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5 June 2018updated 01 Jul 2021 12:15pm

Why someone disagreeing with you on Twitter is actually good (even if they’re wrong)

Studies show that dissent is vital to help us make good decisions, and to think about them more deeply before we do.

By James Ball

Twitter is where the British left goes to argue with itself. The topic might change with each week, but the tenor doesn’t: our mood of mutual distrust means debate is rare while arguments are common.

This week’s row was over the cosmetics company Lush and its provocative campaign in support of the victims of the #spycops scandal – the women who had relationship (and sometimes children) with men who turned out to be undercover police officers, whose quest for justice is progressing grindingly and appallingly slowly.

To me, Lush’s efforts seemed likely to provoke a sharp backlash. It would be too easy to frame as against all policing rather than this specific scandal, and I tweeted along those lines. This was soon vindicated by huge political backlash, and a Daily Mail front page.

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What happened on Twitter was somewhat different: a number of left-wing commentators tweeted and retweeted messages implying I had sided with the police rather than their victims. This was outright dishonesty. For nearly five years I sat with and worked with the Guardian journalists whose diligent work over several years brought the #spycops scandal to light. I was part of an activist group who had an FBI mole.

My concern was one of tactics: Lush does have a genuine commitment to controversial causes, but also relies on such activism as part of its marketing. I also believed that publicity would prove damaging to the actual cause of the victims of the police in this case. For businesses, almost all publicity is good publicity; for people seeking redress this is far less true.

That wasn’t the debate my critics chose to have, though. Inevitably, a pile-on followed, with hundreds of people releasing their anger in a meaningless direction.

Those of us who work in the media have come to regard such backlashes, and the accompanying abuse, as the status quo – although we shouldn’t – but there is a deeper problem: such adverse reactions weaken the left, and they weaken our ideas.

The basis for this lies in the work of perhaps the world’s most qualified expert on dissent, professor Charlan Nemeth of the University of California’s department of psychology. Nemeth’s argument – backed up by numerous lab studies – is that dissent is vital to help us make good decisions, and to think about them more deeply before we do.

We generally all like to conform to a majority view: Nemeth’s research shows that 90 per cent of jury decision can be predicted simply by knowing the view on the first ballot. She also cites famous research that showed that when volunteers were asked to pick which of three differently sized lines on a blackboard matched another in length – a very easy task – 37 per cent of people would pick an obviously wrong answer if everyone else did.

We are minded to go along with the crowd, and this means we don’t consider other options, and often we don’t consider our own judgment. This weakens our tactics, our decision making, and closes our mind.

Dissent – someone speaking out offering a different and honestly-held view – breaks that consensus, and as such dissenters are generally the least-liked person in any group. But the evidence shows they improve the decision reached, even if they are wrong. In the line-matching example earlier, if even one person picked the right answer, the number of people who went along with the crowd’s wrong decision dropped from 37 per cent to just 9 per cent. 

Dissenters don’t need to be correct to be helpful, Nemeth argues, but they do need to be honest: appointing devil’s advocates, or asking people to argue positions they don’t hold, is better than nothing but much weaker than genuine dissent.

I would, of course, argue my view on Lush has been vindicated. Lush’s sales will not be hurt by its stand (they’ll likely increase) – it is a good company which pays its tax and pays living wage, but a profit making company all the same, and it will be fine. But to me, the row will have shifted public sympathies against the victims and to the police. This could be wrong – and others will doubtless feel the publicity overall will have been worth the row.

This, though, is a disagreement that we can hold: we can accept all sides support the victims and want justice in this case and disagree on tactics. The evidence suggests doing this on these issues, on policy, and on political tactics will make us more effective.

Instead, we value conformity: you’re with us or against us, and dissent is taken as a sign of dishonesty, of different values, or of selling out. There is something all of us, from whichever faction of the left we’re from, can do to help re-energise ourselves: we must remember that honest people can disagree, and that we should listen before we shout when that happens.

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