The Empty Noise of Online Debate

Social media has profoundly changed the way in which we express our views about current affairs. It is far easier than ever before to make our voices heard. This, however, has drastically reduced the quality of any online debate that we have. Much of the discourse we now have is no longer meaningful.

The multitude of debates about Brexit have gripped social media for many months. First the referendum itself, its aftermath, and now the legal challenges concerning whether the government may use its inherent power to trigger Article 50. Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, we can now easily express our views from our mobile phones. On Twitter, it even comes in bite-sized chunks. To use the word, ‘debate’, however, would be to attribute a degree of quality to our comments that is noticeably absent. One would hope that we would engage with these questions in a reasoned way, evaluating arguments on both sides. Instead, what I see is almost  a chant of ‘take back control’, and the constant decrying of judges as ‘enemies of the people’ (which I do not come even remotely close to condoning). Political engagement is higher than ever before; but meaningful and reasoned discourse is undoubtedly as low as I can recall.

In connection with this, ‘expert’ views are now dismissed without argumentative basis. The person sitting in front of their television at home scrolling through Twitter is suddenly authority on technical constitutional questions, legal rules and matters of economic policy, even without any research into or study of these fields. Social media has become an echo chamber: we only want to see views and opinions which conform to our own. This is why such an absurdity is now not only accepted by the online community, but reinforced by a multitude of similar comments. The result is that it is very difficult to assess the veracity of what we are reading.

This problem is not only localised to the Brexit debate. There has been recent consternation amongst Hindus about the use of tallow in the UK’s new polymer £5 notes, as there should be. It is important that the Hindu community forms views on how this issue affects us. It is inevitable, however, that different people will have different views. As with Brexit, serious and reasoned debate is needed in such a situation. A recent debate that I saw descended into a verbal battle about the extent of vegetarianism necessitated by Hinduism, and the actions of individuals in relation thereto. Whilst these issues are not entirely irrelevant, it is hoped that debates will actually focus on the question around which they are centred. Nor is this an exception; many debates on the application of sanskaars (values) to modern challenges descend into such vacuity.

These three examples demonstrate a malaise within online debate in the modern day. Where we would otherwise find reasoned debate, we find baseless ranting, which often fails to address the issue at hand. There are many issues today which are open to discussion: Brexit, the performance of the UK government, immigration, and Donald Trump’s impending presidency, amongst others. They call for reasoned and informed discussion.

The present problems cannot, however, be resolved overnight. Small steps may nonetheless be taken by each of us. We cannot restrict our reading to only those views with which we agree; it is necessary to see both sides of any argument. Where we read, we must assess the credibility of what we are reading. There will be more authoritative sources on current legal issues than the Daily Mail. Those agreeing with the views of the Guardian may want to read the Telegraph, for example. Where we wish to comment, we must research and think before we write. Two informed and reasoned sentences will be of more benefit than a page of nonsensical ranting. Where we have not examined an issue sufficiently to form a view, then it is perfectly acceptable to temporarily have no view on a matter. Engagement with current affairs is not simply about forming an opinion on everything, but about coming to informed views which we can sensibly discuss.

All views expressed are my own, with inspiration from others with whom I have discussed this matter.

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