Positive Online Debate: A Rough Guide


Of all the lessons learned from the election result, two in particular have the potential to re-shape future campaigns.  The first is the power of social media.  The second is the alleged death of the negative attack-style campaign, in favour of more positive messaging.  The question is what – if anything – can we do to make these two approaches work well together?

The idea that successful campaigning makes good use of social media is not new, but there is a slight twist this time round.  Where the Conservative campaign of 2015 was credited with good social media targeting, early discussions around the Labour campaign have focussed on the broadcast of messages by grassroots groups such as Momentum.  There is much to say about both of these topics, but neither engage with one of the major developments of what has been dubbed ‘Web 2.0’ – the growth of visible, public comments threads.

These could have important ramifications for online political engagement, particularly of previously uninterested groups. While casually browsing Facebook or Twitter you can witness everyday people – not just carefully prepared political figures or clued-up journalists – debating friends, family, and strangers from a range of perspectives, or engage with that acquaintance who’s more clued up on an issue than you.  This gives us all an exciting democratic opportunity to encounter an unprecedented range of views.  In theory.

This is where we see a tension with the idea that political rhetoric may be moving towards a positive tone.  Online debate is not, in general, a space known for positive discussion.  At its worst, online debate can get hostile enough to drive even experienced participants – particularly women, and members of minority ethnic and LGBT+ groups – away from discussion.  But even without going to this (sadly common) extreme, much political discussion online can seem like fruitless shouting into the void; unpersuasive to the politically engaged, annoying and potentially repulsive to everyone else.

Nonetheless the now well-established presence of social media in our political lives, in conjunction with various social scientific research, can provide some guide on how to make the best – and worst – of political discussion in the online world.  Below I present three suggestions.

Don’t be the Nasty Party

The first problem: human brains aren’t great at disagreement.  Basic social psychological findings (plus pretty ample lessons from history) show that we tend to instinctively place ourselves into opposing camps.  Identifying with a camp alters our basic responses to the world, instilling dislike towards the ‘other’ camp.  These effects happen with even the most arbitrary of distinctions – in one example, psychologists were able to instigate such behaviour simply by asking people which of two paintings they preferred.

Not everyone instantly falls into a political camp, of course.  But a risk with digital arguments is they expose us to opportunities to fall into a camp – most likely, by being repelled from behaviour we find unpleasant.  An experiment into the ‘Nasty Effect’ found that people exposed to ‘uncivil’ comments formed more polarised opinions than people who read more polite comments.  So while savage put-downs in Facebook threads may rack up large numbers of likes, a much larger number of undecided people are probably reading them and seeing a camp they do not want to join.

The lesson here is not to be dispassionate.  This is often inappropriate for topics which matter to people’s lives, and rarely politically persuasive.  But being confrontational does not necessitate being nasty.  What counts as ‘nasty’ isn’t clear-cut, but it is worth being careful. The effects of online disinhibition means that behaviour we would consider unacceptable in offline conversation feels worryingly fine from behind a keyboard.  The lesson here is to genuinely engage with the views of people you’re talking to, show charity towards their motives and perspectives, and acknowledge the serious risks of being overly aggressive.

Listen Beyond the Echoes

There’s a saying that God gave us two ears, but only one mouth.  It doesn’t translate well to computer discussions – two eyes are somewhat outnumbered by eight fingers – but the sentiment still stands.  Anecdotally, one of the most common reasons people give for not using social media is ‘I wouldn’t have anything to say’.  This points to a worrying underlying attitude – if I’m not talking, why should I join in?  Why would I be interested in other views?  (One might argue this attitude is also common offline, but that’s another discussion).

However even if you are active in taking in views from social media, the risk is that you might not actually see much you disagree with. In order to process all this noise into something that might fit onto the screen of a smartphone, internet companies use algorithms. These computer programs take the millions of pieces of content we could see, and filters them into what we do see. The worry for political discussion is when what we do see is what we already agree with.

When social media networks form ‘Echo chambers’ full of similar views in this way, we might be blinding ourselves to views we disagree with.  This isn’t a new phenomenon.  People have always bought newspapers aligned with their political views and voted in similar ways to their parents.  The promise of the internet was that we could go out and find views beyond those held by people around us, or expressed by the tiny subset of society who write for newspapers.  That promise may seem largely unfulfilled, but it’s still possible to achieve with a bit of work.

It’s true that when you go ‘below the line’ – read comments below an article, Facebook post, Tweet, etc. – you’ll largely find only the most outspoken, and often deeply unpleasant, views.  But you can also encounter insight, excellent humour, and – at the very least – views from outside the traditional journalistic sphere.  Twitter is particularly good for stumbling across non-traditional sources of interesting commentary.  The point here is this: while social media isn’t really designed to present us with a full range of views, it does offer us options for going out and finding them.

 Don’t be Fake News

If you needed a tool for quickly disseminating sensational stories, unfettered by requirements of accuracy, you could do a lot worse than inventing social media sites – platforms with massive audiences, very loose regulation, and an advertising system which rewards sensational headlines considerably more than providing evidence for your claims.  The relationship between politics and mendacity is obviously not new, but we have seen a step change in recent years.  Most notably, the fact that a man supported by unregulated media and conspiracy theorists has become leader of the free world.

Again, the problem isn’t just the medium.  Fake news gains extra credence in being shared, and going unchallenged, by people within social networks – people we know, or at least seem more real than some organisation or politician.  The solution is unlikely to come from the medium either – given the historical resilience of propaganda and conspiracy theories, ideas that this problem can be dealt with this algorithmically seem optimistic.  Nonetheless, there are some effective responses involving human skills of criticism.  Clickbait and automatic ‘bot’ accounts (which are sometimes used to propagate untruths) don’t stand up very well to engaged discussion.  Forcing ourselves to critically engage with the material we share is probably a good way of becoming better users of information in general, but taking that extra step of visibly querying claims might help others take that step too.  Particularly when said information, taken en masse, has pretty important ramifications.

Why Are We All Shouting?

Going online gives us unprecedented opportunities to broaden our political horizons.  With a little effort we can encounter a variety of people and information – and to do so at the same time as shopping, socialising, or discovering that ‘gymnasium’ literally means ‘school for naked exercise’.  However, getting the full benefit requires us to stay charitable while also being critical, and do work in engaging with the available material.  We should also acknowledge that all the above suggestions require some energy, time, and courage, which make engaging online easier for some than others.  The fact remains, online politics has often gone wrong.  But the power to make things a little better does lie with us.