Is Facebook the ideal place to conduct a civil discourse about sensitive issues?

It’s nice to be nice.

The thought first occurred when I saw a friend’s post on Facebook. It is the one that we seem to encounter in daily basis in our news feed: a political statement that supports a particular notion. The thing is, I’m not interested by the person’s statement nor the notion itself, but by the fact that bystander’s perceptions can be easily skewed by the amount of ‘likes’ the status and/or comment has.

One convincing argument and people’s stances are set. After that, much of the discussions are more to prove the other side of the argument is wrong than to try to reach a desired common ground based on reasoning or evidence.

From what I’ve seen, the high number of ‘likes’ from like-minded friends can raise the proponent’s public approval despite the person in question doesn’t necessarily offering any additional insights to the issue. It’s all becoming false binary, people either view their interlocutors as 100% right or 100% wrong, even though the ongoing conversation has some sort of nuance that one has to tread carefully. Worse, the comments often transform into a barrage of snide remarks and people slowly validate their opponents’ worst stereotypes rather than assume their sincerity of intentions. Eventually, at the end of the discussion, what people get is mutual frustration.

One then may ask, does this phenomenon happen on Facebook exclusively? Not really, it may also happen in any other social networking sites. I’m just using Facebook as an example because it is probably the easiest way to synthesize my arguments considering how seemingly omnipresent Facebook is in people’s lives.

On Facebook, addressing a sensitive topic can result into public derision. According to Pew Research Center, “Those who use Facebook were more willing to share their views if they thought their followers agreed with them […] Those who think they hold minority opinions often self-censor, failing to speak out for fear of ostracism or ridicule. It is called the ‘spiral of silence.’” If people largely disagree with one’s point of view because of slight misunderstanding (or worse, because they personally loathe their conversation partner), they most likely will exacerbate the situation and perpetuate the discourse into vitriolic vortex by throwing irrelevant tantrums and ad hominem attacks or as we know by trolling.

At first, I thought by using real names, it automatically eliminates the detriments of anonymous community, in which people cloaked themselves under pseudonyms and thus enabling online disinhibition effect — the “you don’t know me”/“you can’t see me” mentality — to shun people off because they have opposing standpoints. However, I’m starting to realize that the problem doesn’t lie on anonymity. I see plenty of helpful comments coming from people who use pseudonyms and plenty of harmful slurs coming from people who use their real names.

The huge problem is not the known/unknown identity, but the lack of moderation. There’s no absolute guidelines and written rules how people should behave on Facebook.

In 2013, a study concerning online incivility suggested that a small number of comments can wield enough power to sway a reader’s viewpoint of a particular issue. It concluded, “Much in the same way that watching uncivil politicians argue on television causes polarization among individuals, impolite and incensed blog comments can polarize online users based on value predispositions utilized as heuristics when processing the blog’s information.”

The question then evolves: Can we elaborate our dissenting opinions? If so, how? Well, yes, of course. Yet, I believe we need to consider to express our opposing perspective in a more respectful way. It’s best to drop the sarcastic personality when discussing about sensitive topics.

Before pushing my argument further, I want to take my readers to another part of the internet. It’s a place where people can always find sensible discussion in any kind of topic: MetaFilter.

MetaFilter has a unique means to provide authentication for its new users. Lurkers can read the entire site for free, but if they want to comment, they first need to pay $5 for lifetime membership. While it may fend off some potential content providers, in return, the quality of the discourse never subsides. Devoted users constantly keep posting thought-provoking links that might warrant discussion.

By setting a slightly higher threshold to manage a sheer number of upcoming users, MetaFilter preserves the quality of its content while still maintaining its inclusiveness. Authentication, as stated by Matt Thompson over Poynter, is one of the key aspect to enhance online commenting environments, “If you offer few barriers to posting a comment, you might get a lot of comments without much quality. But if the barrier to comment is too high, discussion might be anemic.” In this respect, MetaFilter has found its own magic formula.

Additionally, the whole site is highly moderated. Hence, whenever there’s a person who has a conflicting perspective over a particular issue, the community doesn’t move immediately into political turmoil. People simply listen. Not only because they fear their posting rights might be revoked by the moderators if they act improperly, but also because they want to cultivate worthwhile discourse instead of just coming to make themselves heard. This is what makes MetaFilter a wonderful community and why people from historically underrepresented groups feel invited to engage with others. MetaFilter envisions to foster discussion within a diverse community and everyone has the equal opportunity to contribute to the discussion.

On the other hand, Facebook is the most well-known virtual sphere where everyone goes to meet everyone else. The use has become so pervasive to the extent that it cannot provide an alternative forum for discussion about sensitive issues. No matter how valid people’s arguments are, publicly announcing unpopular opinions through Facebook status is equal to political suicide.

Whereas MetaFilter successfully created a welcoming atmosphere to accommodate a variety of viewpoints, an open-ended discussion on Facebook is prone to be less civil because of its adversarial confrontation nature. Facebook, as a platform, greatly relies on self-policing because there’s no real boundaries. People can say denigrating things and further discourage possible thoughtful comments that came from other people with different sociocultural norms.

If the goal is to cater good quality discussion that enforce community members to have a high level reading comprehension, I don’t expect one should approach sensitive issues with “I’m right, you’re wrong” attitude. Being dismissive or judgmental over other people’s concerns is a form of oppression. Often times, the potentially thoughtful conversations on Facebook usually devolve into counterproductive, hurtful exchanges.

We all need more cooperative sharing and substantive discourse where everyone can obtain a learning experience. Rather than emphasizing each other’s differences and disempowering disadvantaged groups, I believe by trying to understand other people’s point of view will make ourselves a better person. After all, aren’t those the purposes of arguing? To move issues forward and to reach a shared understanding?

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