Social media is not designed to promote debate. The audience one finds there is hand-picked, pre-selected. It’s preaching to the choir. Because Facebook is the way most people interact with others at a distance, its very popularity has come to diminish the role of discourse in what we imagine to be a free society. Indeed, many young people do not understand the role of argument or discourse, imagining that their manufactured beliefs and shopping preferences define them and their peers.
In much of the developing world free speech is at a minimum and a free press almost nonexistent. Democracy can’t function because loyalty is the supreme virtue, and extreme fidelity doesn’t allow much room for divergent opinions.
The country I came from used to pride itself on being a democratic republic, but today most people hate politics and would rather submit to a benign dictator if they could only find one.
Because I’m an expat and far from home, my main contact with others online is via Facebook, which was developed as a way to help college students find like-minded friends. It is all about peer groups, and finding your “peeps.” If you express an opinion that sets you apart from your peers, you will eventually be “unfriended.”
One of the explanations for Facebook’s financial success is that by being structured in this way, it can deliver advertisements to targeted groups, about which much is known because the members volunteer tons of information about themselves with every post and every reaction to a post.
This is fine if that’s all we want from communication, but I suspect that many of us, especially the more mature members would enjoy discussing complicated issues without the onus of being “popular.”
Could Facebook be modified to encourage rational discourse about complicated issues, rather than encouraging superficial and infantile reactions? Maybe this could be done with specific pages that would serve as forums to address specific issues. Politics. Banking. Theater. Literature. Music. Art.
Despite the trivial nature of most Facebook posting, its dominance could be tapped for the greater good. Politics doesn’t need to be a dirty word, and the lowest common denominator in the Arts doesn’t always need to command the greatest amount of attention. Facebook is just a tool, one that could be modified to be more effective for the greatest number of people. It could facilitate real, complex communication instead of simply pandering to the herd.