We need to talk: the vices and virtues of social media

Sunday 29 October, 10:0011:30, Frobisher 4-6Contemporary Controversies

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In 2017, we have the greatest communication infrastructure humanity has ever known. Thanks to the web, particularly blogs, and social media, publishing is now fully democratised. Access to the masses is no longer controlled by monks, aristocrats or media moguls. You can say anything you feel like, and many do, with the possibility that anyone in the world might read it.

Yet while the capacity to communicate has never been greater, the exchange of ideas seems pitifully weak. The public sphere appears more polarised than ever. Battle lines are drawn and positions entrenched. The roundheads and cavaliers of Remain and Leave, metropolitans and provincials, ‘deplorables’ and liberals use the internet to connive with like-minded others, reinforcing their own private echo chambers. Once allied, these groups interact with dissenting views to hurl capitalised accusations of fascism, totalitarianism, hypersensitivity or simply of just making everything up as they go along. The veracity or otherwise of ‘The Other Lot’s’ statistics is taken as further proof of their mendacity or ignorance. Meanwhile, the obvious truth of our own group’s view and assertions is taken for granted.

This spread of intellectual silos and entrenched positions seems like bad news for political and intellectual debate, and even democracy itself. If we aren’t prepared to admit the possibility that another point of view might be correct, then the testing of ideas becomes impossible.

How important is a level of intellectual integrity in the public sphere? Is the nature of online communication, with its brief viral storms of partisan rage, inherently anti-intellectual? Do its echo chambers insidiously promote tribalism, public denunciation and the circulation of hearsay? Does it matter whether virally circulated information is factually correct, or can we trust the populace to sift through fishy information and disregard where appropriate – knowing when to take a public figure or media entity ‘seriously – but not literally’. If we can’t agree on the terms of our debate, how can we win one another over, and stand a chance of effectively changing anything ever again?