Why debating is so hard in the age of social media

My girlfriend and I often find ourselves on different sides of political issues. This has led to many a debate. Though we do our best to stay civil (we have a safe word just for debates), these debates can often end with both of us frustrated and grumpy.

One potential solution is to stop debating. We could simply choose to not talk about the things we disagree on. This might reduce our argument frequency, but it does not satisfy me. I like to debate, and I think it’s important to have one’s ideas challenged as often as possible. Reflecting on the times when our debates went sour, there are some clear lessons on how to improve.

An important thing to remember, especially in the age of internet filter bubbles, is that no two people will have the same view of the world. The media/news we consume, especially through social media, is highly personalized to our individual preferences and behaviors. It’s a mistake to assume the other person is has same background knowledge as you, and it is unhelpful to assume that your filter bubble provides a more accurate view of the world than anyone else’s.

News feeds have not only put us all in unique filter bubbles, they have increased our exposure to fringe and extreme opinions. I, like many others, spend too much time getting outraged at crazy opinions on the internet. One thing I need to remind myself more often is that Twitter is not real life. The most extreme voices are also the loudest, and outrage is among the most valuable emotions in the attention-economy. Machine learning algorithms, tuned to maximize clicks and views, will surface the most outrageous things because they drive more traffic.

This increased exposure to extreme opinions leads to a fatal flaw when debating: binary thinking. Consider the drawing below. Imagine there are two sides of an issue, A and B and everyone’s opinion lies somewhere along the horizontal line below. The middle represents a neutral opinion and the further you move in each direction, the more “extreme” the opinion gets. Of course, no real-world issue is one-dimensional, but it’s easier to visualize.

A common mistake I find myself making, arguing from side A, is grouping everyone on side B into one category. Most of my exposure to opinions on side B (thanks to the internet outrage factory) are from fringe extremists and angry internet trolls. Instead of understanding my debate partner’s actual viewpoint, I instead talk past them and argue against the most outrageous ideas that very few people actually support. It seems that, in a lot of debates I watch or participate in, both sides commit this fallacy and end up talking past each other.

We should all take some advice from Dale Carnegie’s classic, but relevant, How to Win Friends and Influence People and try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.

If [someone] makes a statement that you think is wrong— yes, even that you know is wrong— isn’t it better to begin by saying: “Well, now, look! I thought otherwise, but I may be wrong. I frequently am. And if I am wrong, I want to be put right. Let’s examine the facts”?

There’s magic, positive magic, in such phrases as: “I may be wrong. I frequently am. Let’s examine the facts.”

Dale Carnegie

The concept of steel manning is incredibly useful for this. Find the best form of your opponent’s argument and then argue with that. Instead of rattling off your talking points, put more effort into listening and understanding first. Try and find common ground.

Are you operating with the same background information? Are you using different definitions for words or concepts? Are you making any unvoiced assumptions? Quite often, disagreements with my girlfriend come down to trivial things like this. Our best debates happen when we focus more on finding the places where we agree. Most people want the same thing, less overall suffering and more happiness, they just disagree on how to get there.

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