The New York Times published an article on Tuesday discussing the downside of social media and its alleged effect on silencing differing opinions in political debate.

Based entirely on a single issue study, the article concludes that social media squashes debate.

The Study

Pew Research Internet Project conducted the study which polled respondents on the Snowden-NSA issue.

The researchers set out to investigate the effect of the Internet on the so-called spiral of silence, a theory that people are less likely to express their views if they believe they differ from those of their friends, family and colleagues. The Internet, many people thought, would do away with that notion because it connects more heterogeneous people and gives even minority voices a bullhorn.

Instead, the researchers found, the Internet reflects the offline world, where people have always gravitated toward like-minded friends and shied away from expressing divergent opinions. (There is a reason for the old rule to avoid religion or politics at the dinner table.)

The very premise of the study is the fulcrum of every single liberal social theory ever: that somehow, the voice of dissent deserves more equal treatment than the voice of the regular guy or the voice of the majority.

Much to their surprise, researchers found out what any of us could have told them: it’s human nature that the like minded gravitate towards one another, yet another part of humanity liberals are always trying to naively eradicate from the social construct. It also seemed to shock the researchers that there exist many people who, get this, don’t enjoy conflict or conversations that could turn contentious. If only someone had told us sooner!

But let’s move on:

“People who use social media are finding new ways to engage politically, but there’s a big difference between political participation and deliberation,” said Keith N. Hampton, an associate professor of communication at Rutgers and an author of the study. “People are less likely to express opinions and to be exposed to the other side, and that’s exposure we’d like to see in a democracy.”

Gee, if only we lived in a democracy (hint: we don’t, or at least we weren’t intended to). But I digress.

The implication in the NYT article and in similar articles is that likeminded people enjoying the opinions of other likeminded people is destructive behavior or behavior that ultimately leads to political failure. Professor Jacobson has blogged about this as well, see here and here.

Must We Seek Out Opposing Points of View?

The study found that in both online and personal settings, people are much more likely to share their opinions in a setting where they know their peers will agree.

Coupled with this likeminded collaborative doom theory is the liberal assumption that if you are not actively seeking opposing points of view, you are bound to fail. Yet this is an expectation placed on the right that the left does not mirror. Journolist 2.0 is just one example. This is a group of over a thousand lefties coordinating their efforts to push the same narrative, only conversing with one another.

As Professor Jacobson wrote, “The notion of a cocoon unique to conservatives is nonsense, and without any evidence. For every example of a conservative cocoon I could give you 10 examples of liberal cocoons.” I wholeheartedly agree.

I’m in camp, “know your opponent’s arguments inside and out so you know how to defeat them” but if my opponents these days amount to the likes of Salon and Media Matters, the only thing I’ll gain from reading their “arguments” is an unreasonable compulsion to drink heavily.

But seriously, there is virtue and benefit from exploring various viewpoints. I’d even argue it’s a healthy way to ensure you’re in the best position to defend your own arguments which is why I make a habit of reading lefty publications, but that I make a habit, subconsciously or not, to spend the majority of my time reading somewhat similar opinions doesn’t lead me to argumentative failure.

Social Media and Debate

Speaking from personal experience, I have found social media exactly the opposite of the New York Times article. I’ve found that social media encourages debate. Sometimes in the form of an all caps laden, “WAKE UP SHEEPLE” tweet, or someone warning me of the evils of the papacy, but however debate manifests, it’s a direct result of my electronic connection to the personal opinions of thousands of individuals, many of whom I’ve never met.

I’m curious in nature and enjoy picking people’s brains, so this might be something inherently easier for me. But for those interested, social media provides a fantastic medium to share a variety of opinions, to disagree, and to learn. Often you don’t even have to engage in the discussion, the discussion engages you first.

One of the findings of the study indicated that:

Those who use Facebook were more willing to share their views if they thought their followers agreed with them. If a person felt that people in their Facebook network agreed with their opinion about the Snowden-NSA issue, they were about twice as likely to join a discussion on Facebook about this issue.

Barring those that outright disagree as qualifying for “debate” in the social media realm, what’s interesting here is that likeminded circles seems to foster discussion. In what we perceive as a safe (in this case, safe from the contentious, overly-aggressive cousin who comments on everything political to tell you how wrong you are) social media environment, we are more likely to share our opinions. In doing so, we are creating discussion and in turn debate. Nuanced arguments and various points of view sprout and all because we believe we are amongst likeminded folks.

Also interesting was that the study found avid social media users who shared their opinions online were less likely to share their opinions at a restaurant among friends. Of course this doesn’t quite square with the premise of the aforementioned NYT article. There was no mention of communication styles or personality types or any other social factors that might drive this type of behavior, but at least according to the Pew study, you either vent your political frustrations online or in person, but probably not in both arenas.

The Fragmented Bubble

Prior to becoming actively involved in the conservative social media world, I had no clue how many factions existed within said bubble.

It was rather jarring to find that I disagreed with conservatives just as much as liberals on various policy issues or electoral strategies. But these weren’t disagreements limited to me and my diary, these disagreements were all the product of people asking me my opinion on an issue via social media. And these were debates I never would have had if not for social media.

As much as we wish it existed, there is no proverbial Big Tent. Not on the right or the left. The Big Tent is a fantastic idea that will never exist for one simple reason: human nature. Everyone has a desire to be accepted and the best way to be accepted in a largely intellectual sphere is to be right. So while there is a large faction that can be labelled “right” and one that can be labelled “left” (although not cleanly as several issues cross camps these days), this giant utopia of ideological loveliness is mythical.

Those who always passively observe, will always passively observe. Jerk will be jerks. The thoughtful will be thoughtful. These are universal truths that aren’t bound to one medium or excepted in another.

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