Some chattering about the public debate on social media

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Isn’t it the case that the public debate has shifted from conventional media to social media – from paper to digital. After all, everyone can make themselves heard on the internet. Still, the discussions on social media hardly resemble the public debate. It is better to see these discussions as a form of gossip, aimed at maintaining existing norms that serve to separate us from them. Though gossiping might be amusing every now and then, it cannot make a useful contribution to the development of a pluralistic and inclusive debate in any way whatsoever.

With the advent of social media, also the place seems to have shifted where most of the public debate takes place. It is widely believed that this can no longer be found on the opinion pages of newspapers and magazines, but in the timelines and feeds of Facebook and Twitter.

Such debates on social media seem much more inclusive than the conventional opinion sections in newspapers. The placement of your letters or opinions is not in the hands of some editor, who soon finds something ‘too difficult’ or ‘irrelevant’ for his readers. No, this time it is that editor himself who has become irrelevant. Now, you can give your opinion whenever you want, just like everyone else. It could just be that the public debate has really become a matter of the public.

Unfortunately, the reality of the web is unruly. There are quite some discussions on the internet and everyone is concerned about everything. But they don’t convey a public debate.

Social media are the effectuation of social science theories. Just like engineers construct the roads and bridges we drive on, design the buildings in which we live and work, the machines we drive, fly and sail with, also sociologists have become some kind of engineers, namely the designers who determine how we interact with each other in the digital space.

That is, some sociologists. After all, the rules of the public debate are not taken into account. Not just because those rules are complicated – the social network analysis that underlies Twitter is not less difficult– but because those rules are hard for an individual user to enforce: they require effort and dedication.

That builds a bad business model. What a digital platform needs is an addictive combination of convenience and pleasantness, which makes us return to the same site over and over again.

The addiction to social media stems from the ability to show the best version of yourself and to be rewarded for it. A like for your holiday photo, a retweet of your sharp remark, and your dopamine level rises. It doesn’t take long for your brain to scream for more, for even more likes.

But it is not so much about showing the best version of ourselves, but it is especially about showing which group we are a member of. We want to reveal to whom we belong by showing the right images on Instagram, the right playlists on Spotify, the right messages on Twitter and the right likes on Facebook.

Actually all actions on social media are aimed at constructing boundaries between those who belong to us and those who do not. This is done through norms. A community is a group of people who share the same norms – or so it seems. In reality, the content of those norms does not really matter, that is just a stick to beat with: if the ‘other’ used the same norm, she could not just become a member of ‘our’ group; we will start using a different, or slightly adjusted, norm instead.

That is exactly what happens on social media platforms: users post norms that show to which group they belong and, more importantly, who does not belong to this group. Communities are created and reproduced by pointing to the norms used to exclude people.

‘Tribes’ are created on social media using norms that make them feel superior to other tribes. Political discussions become tribal conflicts between different truth systems, with little reason to transcend the conflict.

This is not a public debate: this is gossip. Social media offer the pleasantness of the pub, but then in the virtual world, where you go with your friends to confirm each other’s equality and to prove that the rest of the world is crazy.

The dopamine rush that we get when we refresh our screen comes from being recognized as being a member of the group to which we want to belong. For us, social animals that we are, there is little that is so important.

The feeds make it seem like there is something like an unambiguous community, a culture to which you belong or not, values and norms that form a consistent whole. Which makes it easy to determine who belongs and who doesn’t.

It is not difficult to articulate the underlying subtext of the Facebook groups you are a member of, no matter how innocent they may be. It is the subtext of a single identity to which all individual reports and responses are subordinate.

An algorithm does not have to be that smart at all to be able to determine who belongs to which group and what the members of that group would like to hear. People like to imagine themselves that such a group is a beautiful whole with a fixed, recognizable identity. So whatever such an algorithm offers, people will all too easily find their imaginary confirmed.

But well-defined communities with a clear identity do not exist and they should also not be strived for. This endeavor is at the expense of: the dignity to which also misfits and outsiders are entitled ;the counter-voices needed to achieve improvement and innovation; and the inclusiveness that an Enlightened society should pursue.

A public debate is precisely intended to make these values and ideas possible. By guaranteeing plurality, this debate should allow a non-singular community. What makes a community a community is not its imagined unity, but the ability to resolve conflicts peacefully. It is here that the public debate finds its essence: the struggle through words and arguments with the aim of finding a language with which collective answers can be obtained.

Internet is a marketplace, where companies are in charge. It’s no surprise that gossip is lucrative. What should be surprising is the naivety about the possibilities of social media. You see attempts by governments to adjust their workings: after the Cambridge Analytica scandal Facebook is being asked for more responsibility; information campaigns are started after a series of fake news-messages.

But these kinds of events are not excrescences of social media, they are intrinsic traits. As we all know, the essence of gossip is that the truth doesn’t matter. Gossip serves to determine the boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’, the boundary between true and false is completely irrelevant.

It is not wrong to use social media, but it is wrong to expect that these media can facilitate a public debate. This really requires other design choices that are not obvious as long as the social media depend on our addiction to pleasure. For the public debate, we must still rely on other media.

Of course, conventional newspapers and magazines are also made to earn money and discussions are all too often not that uplifting. But the old media afford gossiping to a lesser extent. The opportunity to actively draw boundaries between groups of people is decreased: if you want to participate in such a public debate, you are forced to take some distance from yourself, to think about your position relates to other positions. Only on the basis of such reflection can a public debate arise and transcend tribal struggles.

Further reading:

Marin, L. (2021). Sharing (mis) information on social networking sites. An exploration of the norms for distributing content authored by others. Ethics and Information Technology. doi:10.1007/s10676-021-09578-y.

Marres, Noortje (2017), Digital sociology: The reinvention of social research (John Wiley & Sons).

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