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March 1, 2022

Socrates and Social Media

In his recent Washington Post opinion column, George Will explores the “art of civilized arguing” – in modern society. Will compares debate in the time of Socrates, around 400 BC, with the approach that dominates American public discourse today – posts on social media today.

The former is a collaborative, expansive, and non-adversarial process. The latter is characterized by confrontation, restricted access to information, and social pressure. Socratic skepticism provokes questioning that leads to greater understanding.  Social media debate is driven by emphatic statements that affirm preexisting perceptions and polarize.

Public debate has always been a forum for exploring unpacking disagreements about the issues affecting society. Ideally, these debates should be fact-based,  but that’s not always the case. Public opinion is formed by observing debates and responding to the information being presented and the person presenting it.   People then decide to agree or disagree.

What we see very little of today is respectful disagreement.

Comparing the Approaches

The Socratic Method, in its most basic form, uses disciplined and thoughtful questioning. Questions should be clear, focused, and intentional and not presume there is a single, correct answer.  Benefits to this approach include developing critical thinking skillsactive learning, and conducting in-depth analyses.  Research shows the Socratic method is associated with improved cognition, increased capacity for logical thinking, and greater ability to tolerate ambiguity and challenges one’s beliefs.

The rules for debate on social media are far less clear. Each person in the debate has discretion in how they share their thoughts, ideas, and opinions.  Exposure to debate on social media tends to polarize opinions and there is no expectation that anyone will rethink their original position. Assertions do not require factual substantiation and questions are used to collect information, not facilitate collaborative discussion.  Individual positions need not be logical because they are not intended to foster a coherent exchange of ideas. There’s no requirement for critical thinking or in-depth analysis.

There are some positive effects of social media on public debate. For one, it increases the number of participants that can participate in public discourse. The constructive debate of ideas and concepts should include as many voices as possible. Democratized participation comes with a risk – it increases participation among individuals with extreme views and those who seek to spread misinformation.  As a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult for social media users to determine the validity and accuracy of posts and the intentions of users.

Cancel Culture

Throughout history, the public has taken action against positions they consider wrong or offensive. One option for doing this is to ostracize individuals who advance unproductive opinions – they are excluded from the social group. Around the time of Socrates, ostracism was used to prevent individuals from becoming tyrants. Today it is used to “cancel” someone.

Some argue that cancel culture is not new. Technology has made the practice more pervasive, more powerful, and more concerning. Canceling is a function of your message, the number of followers you have, and the design of your social network.  The more followers you have, the more credible your posts. If you have too many detractors, you can be canceled. In sum, it’s the product of an algorithm.

Canceling someone seems like a numbers game that does not require understanding their position. As a result, some feel cancel culture is a dangerous form of unwarranted mass censorship and public punishment that is not necessarily reflective of social norms and values.

When taken to its extreme, public shaming and ostracizing certain individuals, ideas, beliefs, opinions, and cultural norms looks a lot like bullying. Once canceled, an individual has lost all opportunities to correct offenses, change their opinion or achieve a deeper understanding of an issue.

Engagement in Debate

Public debate on social media platforms, called engagement, happens through posts, tweets, videos, likes, retweets, and shares.  Contributions to public debate are limited to those that meet the technical requirements of each social media platform.  As a result, the quality of one’s contribution is determined by the rules of the platform, not the content itself. To engage in the debate you must respond immediately, express an idea in less than 280 characters, identify a viral hashtag, and select an attractive image. A highly insightful comment or question that does not meet these conditions is effectively restricted from public debate.

Engagement metrics are post-hoc indicators of the quality of a person’s content, its alignment with the target audience, and its overall value. Determining value is a slippery slope because it is possible to have high rates of engagement with content that is false, illogical, unsubstantiated, and even harmful. Furthermore, you can manufacture engagement. When engagement rates start to wane, one can buy social media followers to interact with their content.

Standards for Public Discourse

There is little empirical evidence on the cognitive and psychological effects of social media debate but there is clear evidence that social media influences opinion formation.  Posts with affective content that are shared by a particular personality type influence popular opinion – no questioning or deliberate discovery required.  Given this effect, there might be some benefit to establishing standards for public discourse on social media. Without them, society has no reliable method for neutralizing bad actors in the interest of the greater social good.

The Socratic method could be one approach to structuring public debate. But there are others.  Numerous African Americans and Latin American scholars have offered beneficial frameworks for thinking about the world and exploring important issues like justice, equality, and liberty. There is something to be learned from each of these approaches and the exploration of how they might also be applied to social media debate.

In Will’s piece, he quotes Ward Farnsworth who said, social media is like “ a campus on which atrocious habits of discourse are taught” with “sad and sometimes calamitous” consequences.

Clearly, we have been warned.

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