Does social media stifle debate?

Social MediaHas it really come to this in our society? Has it really come to the point where we seem utterly unable to believe that someone can hold another opinion on a difficult issue without believing that they are a moral monster?

It started out two or three years ago with same-sex marriage. The media loved to portray everyone who disagreed with the redefinition of marriage as a bigot, pure and simple. Real debate was stifled, because any argument for traditional marriage had to be ruled out a priori – because, you know, it’s bigoted.

Then, more recently, a debate on abortion at Oxford University was shut down because a rather militant group of people (via Facebook) decided that they were going to cause trouble if the debate went ahead.

And then we came to the general election. One of the things which has really got to me over the last few weeks is the way that the Tories have been constantly vilified and accused of more or less being morally bankrupt. Not just that, but if you believe most of what is put on Twitter, the only person who would vote for the Tories is someone who cares nothing for the poor, someone who essentially has no moral compass and deserves nothing but contempt by any right thinking person.

Many people have spilled ink writing about the rights and wrongs of this – for example this article – so I will try not to rehash old ground.

Instead, I think it is worth reflecting on just what it is that is making our society so hostile to opposing views. How has it suddenly become normal in our society, a society which prides itself on free speech, to demonise whole sections of people and even make them scared of speaking out? (Witness the phenomenon of the ‘shy Tory’). Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about politics, and as I’ve been considering I’ve been coming more and more round to the conservative way of thinking (material for a future blog post, perhaps). The thing is, I would actually genuinely hesitate before expressing that particular view on Twitter or Facebook, mainly because of the amount of hatred and bile spewed at the conservative party by what seems like the vast majority of Twitter (certainly I don’t recall seeing many pro-Tory posts – although perhaps that’s to do with the people I follow).

It seems to me that social media, rather than encouraging debate, is actually stifling it. I’m not sure as to why that is, but I think there might be a few reasons:

  • I think Twitter and Facebook enable ‘herd mentality’ to kick in. It’s very hard to express a dissenting opinion when everyone around you is expressing a particular view. Especially when that view is portrayed as being crazy, immoral, ridiculous, and so on.
  • Twitter and (to a lesser extent) Facebook also make it very easy to find like minded people. The problem is, what you end up with is basically conversing with people who agree with you. You don’t have to converse with anyone you disagree with apart from the purposes of shouting abuse at them. OK, this is a caricature, but is it that far removed from the truth? I don’t really see much actual engagement on Twitter between those of different political persuasions, it’s simply people who already agree with each other slapping each other on the back. Rather than trying to understand where the ‘other side’ are coming from, it is simply assumed that they are wrong and acting out of selfish / immoral / absurd motives (etc). This is quite probably because of the following point.
  • The 140 character limit of Twitter makes it very hard to express much more than a soundbite. This is very unfortunate, because it seems that what spreads well in soundbites is usually a watered down version of the truth (i.e. one side of an argument) without any nuance or a chance for qualification.
  • Following on from this – I think misinformation spreads very quickly on Twitter. Over the past few months, I’ve seen graphs and statistics that say all sorts of different things about our country and economy. Some of them say that things have improved,  some of them say that things haven’t. Some of them portray the Tories in a positive light, some of them  don’t. I think a big part of the problem is the way you cut the data – the way you interpret it. (The old adage about lies, damned lies and statistics comes to mind). But what I think tends to happen is that the statistics / graphs which support the prevailing notion (i.e. that the Tories are evil) tend to get retweeted a lot, whereas the statistics and graphs which might show something different don’t get shared as much.

A few months  ago I thought about the dark side of social media when it came to the Top Gear Patagonia Special. And the longer time goes on, I see more of this kind of thing going on. I’m wondering whether social media might actually be having a detrimental effect on our society in general.

I don’t think that social media itself is a bad thing, but I do feel that the way it is set up – especially Twitter – makes it very easy to ignore other opinions and simply to convince oneself that one’s opinion is correct with all the accompanying self-righteousness. Although all this was and is possible without the help of social media, it simply exacerbates the issue.

So if this is a problem, how do we solve it? I think one of the biggest problems with the stifling of debate is the lack of understanding and empathy for opposing views. It seems to me that social media would be a lot better if people took some time to seriously understand the view they were criticising before criticising it. If it could be understood that on some issues different views can be held with complete integrity, and those should be respected. Perhaps this is a simply unrealistic dream in this day and age – but I think as we see the effects of this stifling of debate play out more and more in society, perhaps people will realise that actually we need understanding rather than polarisation and demonisation.

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