Illustration: Jennifer Vo

Scroll down your newsfeed on Facebook and chances are you’ll see political news, a new pumpkin cheesecake recipe, and maybe a meme or two. Social media sites represent some of the largest variety of content from around the web, and along with all the articles come opinions.  With the sheer amount of conflicting ideas floating around, one has to wonder whether it’s possible or not to partake in constructive debate using social media sites.

No, social media isn’t designed to encourage constructive debate

Whether we’re actively involved or just looking for some entertainment, we’ve all seen arguments play out on social media at some point or another. Someone will share, post, or retweet something, and those who disagree will make their feelings known with excessive capitalization and exclamation marks.

After that comments fly back and forth, with an ever-increasing number of curses and a decreasing amount of actual discussion, until finally both parties give up, exhausted at not having made any progress.

Constructive debate means that both parties have their views on a topic challenged, and walk away with a better understanding of the views of another group as well as with questions about their own views. That is what social media fails to provide—the lens is not turned inward, and instead most debates slide into name-calling, with both people blindly touting their own views.

One reason for the less-effective discourse is that social media platforms inherently limit debate by the way they’re designed, as seen with Twitter’s 140-character limit. It’s hard to be constructive when you’re enraged, let alone when you have to cut your arguments down to 140 characters.

From behind a screen it’s a lot easier to justify abandoning common courtesy as well, so people often say things in online debates that they never would in person.

Some sites, provide anonymity to their users which means that there’s no way for users to be held accountable for what they say. Even when not anonymous, being online gives people the confidence to use harsh words they wouldn’t dare utter in the light of day. 

Social media simply isn’t designed to be a debating platform. Instead it’s designed for people to share ideas, connect with friends and stay up to date on information. There are some spaces online for people who are looking for a debating space, like Reddit or Debate.org.

The people on social media who go around looking for arguments are the trolls, people looking for disputes for the sake of disputes. They’re barely going to read any responses given, so there is no possibility of a constructive debate. The people that are looking to engage in an intelligent and lively exchange of ideas should do so in other areas of their lives, with friends, co-workers or relatives.

Social media may supply a steady stream of debate  topics , but it simply doesn’t encourage progressive discussion in its current form.

Yes, social media provides inclusive spaces

The evolution of social media is fast-paced, as its uses are determined by the ever-changing abilities and the mindsets of the people using it. Social media’s capacity to enable constructive debate is determined by the individuals involved.

A key element of social media is inclusivity. With so many users from such a broad range of backgrounds, social media’s ability to be used for expression is enormous.

However a study from the Pew Research Center indicates that opinions—especially on social media—are becoming increasingly polarized due to a phenomenon called the “spiral of silence”, which proposes that individuals who believe their opinion to be in the minority will not join into a conversation.

By connecting different groups of people together social media can provide communities for people whose views may be in the minority, such as sub-reddits or Facebook pages. This still allows for debate by making sure that even though your views may not be among the most popular, there is still a path for you to talk about your views.

An added benefit of debating from behind a computer screen time. People aren’t put on the spot, meaning they’d theoretically have plenty of time, and resources, to formulate well-written responses.

This is the power of social media as a debate tool—to give people the time they don’t have in face-to-face arguments to find references, to reflect on their ideas and ultimately to find responses to opponents’ arguments.

So while Facebook and Twitter weren’t necessarily developed for the purpose of debating, it is intriguing to use them that way. To do so effectively, web designers should continue developing mechanisms that work to regulate the quality of posted content.

The existence of a ‘like’ and upcoming ‘dislike’ button on Facebook and the retweet option on Twitter, already filters content based on whether it is received well.

Moving forward, the implementation of a Reddit-esque framework, complete with posting guidelines and conduct for discussion, might help ensure constructive, informative debate via social media.