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6 Reasons You Avoid Debate Online

Why is it so hard to have a civil debate online?

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Note: I spent the past four years working towards my doctorate in higher education at Boston College, where I studied college student use of social media and mobile technology. This post is part of a series in which I discuss aspects of my dissertation findings, which were completed and defended in 2015.

The role of social media within college student life is enormous. As these technologies become inseparable from offline life, it's important to ask what the practical impact will be. After working with college students to collect and analyze dozens of hours worth of interviews, focus groups, and observations (excerpts of which are shared here), these are some of my takeaways in the area of online discourse and debate:

1) You're Afraid Anything You Say Will Be Attacked

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"It's kind of like if you have something to say that's not radical, it's been said before, and if it's radical enough to be different, it's on the internet forever and you can't get that back." - Student Focus Group

Students described the delicate balance when making comments online -- Who will see this? What will their reaction(s) be? Do I need to tone this down? If I ignore a social movement sweeping across my friends' profiles, am I saying that I'm not on their side?

Getting caught up in the moment and posting something that can be seen forever was a danger that students had begun to realize and avoid. Personal stories of seemingly innocuous comments that blew up into fights online had made these students wary of posting any sort of opinion on their social media profiles, because there was always a danger of being attacked from all political and social sides.

2) The People Who Constantly Share Opinions Are Intimidating

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Student 1: [Friends] that now post actively on Facebook are so radicalized...
Student 2: It's so easy for the conversation to become, devolve into like...
Student 3: Crazed.
Student 2: Yeah, exactly.
Student 4: Politics requires debate. Debate over Facebook...
Student 3: Plus everyone becomes involved that, like, possibly sees it and gets defensive. And it gets rude.
Student 1: ...the people who will comment are the same people that would have posted. So, they're either way far left, way far right, or they're out to, like, make you all look like idiots and they're just trolling. And none of those people do I need to interact with.
- Student Focus Group

If you're not willing to be the most vocal online, your voice can be drowned out quickly. Students felt the mental energy required to engage with these select individuals online simply was not worth it.

3) It's Easy to Isolate Yourself With Like-Minded People

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"I think it's their right to [post political and social opinions online]. I also think it's my right to block them and unfollow them or unfriend them, because I have that right just as they have the right to post." - Student Focus Group

If hearing a view that you disagree with makes you uncomfortable, why not take the one-click step to remove that person from your feed? This is a choice that the students face daily, and this swift action removes the offending poster permanently.

"It makes it difficult to hear other perspectives, I think. If you're an ideologue who follows certain accounts, or likes certain pages, you're going to tend to shy away from the ones that constantly disagree with you because no one wants to be wrong." - Student Interview

4) You May Not Even Realize It's Happening

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"I think subconsciously [things I read online influence me]. I think, definitely, you realize what the popular idea might be. [As in,] 'I agree with that, too!' You convince yourself that you had that idea. You agreed with it from the start, but really, you're reading more about it because you see it, and you know that it's a popular idea, probably the right idea. You realize what's right and wrong very quickly." - Student Focus Group

Two aspects of social media were identified as being somewhat insidious in their influence over what you read online. First, students discussed the idea that, from the minute you become aware of an issue, you already can see where the consensus is headed. If they stray from that opinion (and openly share it), there will be arguments soon to follow. Second, many social media sites are built to algorithmically deliver posts to you that you are most likely to click. So, as you click articles/sources/authors that support your own viewpoint, you are more likely to be shown more of the same. This is a simplified description of what Eli Pariser calls "The Filter Bubble."

5) You Can Opt Out Of Public Participation

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"I rarely post statuses because those would be weirdly personal for everyone to see because I have over 1,000 friends on Facebook, but I probably should only have 200 or something, but I don't want 1,000 people [seeing my posts]." - Student Focus Group

Students said that due to the relentless need to consider the audience on each post -- because friend/follow groups vary across Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, etc. -- it's easier to simply share posts with individual friends or small groups. Rather than putting a thought out to 1,000+ friends on Facebook that they had met across their lives, they could send it in a snapchat to 20 of their closest friends.

A result of this shift away from posting Facebook status messages (an act one student called "old school") and public tweets, and towards using Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, and tagging friends in Instagram posts, is that it may appear these young users are using social media less. They are not using social media less; instead, use is simply evolving.

6) You Can Choose To Be Anonymous

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"Yik Yak, it’s anonymous. So you just, you post something and your name is not tied to it. You can just like, put your opinion out there and let it sit…[My posts there represent me more because] you don’t really feel pressured to like, not offend anyone. if I have no name tagged to myself, it’s easier to say something because that way none of the backlash lands directly on me." - Student Interview

The fear of making a post that will (intentional or not) inflame anger was a cause to drive students towards apps that allow for anonymity. This is a two-sided (at least) proposition -- on the one hand, students that hold a minority status on a campus may feel uncomfortable standing up for their perspective in a public forum, and an app such as Yik Yak may empower them to engage and speak up. However, students that take this anonymous forum as an invitation to aggressively harass others could (as we have seen) use this freedom to avoid civil discourse and instead make others uncomfortable from a safe distance.

A Final Note: While these takeaways represent aspects of my findings, they by no means represent the entirety of the work. They also are not intended to be viewed as generalizable to all college students, as factors like socioeconomic background and individual demographics impact social media trends. Ultimately, this study and the above takeaways are meant as building blocks for future work and exploration in this area.

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