2014 - A Bad Year for Reasoned Debate

Debate may have had a bad year in 2014, but if we collectively use technology a little bit better, who knows? Maybe we can resist the appeal of the swirling vortex. Maybe 2015 won't be such a bad year after all.

Seemingly everyone has Twitter these days. It is a fact of modern life. Everyone has social media in one form or another, and membership is simply assumed; and its advent is an event which lives in our collective personal history. The effects of the social media proliferation have been, and continue to be, incredibly far-reaching, especially when one considers political engagement and the way people interact with national and international events.

I have written before about the tempting but dangerous opportunities that social media allows for individuals to phase out dissenting voices from our feeds, to isolate ourselves within ivory towers of similarly-minded individuals. The urge may well be a strong one, but it must be resisted. There goes the advice, but it runs decidedly contrary to what appears to be the prevailing trend. Networks are becoming more closed-off, more extreme; activists are becoming more dedicated and even obsessive; and ordinary people, people who might not have picked up a newspaper or turned over to a news channel in years gone by, are becoming inflamed with alien political sentiment. For all of these categories, the primary motivating factor appears to be anger.

There is real, visceral anger at politicians, all of it expressed blisteringly, and often incoherently, on Twitter and Facebook. False news stories, especially those which provoked fury, did the rounds. A randomly selected example of this madness is the entirely incorrect tale of a convicted cannibal asking for, and receiving, a child for his last meal on death row. Madness it was, but it made people angry. They clicked; were appalled; shared - presumably with an appropriate comment, one which demonstrated just how sickened they were; and thus facilitated such cynical and calculated fabrication.

This year marked the publication of a beautifully written essay decrying the closed-mindedness and anti-intellectualism of a great deal of far-Left campus activism - an event perceptibly marred by the fact that the author chose to publish her thoughts from behind the protective cover of a pseudonym. She was frightened, one imagines, of the fury such a political statement could elicit from former comrades.

Elsewhere, Ukip acolytes continued their rapid and unhinged colonisation of the comment sections of newspaper websites; and they managed to display a vast amount of ill-tempered and hysterical bitterness in the process. Under a well reasoned and witty piece by Tom Chivers, in which he suggested - perhaps obviously - that Ukip supporters 'need to learn to take criticism', the weirdoes and obsessives attacked. He was a shill, the textbox masses raved; his paper was 'running scared' of Ukip, suppressing or distorting or hiding stories which painted the party in a positive light while actively commissioning hit-pieces. Calmness disappeared. Reason (if it was ever there) vanished almost entirely. Both were replaced by frothing rage, by the insistent and rough-edged eloquence of insanity.

That was a common feature of this year's most egregious online incidents: nuance was dismissed in the face of stridency. The man with the loudest opinion simply won out over the person with the best. No wonder we saw such a good year for the thuggish strongmen, for the far-Right, and for those idiots who were luckily possessed of megaphones.

Volume transcends quality in argument. To a degree, of course, it was ever thus; it can be hard to be persuasive or to rebut with style when someone simply bellows over all attempts at discussion. But the effects of this characteristic are being magnified by social media, the way so many of us access and express our views on the news of the day.

In such a climate, it seems, paid trolls abound, propagandists thrive, and all hope of a common ground is trampled beneath the latest in a succession of social media stampedes. The chaos and disorder of our online existences aid the active peddlers of disinformation (as described in authoritative reports) and give succour to the histrionic, the overly partisan and the misinformed. Battle lines and party lines are drawn and solidified.

The answer to this situation is not an easy one, and nor is it helped by the status quo. The internet is no longer the preserve of academics and the military; and nor is it home to only a few sites and fewer visitors. What we have instead is a turbulent sea of events, of news and of comment. It is a maelstrom of happenings - one through which it is difficult and sometimes impossible to find a safe path. Old media, which was somewhat stable in its way, is dying, becoming replaced by a fast moving world of hot takes and excitingly named (but justifiably poorly received) 'vertically integrated digital-media compan[ies]'.

Perhaps the solution is to ditch our obsession with speed; fast reporting begets rapid-fire anger, after all. But this (in addition to being to some degree unconvincing) seems an unattainable goal; reporters have sought to get their copy in fast since the dawn of the newspaper age, and it is in the financial interests of organs to break stories first. Online media, while unhistorically instant, is not too distant to dissociate from these roots.

It is possible that we ought to simply cease the egotistical fixation with having our own say on events; in the rush to develop opinions - especially ones which, in congruence with the aforementioned, conform to an ideological stripe of sorts - facts may be overlooked and noteworthy viewpoints minimised. Arrogance (among other things) compels us to propagate our views to all who will listen. Shutting up could be the beginning of something good.

Whatever the solution - and even if there is no quick fix to the increasingly broken intersection of new media, old media and social media - it remains vital to exercise critical thinking, moderation and reasonable doubt in the acquisition and dissemination of news and newsworthy material. Debate may have had a bad year in 2014, but if we collectively use technology a little bit better, who knows? Maybe we can resist the appeal of the swirling vortex. Maybe 2015 won't be such a bad year after all.

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