How to avoid polarised arguments online

What has happened to our ability to debate? We’re used to the idea that a grown-up debate has a ‘for’ and ‘against’ position. That there’s usually a ‘wrong’ and a ‘right’ position to take when it comes to debating. But does this binary, polarised approach have to be applied to every real-world scenario, every discussion and every interaction on social media?

In the age of social media, even a cursory glance at Twitter, Facebook or YouTube etc. will reveal large groups of people, shouting loudly at each other online about how their polarised opinion is far more correct/right/woke/real than their opponent’s. ‘If you think X, then you must be Y’ is the way people seem to approach this, and it’s dividing society into an increasingly fragmented and isolated network of clans – driving a giant digital wedge between us all.

So, how do we overcome this trend for taking the polarised position?

A world of heartfelt opinions

It’s never been easier to know someone’s opinion on something.

Go online and you’ll find billions of posts, updates, tweets and blogs all telling you exactly what someone thinks about a given subject. Thoughts that in previous generations might have been kept more ‘under your hat’, or shared in the more cosy and welcoming forum of a group of close friends, now get broadcast to a global online audience. You express an opinion now and, before you know it, the entire planet seems to have a contrary opinion to share with you.

Politically, you’re either a ‘woke lefty’, a ‘centrist shill’ or a ‘right-wing nazi’, it would seem, with no-one listening to the other side’s opinion, and no-one fully explaining WHY they’re taking the position they’ve adopted. The days of reasoned debate, backed up by facts, evidence, data and science, seem to be gone forever.

In a time where Trump and Johnson are forever bleating on about ‘fake news’, and where the provenance of any given item of online news is questionable (to say the least), we’re moved into a time of falsehoods, ugly memes and viral political campaigns, none of which are based on any kind of fact or rational argument.

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The power of social media platforms

The ways that social platforms, like Facebook, have been used to churn out propaganda, lies and vitriol is alarming.

We believe what we see on these platforms without any critical analysis, it would seem… and that’s dangerous. When state bodies are actively using social media campaigns to influence voting intentions and swing democratic elections, then we’re on the worrying path towards an Orwellian future. As our everyday lives become more based around the sharing of personal data and the consumption of digital content, there has to come a point where we apply some critical thinking to how we utilise and interact with these social media tools.

When used with a positive and beneficial mindset, social media tools can reach out and do plenty of good things. But when these platforms are used solely for argument, outrage and the sharing of fake news, then there comes a time when we have to step back.

Creating a more intelligent and peaceful debate

I think most of us would agree that 2020 has been an absolute sh*tshow. We’re dealing with challenges that put a huge amount of additional pressure on society, on individuals and on everyone’s personal mental health – the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the imminent threat of a no-deal Brexit, the worry of economic recession, and the potential threat of job cuts, shortages of goods and a long winter of discontent.

So, if the next six months looks this hard, maybe now is the time to ditch the polarised arguing and to try actually finding some common ground? 

Here are a few simple ways we could achieve this:

  1. Remember your opinion is just that: opinion – your opinion on a given topic is not fact and it’s not ‘right’. It’s your strongly held belief, and that’s all. You are free to hold the opinions and beliefs that you want. But don’t think that your opinions and beliefs are any more ‘correct’ or worthy than anyone else’s.
  2. Provable facts are not ‘fake news’ – unlike an opinion, a fact is immutable. The Earth not being flat, the existence of climate change and the reality of the Holocaust are not personal beliefs. They’re facts that can be proven using science, research and the existence of historic information. Don’t argue against something that can be demonstrably proven to be true. 
  3. Don’t believe everything you read – in these digital times, most facts, images, videos and reporting can be faked – and many people will actively seek to share and broadcast this fake content. Be questioning of what you read and consume, and look for evidence of the truth, a good source for any argument, or proper data and historical information to back up the assertion.
  4. Listen to your opponent’s argument – blindly shouting abuse at each other is not a debate. Listen to what your opponent is saying, take in their full argument, keep an eye open for gaps, weaknesses and flaws in their argument – but also look for areas of common ground, or ways you can put yourself in their shoes. 
  5. Avoid unnecessary verbal and written abuse – if you can prove, through proper, reasoned debate, that your opponent’s argument doesn’t stack up, explain this, but don’t just hurl personal insults. What we’re trying to avoid here is the combative nature of current debate, so don’t fuel that fire.
  6. Find some common ground – this may be easier said than done in these binary times, but look for areas where you do actually agree with your opponent. These may be few and far between, especially if you’re from different ends of the political spectrum, but try to find a starting point where you can agree and then move forward.
  7. See compromise as success – when you’re stuck in a polarised debate, with both sides taking contradictory positions, there’s no way for either side to gain a comprehensive win. Look for areas of compromise and find out where you can all meet in the middle. That’s not weakness, that’s diplomacy – and it’s how rational, grown-up adults resolve an issue. If you’re acting like spoilt children, you won’t win the debate.
  8. Use social media sparingly – social platforms are the real forums for most of the online abuse and hate that we’re seeing in 2020. So, try to limit the time you spend immersed in these social platforms. Share positive messages, connect with new people and get all the good things that an online life can offer. But also don’t make your social media life into your whole life. Take a break, pick up a book, read an article and actually expand your understanding.
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Boost the positivity with reasoned argument

Finding a new way to debate, converse and find the middle ground isn’t easy. The digital world offers so many benefits for humankind, but it’s also open to abuse and the propogation of our current binary approach to debate. 

So, expand your knowledge, apply rational thinking and keep a critical eye on the information you’re consuming. But, above all, be kind, be open-minded and be logical about how you approach any kind of debate – if we all take that approach then, just maybe, we can reduce the hate and boost the positivity.

Going Freelance: Building Work Around Your Life, How To Write Killer Content For Your Startup, Steve Ash, Steve Ash author, books, business books, marketing books

Steve Ash is an author, content consultant and writer, based in the UK. 

4 thoughts on “How to avoid polarised arguments online

  1. Largely agree except for the bit about the earth being flat. Perhaps you are calling in from Discworld? Reminds me of what my old man used to say – “Listen, and you might learn something”. Modern political discourse reminds me of kids screeching at each other in the school playground, playing the game of the loudest and longest screecher wins. Since when did noise become a substitute for argument?

    1. Oops! I missed out a ‘not’ in the line about the Earth being flat. It is, of course, definitely a sphere. That will teach me to not proof-read properly. Thanks for commenting and reblogging – much appreciated. And, yes, there’s a lot of playground name-calling online, without very much sensible debate.

      1. Quite liked the comment about the earth being flat. Freudian slip? Our mind knows it’s round but our feet and eyes tell us it is flat when we walk on it. Which part of reality should we believe?

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