Netiquette, and don’t feel that you need to have an opinion on everything

Debate and opinion seems to me to have become particularly polarised recently, notably on social media, and with endless controversial subjects to fall out over (Trump, Brexit, Up Helly-Aa… anyone?)

Conspiracy theories, fake news, alternative facts, online abuse and a lack of basic etiquette all lead to a hostile climate where civilised balanced debate is being squeezed to the periphery. People adopt a position and shout across the middle ground at their opponents.

Sensationalised news headlines are designed to grab attention, and recent studies have shown that 59% of articles shared on social media have never actually been read by the person sharing them, and only 62% of people read an article before commenting on it. It seems the majority of people don’t take the time to read what it is that they’re angry about or spreading around.

It is common for people to believe the mainstream media is unfair and/or has an agenda. Research highlighted how groups with opposing views, when shown a broadly neutral TV coverage of a news event, believed the programs’ producers to be biased against their side. This is the Hostile Media Effect and is at the root of Fake News claims. Some people simply refuse to believe facts because of a perception of prejudice. This leads people to seek out news sources that they consider to be unbiased, but are actually highly partisan and merely reinforce existing, often erroneous, beliefs.

Another factor is the Echo Chamber effect, whereby people with similar opinions group together and share and reinforce their beliefs. This is amplified on social media which allows people to fine-tune their social interactions by accumulating friends and followers who generally share interests and opinions. Facebook, in particular, capitalises on this by feeding news and advertising that fits your worldview based on your ‘likes’. The recent Cambridge Analytica scandal and Russian misinformation factories have been accused of swinging the electorate in favour of leaving the EU and the election of Trump via Facebook manipulation. Worrying stuff.

Much of the phenomena described above is caused by Confirmation Bias, a “systematic error of inductive reasoning” that causes people to seek out, interpret and remember information that conforms to and confirms their existing beliefs. A quick Google will turn up information that can back-up almost any opinion. Essentially, we want to be right and will find ways to prove it at the expense of balance.

So, what can we do about this?

Seek new perspectives. Look at the opposite point of view. The reality is often in the middle ground. I’m fairly liberal, so I challenge my own beliefs by reading rightwing news sources. And to be honest, I can often see where they’re coming from. And often I don’t agree, but I don’t feel the need to shout at them that they’re wrong.

Don’t demonise people who have an opinion different from your own. Be civil. Folk are generally fine folk. If you don’t agree with them, ask polite questions. Try to understand why people believe what they believe. Often a consensus can be found, or agreements to disagree can be reached.

Don’t feel that you need to have an opinion on everything. And if you don’t really know much about a subject, perhaps it’s better to read, listen and think rather than comment from a position of ignorance.

Challenge people who are spreading misinformation by arming yourself with facts. We have a right to free speech and to have an opinion, but facts are facts. If your opinion is contrary to those facts, then it’s your challenge to resolve. You can’t just change facts to suit your opinion.

Most of all, spend less time on Facebook and Twitter, and speak to real people in your community. Shetland has folk of all opinions and political persuasions, and we’re all on this island together, so we should try to get along. For online discussion, try Shetlink. You’ll encounter local folk you don’t agree with, but the debate is robust.

I thoroughly recommend attending The Althing debates for some textbook examples of how to conduct civil discussion on controversial subjects amongst a cross-section of the community. And you get tea and bannocks. You’ll not get that on Facebook.

Published in Shetland Life magazine in March 2019