Editor’s comment: Let’s stop giving the trolls a platform

It is increasingly said that the left is in part to blame for the rise to power of the right. A rise that in the case of Donald Trump is best summed up in a single sentence; Those in power took him literally, but never seriously, while his admirers took him seriously, but not literally. We could now be on the cusp of learning some potentially difficult lessons and ones for which the history books draw startling parallels.

For the left, Trump and Brexit were the joke that kept on giving. Not a day went past without a headline to be ridiculed. For satirists the barrel remains full, but with greater frequency we’ll double check the calendar to be sure it’s not April 1st when reading the newstrump

The currently viral ‘Stop Funding Hate’ campaign further got me thinking about why people support such clearly biased media outlets and why Facebook is now moving to weed out propaganda from our feeds. The conclusion; regardless of whether they truly believe a headline, people love to be outraged. Though in the case of politics the agenda likely runs far deeper, Brexit’s “leaders” and Trump were the human clickbait for which media moguls couldn’t resist putting on a platform. You know long before you decide to fall victim to clickbait that you’re not in for pleasant reading. You might consider even before you’ve read the article hitting the retweet button at sheer outrage of the headline. The writer knows this and when it comes to politics at least, they’ll know what buttons to push to get a response.

In part, this is why I can understand why social media, then the UK bike press and subsequently mainstream press bit so hard on yet another petition calling for cyclists to “pay tax and carry insurance.” It’s an argument that’s been dismissed eloquently time and time again, but very often just weeks later it’ll resurface. Often it’ll be a radio talk show, notorious for one sided conversation.

I’ve been a guest on a handful of talk shows and despite having gone live with the best of intentions and with a plan of sorts to construct a fact-based and sensible dialogue, have more often than not been talked over with inaccuracies and anecdote. It’s lead me to conclude that some things just aren’t worth the breath, nor are they worth participating in. Despite coming prepared, I’d brought a plastic knife to a gunfight in which the loud and obnoxious booms drowned the voice of reason out. Media bias is very real, as is at present the UK legal system when it comes to handing out punishment to motorists infringing cyclists rights to the road.

Pedal Parity's bingo card for dialogue on why cyclists "shouldn't cycle on the roads"
Pedal Parity’s bingo card for dialogue on why cyclists “shouldn’t cycle”

Despite having to be re-written to correct a bingo card full to the brim with anecdotes on red light jumping and mythical taxes, the petition in question has now unfortunately gone viral.

I’ve seen cyclists share links directly to the petition. Of course they would, their favoured news sources wrote about the petition first, knowing the click value of outrage. Like many others before it, this would have long been consigned to the bin had the cycle press not once again offered an appetiser.

(I’m now reliably informed that cyclists are even signing the petition just to leave comments shouting the petition down. These comments of course will not be read out in parliament, should it get that far. The tally however, does matter.)

Five years ago the mainstream press cared little for publishing cycling content. However, with Gold medal success and groundswell in numbers cycling in cities times have changed. The mainstream press now know the traffic value of the purported motorists vs cyclists war and will happily regurgitate a main course for the trolls to feed on. Unfortunately, you’ll find coverage of this nature far more often than you’ll find balanced analysis of how cycling can change environments for the better.

The topic, if we’re not collectively careful, also has potential to negatively impact mountain bike access to trails and the vital progress of the electric bike market. It was put to me recently that “we’re one front page headline away from a blanket ban on e-bikes off road.” Thankfully, forward thinkers like industry legend Gary Fisher are pushing for land managers to try e-bikes themselves before being swayed by headlines and hearsay.

Herein lies our problem; what should be non-starter debates are allowed to travel up the chain by entertaining those whose minds we are extremely unlikely to change.

Why the certainty that the current methodology is ineffective? It’s based in science; Google ‘affect heuristic’. In short, this is a fascinating, but totally relatable piece of psychology. The human brain (yours and mine included) is hard-wired to reach an emotional conclusion. Simply put, we’ll default to a conclusion based on our fears, pleasure triggers trafficor surprise. It’s a cop out, sure, but for the time-pressed or willfully unwilling it’s a heck of a lot simpler than trawling pages of evidence to find out you’ve been wrong all along. A bit of a defeatist attitude to take, perhaps, but I need not persuade you that humans have become inherently lazy in this day and age of convenience.

It’s most famously demonstrated by Nobel Memorial Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman. He found that insurance companies may offer two things that are the same, but badged up in very different ways. His question; “How much would you spend on an insurance policy in the case of death for any reason?” Conclusions reached, Kahneman then asked; “How much would you pay for an insurance policy in which the cause of death is a terrorist attack?”

The findings are startlingly illogical. The value of the second policy consistently ranked higher, despite the exact same morbid outcome. No logic applied at all, the fear-based emotional reaction won out. Makes you ponder just what tricks you’ve fallen for in the past, right?

The theory, based on my observations of social media interaction between cycling advocates and those vehemently opposing cycling’s progress, I’d speculate rings true to internet arguments. In fact, I’ve experienced it first hand. You can present evidence to the contrary of anecdotes and half truths on almost any topic, but you’ll never be short of @ mentions telling you you’re still wrong. My favourite reply has to be “Yeah, but I see it every day, cyclists running reds/not paying to use the roads.”

And that about sums it up. It all depends on what you’re looking for. For me, I’m not looking to enhance the visibility of someone blinded to fact and reason. Let’s focus instead on policy makers and influentials, using these great tips as a framework for putting cycling on the agenda.

To see a screengrab of the aforementioned petition, click here

Editor’s comment features are solely the opinion of the writer.