As President of a society that was founded 196 years ago to promote debate and free speech (and somewhere students could get plastered without interference from University authorities), the growth of online media and online debate poses some difficult questions.
Of course, the decision to have a Facebook and Twitter presence has become obligatory. More fundamentally though, the growth of the opinionated blog and online comments pose the question - what is the most effective way to change minds?
The traditional format in Cambridge is fairly simple. Get 6 speakers (a mix of the famous, the expert and the undergraduate). Give them ten minutes each to speak on either side of an interesting topic. Put them in front of hundreds of students who can make points at any time and see which side comes out better.
Certainly, it's not a subtle way of influencing opinion. But it can be effective - whether it's the politician who's shown not to know their facts and has nowhere to hide or just an intensely moving personal account swaying the audience. What's more, it's measurable - by votes before and after a debate. In public debate TV instant polling or the crowd in the respective Parliamentary lobby can serve the same purpose. A leaders' debate would never occur effectively just online - as much as we might like responses to be limited to 140 characters. Undoubtedly, public debate can favour the well coached and loud-voiced. Nonetheless, there is something deeply important to the public about being able to defend your principles and beliefs in the flesh - without an avatar to hide behind or the ability to delay.
The influence of online debate is less clear. Free speech is a valuable commodity. However, thousands of short, anonymous comments on an article can often seem pretty worthless especially when the relative anonymity often attracts the extreme or the abusive.
Moreover, with traditional debate you are unlikely to walk out half way through or turn off the TV mid programme. Online media though is far more self-selecting. You can argue that those unsure about an issue will seek out different opinions. It's rare though that they will seek out five or six different perspectives. The dangers of the blogosphere simply functioning as an echo chamber are well known.
Yet, the limits of a traditional debate are often even greater. Even when televised, the best way to attract attention to a topical debate is to create controversy. The Nick Griffin edition of Question Time was watched by more than twice the audience of any other episode. Other than the less-than surprising admission that he doesn't like gay people very much either, it was one of the least insightful or productive episodes the BBC had produced. Similarly, the most widely reported debate the Cambridge Union held last year wasn't on terrorism or the failings of British justice but on pornography (I think, however, it ended up being a superb debate but decide for yourself: http://cus.org/ljd).
Moreover, we (and similar organisations) rarely have the advantage of broadcast media. Gone are the days when the BBC used to broadcast Union debates live. Unless it gets wider coverage, few debates will influence more than 500 people. That seems pretty inconsequential next to the Huffington Post's rumoured 100 million unique viewers a month.
So one medium is arguably better at changing minds in a measurable way and one is better at reaching them.
Recently though, there has been a shift. Online debate is merging with traditional debate and this change from a one-way street could increase the quality and relevance of both: More and more discussion is being made available online; whether with TED, Intelligence Squared - or indeed our own effort: www.cus.org/connect.
Online debate is beginning to shape and create public and traditional forms of debate. It is in that sense, online debate is coming of age. The E-petitions calling for hanging and for convicted rioters to lose all benefits are the turning point. They tapped into the public mood and spread across social media. Most importantly, those - like me - who disagreed with it could comment, post or advance a counter-petition in an attempt to discourage our friends from clicking on that link. Regardless of whether we failed or succeeded in convincing others, this online debate will have a concrete effect in shaping political debate.
If the Cambridge Union or similar organisations wish to be effective forums for debate in the 21st Century then we have to use this opportunity to give students more of a voice and stay relevant. That's why we're blogging here and have created a new website. Feedback will be gratefully received - I'm certain this article is far from perfect and there's no doubt a student society that's been around for two centuries can get stuck in its ways.
In the coming months, we will be reviewing our world-famous debates on this blog and discussing their substantive topics. From Cabinet Ministers defending the cuts to the country's top media figures debating how to control the press after phone hacking, there's bound to be something of interest. Interviews with the leading individuals who visit the Union will also be posted - providing a new way to showcase student journalism. Above all though, it's a new way for students to engage a wider audience on any issue that's topical or important to them.
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