Has social media destroyed our ability to debate?

I’m a member of a community on FaceBook called The Geek Asylum. Now, as a fan of all things geeky, particularly games and films, the community serves me pretty well. There’s positive discussion of cosplay, talk about movies, random fandom stuff, memes, etc. Everything you’d expect from ‘The Geek Asylum’. The name of the community is also carried forward into the group identity; admins refer to themselves as ‘wardens’ and members refer to themselves collectively as ‘inmates’. I myself am a card-carrying (literally) inmate of The Geek Asylum.

Now, as someone that experiences mental health issues and who has also worked for a mental health NHS Trust, this theme and its associated nomenclature is interesting. The idea of all members hanging out together as ‘inmates’ of an asylum mirrors the overall very accepting nature of the group; the idea that ‘whatever makes you weird or different is cool here’.  Now I’m a huge fan of that and it’s clearly a positive message. It makes the community seem a positive place to hitch up and chat about things of a geeky nature. For good or ill, it’s a ‘safe space’.

But ‘safe spaces’ don’t come without their down sides and it’s when I encountered one recently that I began thinking about the impact of  closed communities on our ability to communicate with each other.

dome touching social media
This is what I call a subtle visual metaphor

Let me run you through this particular occurence. Like I said, I used to work in a mental health NHS Trust. It’s mainly for this reason that I have an ear for stuff relating to mental health and that I had begun to mull how appropriate it was to call members ‘inmates’. Now, I wasn’t offended in the slightest, it’s not in my nature to react strongly to things like that as I’m pretty easygoing. The ‘asylum’ is a common enough theme, brought even more into the mainstream collective consciousness by games like Batman: Arkham Asylum, etc. It’s harmless and in no way did the use of these terms leave me ‘triggered’. It did interest me though and I’m savvy enough to know there would be some people who questioned it internally. Maybe it would be better to refer to members as ‘patients’ and the admins as ‘doctors’. It occupied space in my brain for all of 10-15 minutes which was long enough for me to hammer out 3 paragraphs that amounted to little more than ‘We’re a cool group, Maybe we can use better words’? I also pointed out that ‘inmate’ and ‘warden’ were traditionally associated with prison.

I posted the query and was informed it was awaiting moderation. I then grabbed my coat as I was due to go out and have a birthday cup of tea with friends.

The moderation element is important here because my post was almost immediately approved. This suggests that someone far more familiar with the group than I felt it was an appropriate post to place in front of the 12,000 or so members. That it would be in keeping with the page’s content guidelines.

As I was still walking down my front path the first few comments came in. They were a smattering of eye-rolling image macros and ‘FFS’. Not hugely positive but maybe this wasn’t representative of the group as a whole.  Having reached my destination and had a very enjoyable bit of cake, I checked my phone halfway through my cup of tea. There were now over 50 comments in various highly critical sub-threads.

mushroom cloud social media
Mmm-hmm

Overall they broke down into the following categories:

  1. That I had hugely misunderstood a) the history of mental health, b) the group generally and c) highly specific semantic arguments about the words ‘inmate’ and ‘asylum’.
  2. That I was clearly trying to ruin everyone’s fun by over-analysing these elements of the group. I am a massive party-pooper.
  3. That this was the culmination of hours of frustrated keyboard bashing and that I had clearly been way overthinking this issue for weeks and finally snapped.
  4. A general smattering of personal attacks and broad spectrum bullying.
  5. Image macros

I’m pretty thick-skinned so left a comment apologising for triggering literally everyone and requesting that the thread not be deleted so I could have a good skim through later on. Comments were still piling in so I figured ‘Hey, I’ve touched a nerve, what a great opportunity for a bit of mature debate.’ but I certainly wasn’t going to stare at my phone in an attempt to provide an immediate or continuing rebuttal. After all, there was tea and cake literally on the table. As I was leaving I checked my notifications. They all resulted in an error. The thread was, perhaps predictably, history. Some well meaning ‘warden’ had, in my absence, decided that things had taken a dark turn and nuked the thread from orbit (it’s the only way to be sure). I messaged them for further clarification but received nothing in reply.

So what does this tell us? Well, unwittingly, in questioning the status quo I had thrown a pebble at the wall of this particular echo chamber and, in the eyes of many community members, threatened the ‘safe space’ that they rely upon for at least part of their emotional contentment. I had sent an unwelcome ripple through the jimmies of the group membership and triggered an immune response. The really interesting thing here is how few people, existing as they do in a medium intended for discussion, were willing to open up to the idea of debating the pros and cons of what I’d raised. Within the space of less than 2 hours the question was posted, attacked and then removed from existence. Many of the group membership will never even know it was there at all and that becomes very important because it shapes everyone’s perception of that group.

Men In Black Neuralyzer social media

Now it might look like I’m singling out The Geek Asylum but I’m not. Quite the contrary, I think this sort of behaviour is becoming incredibly common. It’s disappointing that this happened because I happen to think that it’s a good group of people. But it’s also 19,000+ people strong and if only 1% of that are angry reactionaries then that’s still 190 voices. Dissent in groups of this size is clearly not easy, if even possible. Community leaders are able to remove ‘inappropriate content’ in the blink of an eye and although that serves the safe space very well, it’s really not very healthy for establishing an accurate or factual picture of a real situation.

