Can you win a debate in digital space?

Published Jan 22, 2015


The internet was born to aid communication. Too bad it doesn't help our debating skills, says Nick Cowen.

When was the last time you engaged in a proper debate on the Internet? I’m not talking about a discussion in a comments section – views that quickly degenerated into a slanging match or a series of posts on an online forum crammed with information aimed at drowning out an opponent using sheer volume. I’m talking about a discussion you approached with an open mind, with the intention of having your beliefs either confirmed or – more radically – challenged and possibly changed?


Can’t remember? Neither can I. That’s not to say I’ve entered into every single conversation with my mind made up or been bullheaded over every topic I’ve discussed with friends and colleagues. But I can’t for the life of me remember the last time I had a decent series of exchanges in opposition with anyone online. Those conversations only seem to happen these days on a face-to-face basis. 


The Internet is one of humankind’s most powerful communication tools, but it seems it’s done very little to hone our debating skills. Online, the preferred aim is to ‘win’ rather than engage in any meaningful discussion. ‘Debates’ here regularly come across as fights in pitch-black rooms between blindfolded combatants, as the aspect of distance and the ability to eschew any responsibility for your views come heavily into play. 


First off, it’s far easier for most of us to unleash vitriol safely from behind a keyboard than it is to instigate a fight with an individual face-to-face. Second, the fact that it’s possible to create myriad online identities, forum handles and sock-puppet social media accounts means that people don’t even need to put their real names to the abuse they hurl at their targets – making that stream of venom incredibly easy to maintain. 


At best you land up in an echo chamber, where everyone agrees with you. At worst you run the risk of becoming the target of online abuse – a problem Eusebius McKaiser recently pointed out  – that many websites seem either reluctant or unwilling to address. Real debate is impossible, as neither side is engaging with the other. It’s a problem author David McRaney has called The Backfire Effect: online, “when your belief system is challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger”.


An example of this can been seen in the fracas surrounding a picture showing senior editors Vukani Mde and Karima Brown wearing ANC paraphernalia at the ruling party’s recent rally in Cape Town. Both journalists were criticised on social media forums and in the press for their choice of attire. Mde addressed their critics on The Daily Maverick’s website, but not long after that, he posted a couple of pictures on Facebook of Ferial Haffajee and Carien du Plessis sporting party-branded berets and wondered aloud whether they too would come in for some criticism. 


As it turns out, his enquiry wasn’t so much skirted over – it was hardly addressed at all. 


That’s not to say discussions on social media and in the comments sections of the articles addressing this issue immediately descended into open flame wars. But reading over the majority of them, one can’t help but notice that most posters on either side of the discussion weren’t taking any interest in the points being raised by the opposition. In the end, the only sensible option seemed to be to walk away from the ‘debate’ entirely. And that’s downright depressing. 


As bad as this situation sounds, it looks like there isn’t much hope that it will improve. Online passions and beliefs divorced from any social responsibility flare into extremes. Instead of discussion and debate, arguments simply snowball into online abuse that takes a variety of forms – insults, threats and even doxxing (the practice of publishing personal information such as phone numbers, physical addresses and ID numbers into the online space). 


Sadly, you don’t have to look back very far to find examples of online discussions raging out of control. Local and international celebrities and pundits have been targeted, with trolls slating them for everything from their fashion choices (Thandile Sunduza) to their decision to keep revealing photos in cloud storage (Jennifer Lawrence) to their beliefs about gender equality (Emma Watson). 


One of the most sustained torrents last year came from the gaming community and principally some individuals who threw their lot in with the GamerGate movement. While a large portion of this community used the GamerGate hashtag on Twitter to voice their dissatisfaction with alleged ethical lapses in that industry’s media, a smaller contingent unleashed such a malignant tide of abuse that it caused two female game developers to flee their homes in terror. The chorus of hatred became so loud that GamerGate jumped from the confines of the gaming community and landed on both the front page of the New York Times and a segment in The Colbert Report.


Is policing discussions through the use of mods the answer? Self-policing seems to be just about non-existent but the practice of moderating online discussion has come to be viewed as censorship of free speech in a lot of quarters. Where do we draw the line? At hate-speech? Threats of violence? What about simply impugning the author’s reputation, authority, or intellect – i.e. the way he/she makes their living? Everyone has the right to their own beliefs and opinions but that doesn’t mean we all get to say whatever we like whenever we like an not expect any consequences. 


Perhaps the only hope we can hold out when it comes to these online “debates” is that some readers – and not even the ones who post comments or rebuttals – will come across an opinion they hadn’t considered before. In which case the “debate” has had the desired effect, only not in an obvious, readable way.


As someone who lives and breathes in the digital space, I watch fascinated but with a growing state of sadness. As online discussions have become more visceral and hurtful, cyberspace is becoming barely recognisable as a tool I use to fuel debates and have my paradigms continually shifted by passionate online compatriots.


As it stands at present, I have to wonder whether real debate can exist in a space where most have already made up their minds and the rest aren’t even listening at all.


* Nick Cowen is an award winning tech and games journalist and is the current Editor At Large of T3 Magazine.

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