How social media is damaging debate


It is a cruel paradox that the global pandemic has shrunk the scope of our lives and yet, thanks to social media, we are simultaneously more connected than ever to the outside world. The very method of receiving has changed unrecognisably in the last twenty years.

‘Breaking news’ alerts now vie competitively for our attention with Snapchats from friends or tweets from celebrities. If a story cannot be summarised in a single sentence or an easily screenshot-able infographic, it flies under our radar.

This changing media landscape is perhaps most succinctly demonstrated by the premise of Twitter: go viral in 280 characters or fewer. Donald Trump’s use of Twitter to conduct government policy is indicative of his reckless pursuit of attention-grabbing headlines rather than a balanced understanding of an issue.

Distilling complex arguments into black and white binary terms – the tribalistic ‘you’re either with us or against us’ mentality – heightens the divide between left and right. It makes enemies out of allies and is partially responsible for the polarisation of the current political landscape. Engaging in a debate with someone who does not share your opinions has become a painful process. It seems that the gulf between conservatives and liberals has widened even further.

‘Engaging in a debate with someone who does not share your opinions has become a painful process’

Moreover, it alienates a large group of us. We feel that a debate – be it on US immigration or the media’s treatment of Meghan and Harry – cannot be adequately summarised in a screenshotted headline haphazardly shared across social media platforms. It is sometimes difficult to find others with this more centrist approach because tentative voices have been silenced by the clamour of ferocious and combative dissent.

This whole attitude is ultimately dangerous because it denies any opportunity for a nuanced discussion. Arguments are now framed as between enemies rather than simply people with a different viewpoint. Algorithm-based feeds create an echo chamber whereby we are not shown opposing opinions on social media unless we actively seek them out. The possibility to bridge the gap between political extremes is becoming smaller and smaller.

For instance, take the recent controversy over Seaspiracy, the Netflix documentary made by Ali Tabrizi which seeks to expose the corruption behind the fishing industry. After watching it, I, like many of its millions of viewers, was horrified by some of the claims it made regarding the impossibility of sustainable fishing. My social media pages were littered with screenshots of infographics from the documentary, with my friends vehemently urging their own followers to stop eating fish immediately.

However, many of Tabrizi’s claims have since been ‘debunked’. The scientist Professor Boris Worm, whose 2006 study was the source of the documentary’s eye-catching statement that “if current fishing trends continue, we will see virtually empty oceans by the year 2048”, has expressed his own scepticism. He cites improvements to the fishing industry made in the 15 years since the paper was published.

‘An in-depth discussion concerning the sustainability of animal consumption cannot occur in 280 characters’

Seaspiracy is just one example of how statistics and statements are taken out of context and rapaciously consumed by an audience of young people who are eagerly trying to enact change. Through our desperation, we perhaps lose sight of the broader argument around these issues. An in-depth discussion concerning the sustainability of animal consumption cannot occur in 280 characters, or in a thread of ten colourful diagrams.

There is a very legitimate counterargument. The engagement of young people in current affairs is something to be championed because it leads to a generation of go-getters, more likely to make an impact on the political climate and have their voices heard. However, this type of thinking only heightens the binary narrative – this is not the only possible form of engagement. This is akin to suggesting that the only two possible responses to Seaspiracy are embracing veganism or enlisting as a fisherman on a Japanese whaling boat.

It is a cliché to suggest that education is the way forward, but being informed on topics, searching for information not immediately accessible to us and understanding the agendas behind each source will not only make our responses stronger. It will also create a generation of more empathetic interlocutors. It will perhaps go some way to extract the venom so deeply embedded in our online interactions.

Illustration: Pete Simon via Flickr

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