In this example it was just the thread that was removed. More often, particularly in political groups or those that deal with controversial subject matter, individual users or groups of users will be disappeared halfway through a debate purely because their opinion doesn’t marry up with the expectations of the group. If you enter into discourse with someone who disagrees with you, if they have the backing of a group admin or moderator, you may soon find yourself kicked out of the discussion or switched to ‘view-only’, able to see the discussion continue on as contrary opinions are pruned away. People with dissenting opinions are labelled ‘trolls’ or ‘inappropriate content’ and are quietly extinguished.

What this creates is huge bubbles of complimentary opinion. When all ‘outsiders’ are removed, conversations can flow without becoming peskily two-sided. Users can engage in happy dialogue without the irritation of contention. It’s a blissful utopia where everyone’s on your side and anyone who disturbs the surface of these still waters is soon forgotten. The longer this bubble is preserved, the more irritating it becomes when someone disturbs it. It is no longer just admins that will react to contrary opinion and heated discourse but a large portion of the group will also begin to automatically react to it. Then, bound by their collective righteousness, they do the most dangerous thing of all. They forget that it isn’t a true reflection of reality.

Social media is set up in a way that discourage us from asking one big question. Which is this. Could we be wrong?

Are we the baddies? social media

Even outside of groups and communities we are trained to remove things we don’t want to see. Facebook lets anyone trim away items, sources and people that don’t fit inside their idealised world view. We place a huge amount of stock in what we see on social media like Facebook and Twitter. More and more of us rely on it for news and we are less and less capable of distinguishing an accurate source from another, in fact we are more likely to pick the things that confirm our own biases. It’s just too tiresome to fact-check everything all the time and historically mainstream media would arrive at our eyeballs already checked and double checked.Rather than spend time picking apart truth from fiction we are much more likely to lazily believe what we see whilst making sure we are rarely presented with things that contradict our pre-existing biases.

So why is that bad? Well because, as we’ve seen in global politics, if you only expose yourself to a complimentary bubble of reality, everything outside the bubble still continues to exist in reality and one day, like it or not, it will rise up and bite you in the arse. All those people you muted, banned, mocked, silenced, name-called and otherwise refused to engage with will have gone on to join or form their own closed communities full of people that totally agree with them. These groups never cross your path, their sources are different to yours, their news stories have fundamentally the same facts whilst being presented with a wholely different bias that either supports their viewpoint or, if not, is downplayed as insignificant or ‘fake news’. Then one day one or both of the groups are forced to engage with reality and the bubble, at least momentarily, bursts.

Trump's weird face social media
Like this…

This happened on two occasions in 2016. The first was Brexit. No-one would ever have believed that the UK would actively vote to leave the EU but that was due in huge part that a large majority of those surprised people were liberal, tech-savvy youngsters that never encountered any chatter to the contrary until the result of the vote was announced. Then we (yes I’m one of them) actually stuck our heads out of our bubble to be surprised that there were literally millions of people who thought very differently. We never heard much from them because we had retreated inside our arrogant little shell where everyone agreed with us and were never encouraged to engage with those people that we had so easily and readily dismissed as racists or xenophobes.

The other occasion was the election of Donald ‘The Nightmare with the Hair’ Trump to the US Presidency. It mirrored the Brexit situation perfectly. A huge group of liberal, tech-savvy voters, assured of their own correctness were gazumped at the final hurdle by something completely unthinkable. It happened because instead of engaging those conservative, working-class people in intelligent discourse, more often than not they were shut down, blocked and their ‘ignorance’ made fun of. Donald Trump didn’t make fun of them. Instead he promised them the earth and got their votes, enough votes to (strangely, technically) become President of the United States. It didn’t matter that most of it was lies because those lies supported the narrative already present in their own bubble.

So, to draw things back together. The Brexit/Trump examples are relevant because they were, at least partially, caused by the same impulse that made that random admin (sorry, ‘warden’) remove that thread that I started. It was caused by both our impulse and ability to push aside uncomfortable discussion and, in doing so, censor our own reality. In that regard, the answer to this whole novella-length essay is a resounding YES. Social Media has, at the very least, exacerbated the human capacity to break into partisan groups but never before have we had the tools to negate and obfuscate our rivals so completely that we forget they even exist.

Farage's weird face social media
Sadly not ‘completely’ completely…

So what can we do? It’s tough but the answer is a simple one. Next time someone engages  you in a discussion you don’t like, resist the urge to silence them. Think twice before you hide a news article that doesn’t agree with your world view. Have those uncomfortable discussions, even if you get called a troll for doing so. Because it is in discussing those things that make us different that we establish what makes us the same. Seeing things from our rivals point of view is the only viable way to even begin to change their minds because throwing insults and removing them from our feeds and filters certainly isn’t going to do the job. It is through the open and honest debate in the past that we enjoy the freedoms of our present.

Ultimately, we have to be willing to accept harsh truths and conflicting opinions into our personal bubbles even when social media gives us all the tools we need to remove them completely, otherwise ours is future perpetually filled with nasty surprises.

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