Do Social Media Platforms Stunt Political Debate?
Most college students I know, including myself, have become experts in wasting time on Facebook and Twitter. We procrastinate with endless articles, Tasty videos, and status updates to distract ourselves from work and exams.
In addition to the nonsense and the lack of sense present on social media, using them as platforms for political information and debate has a negative effect on its users. Jesse Singal in The New York Times wrote that political debates on social media “[make] us dumber” because “tribal allegiances are replacing shared empirical understandings of the world,” preventing “good-faith disagreement” and promoting anger and ignorance.
But, are people as willing to debate politics over social media as often as we think? A Pew Research survey investigated the “tendency of people not to speak up about policy issues [on social media] … when they believe their own point of view is not widely shared.” When asked specifically about their willingness to discuss Edward Snowden’s 2013 leak of NSA global surveillance programs, “only 42% of those who use Facebook or Twitter were willing to discuss these same [political] issues through social media.”
Thanks to Facebook’s algorithm, however, users today hardly need to worry about opposing points of view. As Kylie Sipowski wrote on The Odyssey, Facebook’s algorithm dictates what we see on our newsfeeds “not just based on the most recent posts from your friends or from pages you’ve ‘liked,’ but based on the posts it predicts you’ll find the most relevant.” Users become bombarded with articles and ideas supporting their already existent opinions, rarely encountering any counter-arguments or opposing opinions. In this way, Facebook and other social media sites and apps limit the scope of the political debate we see, as well as the range of our political conversations.
Additionally, engaging in political discussion on Twitter or in a Facebook comment thread offers the easy cop-out of logging off or shutting down the app. Instead of coming up with a response or considering the possibility that one may, in fact, be wrong, an individual can simply leave the conversation without any expectation of an explanation. The screen provides a force field behind which one can hide when someone disagrees with their point of view or makes an argument they can’t counter.
This escape route limits meaningful debate and prevents users from questioning and developing their own opinions. Social media not only limits our exposure to the full spectrum of political opinions but stunts the deepening and developing of our own points of view.
Now, in terms of the echo-chamber of ideas, I think it’s pretty safe to say that this would occur with or without social media. Maybe the new Facebook formula further limits the school of opinions one sees online, but in most cases, people will find opinions falling mainly in line with their political points of view. CNN reported a different Pew Research study which found that “Republicans and Democrats both say their friend networks are predominantly made up of people who are like-minded politically” and that “2 in 3 Democrats (64%) and more than half of Republicans (55%) say they have ‘just a few’ or ‘none’ close friends who are” members of the opposite party.
Regardless of this evidence for a real-life echo-chamber, having political debates in person requires that one fully understand their point of view and respond to any challenge to their opinion. Ending a conversation is nothing like closing the Facebook tab, forcing people to ponder and address any objections to their political stances. Even in a conversation with like-minded peers or colleagues, the nuances of the opinions may emerge and lead to a friendly disagreement during which both sides learn something from the other person.
It might be time to think about taking your finger off the like, re-Tweet, and reply buttons, and moving the political conversations to in-person venues.