Janet Bufton: Reconciling the real world with the online world must be an urgent priority

We have to find empathy for even those we strongly disagree with
A protester braces from the blowing snow as they record police blocking Sparks Street, as they take action to put an end to a protest, which started in opposition to mandatory COVID-19 vaccine mandates and grew into a broader anti-government demonstration and occupation, on its 23rd day, in Ottawa, Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022. Justin Tang/The Canadian Press.

Ross Douthat writes in the wake of the Ottawa Convoy protests that they revealed a new sort of class war: those whose lives are lived online and relatively stable through pandemic lockdowns and restrictions versus those who are forced to live in the real world and bore the brunt of pandemic restrictions. 

But the online-versus-physical work breakdown misses something more important. Convoy protesters live much of their lives in an online subculture flexing its political muscles for the first time in Canada. And they’re not the only ones.

Existing in an environment in which a set of opinions and policy positions are validated, hopes and fears are reinforced, and even basic facts about the world are changed put Convoy protesters at a disadvantage both when police boots hit the ground in Ottawa and also when it comes to finding empathy among Canadians unsympathetic to the protest. Dismissing them as a “fringe minority” (echoes of “basket of deplorables”) served only to unify the group and steel its resolve.

That the Convoy is remarkably online was widely reported by those who spent time among the Convoy, whether on the ground or on Facebook, Telegram, and Zello. Matt Gurney wrote of walking around the protest, “All Canadians know it’s poor manners to walk in front of someone who’s about to snap a picture. Now imagine that, but it’s 50 people, all stumbling around with selfie sticks narrating their impressions to whatever followers are watching from home.” Online, Justin Ling followed Telegram posts with lines that would otherwise seem out of nowhere when they started trending a few days later. 

James McLeod painted a dramatic picture of how this played out on the ground:

The journalist was holding a mic and had a cameraman shooting the interaction. But the other side of the conversation was documented too. As the protester yelled at the journalist, she was holding a smartphone that was clearly livestreaming video.

In the background nearby, another man was also shooting video of the encounter, and over the man’s shoulder another person watched — Caryma S’ad, a minor pandemic celeb, lawyer, cartoonist and self-styled gonzo journalist who posts photos and videos of antivax protesters, while asking supporters for cash donations by email. 

And in addition to all these onlookers, I was watching the interaction from a different angle, livestreamed to YouTube by one of the countless hustlers who ride the line between journalism and activism, propagandizing for the convoy demonstrators while monetizing their online content.

Everything is documented from every angle and objective truth is impossible to attain.

The information environment in which many of these protesters spend so much meaningful time rejects conflicting information. Within it, police at protests are violent only because BLM and Antifa are violent. Vaccines are experimental and being forced on us by a traitorous prime minister. The authoritarian socialist World Economic Forum has captured Canada’s major political parties. Calling Rideau Hall will allow you to register a vote of no confidence and compel the Governor General to remove Justin Trudeau from office. 

This problem isn’t exclusive to the Convoy. There is an opposing information silo appealing to the political left—one in which everyone sympathetic to the protest is an enthusiastic proponent sending coded Nazi messages. In which KKK-calibre racists are everywhere. In which opposition to any left-wing policy means support for right-wing authoritarianism. The labyrinthine logic that gets you there is no less darkly impressive than any explanation of the Great Reset. It’s been encouraged by right-wing trolling, to be sure. That doesn’t mean it must be more securely moored to reality.

This should all be so tedious. We could roll our eyes at people who spend too much time online and move along, if only it weren’t also consequential. 

In the past few weeks, MPs have brought these worlds into the House in ways still hard to identify to those who haven’t run into them. Conservative MP Colin Carrie brought conspiracy theories about the World Economic Forum into the House. A few days later, Liberal MP Ya’ara Saks brandished an online theory that “Honk Honk” must be a coded neo-Nazi message

When online scripts break into real-world debate, we have to stop brushing it off. 

We must speak up when we see it on our own side—no matter how bad the other side might be. And we must know what we’re looking for so we don’t amplify a message just because it’s on our side of the culture war. It will take nuance (heaven help us), but friendly, informed criticism is the most likely to get through to people who have decided their opponents are evil. 

When we see it in a cause we oppose, we have to find a way to build empathy that can sit with even our strongest disagreement. Understanding paired with informed disagreement might chip away at hostility from those who can be reached.

The problem of disconnect between a privileged “laptop class” from the working class is real. It needs to be addressed. We need to interact with people who aren’t the same as us. The sooner we can get back to safely seeing people face-to-face, the easier that might become. 

The problem of disconnect between internally coherent online worlds from one another, from the validity of conflicting information, and from the messiness and shades of grey of the real world is one that may undermine our ability to speak to each other at all. It’s far more serious. It’s hitting the real world. And no one has yet figured out how to solve it. 

But we have to try.

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Agreed. But empathy needs to be understanding the root issues and addressing those. I would observe that we have been living (in the last 20+ years) with an increasing trend of various groups wanting to return to the past – revoking social changes, including legislation. This includes feeling threatened by changes in our population mix. The last 2 years have acted as a 2x to 10x accelerator, including the ease of building “group think” online. It is entirely accurate to say the “laptop class” is confident in the future, those doing increasingly automated and marginalized jobs in the “real world”, not so much…

Last edited 7 months ago by Neil Thomson

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