democratized and rational debate among a group made up of a seemingly unidentifiable mix of experts and non-experts, even a small number of conversations rooted in personal experience (as opposed to expertise) has the potential to contribute to a continuous destabilization of the value of facts, giving way to the overvaluation of personal opinions regardless of (dis)qualification to voice input on a given matter.
Figure 1 Visualization of top 30 highest tf-idf scores for trigrams in submissions marked by the flair “Delta(s) from OP”.
Figure 2 Visualization of top 30 highest tf-idf scores for unigrams in submissions marked by the flair “Delta(s) from OP”.
Figure 4 OP submission by u/Kyles39, “CMV: Universal Basic Income (UBI) is necessary to offset the effects of automation.” r/changemyview, 18 Apr. 2018, https://www.reddit.com/r/changemyview/comments/8d7gk3/cmv_universal_basic_income_ubi_is_necessary_to/ ( accessed 15 Aug. 2019).
Figure 5 Comment to OP submission in Figure 4, by u/FatherBrownstone. 18 Apr. 2018, https://www.reddit.com/r/changemyview/comments/8d7gk3/cmv_universal_basic_income_ubi_is_necessary_to/ (accessed 15 Aug. 2019).
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Translated from the French by Richard Howard and Annette Lavers, Hill and Wang, 2012. Print.
r/changemyview. Reddit.Inc, 2019. https://www.reddit.com/r/changemyview/. Accessed 16 Aug. 2019.
“The Conversation Starts Here.” Reddit.Inc, 2019. https://www.redditinc.com/. Accessed 16 Aug. 2019.
“Rule A.” r/changemyview, Reddit.Inc. 2019. https://www.reddit.com/r/changemyview/wiki/rules#wiki_rule_a. Accessed 16 Aug. 2019.
“Rule E.” r/changemyview, Reddit.Inc. 2019. https://www.reddit.com/r/changemyview/wiki/rules#wiki_rule_e. Accessed 16 Aug. 2019.
u/FatherBrownstone. 18 Apr. 2018, https://www.reddit.com/r/changemyview/comments/8d7gk3/cmv_universal_basic_income_ubi_is_necessary_to/. Accessed 15 Aug. 2019.
u/Kyles39. “CMV: Universal Basic Income (UBI) is necessary to offset the effects of automation.” r/changemyview, 18 Apr. 2018, https://www.reddit.com/r/changemyview/comments/8d7gk3/cmv_universal_basic_income_ubi_is_necessary_to/. Accessed 15 Aug. 2019.