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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Twitter, Revolutions, and Theory of Mind

I have Asperger Syndrome.  I am self-diagnosed; the diagnosis didn't exist when I was a kid in the '60s, and I've seen no reason to seek a formal diagnosis.  But I am reasonably confident of it.

One feature/symptom of Asperger is called "Theory of Mind."  I don't like the term.  It doesn't strike me as communicating what it refers to, but that's what they call it.  In my case, I find that when someone says some thing on the Internet or about anywhere else, especially in a public context, I automatically believe (1) it is true and (2) it is what Everyone believes.

I am not unintelligent, and intellectually I know this is not true.  Once I take the time and make the effort to think it through, I probably understand that just because one person says something doesn't mean Everyone believes it.  But I tend to initially accept that.  We tend to have trouble differentiating between what You believe and know and what That Other Person Over There believes and knows.  It's particularly a problem in cases of bullying.  When I was a kid and was bullied by one guy, I'd assume that everyone felt the same way about me.  It isn't healthy and it isn't practical, but it happens that way.

So.  I was just listening to a podcast review of Evgeny Morozov's book, "The Net Delusion," while reading a couple of blog reviews of the same book.  And I noted in one the comment that the recent Iranian protests, claimed by some to be a democratic uprising driven by Twitter, actually were not and could not be driven by Twitter -- there are only some 20,000 users of Twitter in Iran.  Seems valid.

But there's another side to that.  Many of us in the US and the Western World only heard about the protests via Twitter, with a few TV news reports -- many of those heavily quoting Tweets in real time.  We heard of violence, we heard of the firm resolve of the protesters, and so on, and so on....

From no more than 20,000 people out of the millions of people in Iran, or even the thousands in the protests.  In fact, we mostly heard from a couple of dozen folks, and maybe fewer than that.  And from this we assumed the ideas, intent, motives and commitment of the protesters, and by extension the same of the people of Iran.  We have seen essentially the same thing happen in Egypt.  I don't have a figure for how many Egyptians use Twitter, but even so, we are only hearing from a relative handful of people even out of that segment of the population -- and we are absolutely not hearing from The People of Egypt in any realistic sense.

We assumed by our flawed "theory of mind" that what we were being told was true, and we assumed what we were told was what The Protesters thought and believed, what The People of Egypt thought and believed.  But what we forgot we were hearing was a relative handful of fairly well-off, educated, urban and somewhat tech-savvy people.

And those people could have any motives from a universe of motives for what they told us and what they claimed to feel and believe.  We don't know.  We also don't know what percentage of the Twitter posts came from folks no where near the protests.  We don't know how many (if any) came from political forces within the government of Egypt.  We don't know how many came from the governments of other countries.  We do know that it is not that difficult to obfuscate the source of a comment on Twitter, or essentially any other online source.

So we stand with the positions of The Protesters.  We stand with the democratic hopes of The People of Egypt.  Or do we?

How do we know?  To paraphrase a line from a Harrison Ford movie from years ago.... What's the last thing you read on Twitter that you know is true?

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