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Augmented arguing: Why we need to fix internet debate and how we can do it

Nicolas Zahn
Feb 9, 2016 · 6 min read

Internet platforms are becoming more and more the place for political discourse. But the current way of using these platforms and the design of the platforms themselves is not conducive to productive debates. This is not only annoying but actually a problem for democracies, that by their very nature rely on an informed public discourse. The good news is that technology can also provide the key to this problem if designed and used correctly.

Internet platforms like social media have fundamentally changed how we debate on the internet. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter reign supreme as places where we express our opinions, voice our concerns and show support or disdain, be it a friend’s holiday picture or upcoming legislation. On these platforms three distinct effects are shaping the way we debate.

First, the flow of information is determined by algorithms. This changes how you gather and perceive information while making up your mind and assessing the views of others. It is the logical consequence of the internets accomplishment to make vast amounts of information available: the information needs to be ordered somehow. Googles search algorithm is a perfect example. The problem, however, is that you cannot understand how the algorithm works. In fact, not even the people who write algorithms really know how they work. This is problematic as it allows for manipulation. And this is not only a theoretical problem: studies have already shown that undecided voters can be manipulated in their opinion through Googles page rank algorithm. Algorithms can also be used to produce content which in turn changes your perception. Just one example are the notorious Twitter bots. When algorithms are in charge, they are not necessarily better than humans as they have also been shown to actually discriminate. No wonder, calls for a better control of algorithms and their influence are growing louder and users relying on Facebook for their political news are actually warned to “browse with extreme caution” as the site “may subtly skew [their] point of view”.

Second, and similar to the first effect, popular platforms have been shown to be susceptible to the so called echo chamber effect. This effect describes the phenomenon that you stay inside your bubble of beliefs and are not really paying attention to any views outside your mindset, something that happens very frequently on Social Media. Staying in your argumentative comfort zone leads to polarization of the debate which favors extreme views over more reasonable voices. As a study by the Pew Institute showed, “polarized crowds on Twitter are not arguing. They are ignoring one another” and “for those at the very extreme end of the [opinion] distribution, this reinforces their extremism, and, in a way, it could legitimize this type of opinion”.

A third factor in how internet debate works is the concept of “going viral”. The ultimate goal of every post on Social Media is to “go viral”, to be liked, shared and commented on. While there is not a clear recipe to “going viral” it is obvious that simple messages appealing to emotions, in particular fear, have good chances of succeeding. That needn’t necessarily be bad if the message or argument going viral would be true. All too often, however, the contents we are about to like and share contain or are based on misinformation. So just as we can spread good news over Social Media, these platforms can be used “for the rapid dissemination of rumors, ethnic slurs, xenophobia, and other extremist and intolerant sentiments”.

The debate on the internet is broken

These three factors show that the current internet platforms like Facebook and Twitter are not helping the political discourse but are actually making it worse. Today’s platform focus on simply finding the “most liked” thing. However, what your opinion is is only partially interesting. What is really interesting is why you have this opinion. Even platforms specifically built for political actions, e.g. campaign sites, alternatives to Facebook or Sean Parkers’ Brigade still simply aggregate views without actually focussing on the decision-making process behind the view.

What we could do: Introducing augmented arguing

I firmly believe that technology in and of itself is neutral in the sense that it is up to its users and inventors to ensure that society reaps benefits from the technologies. So, while I see the current technological state of internet debate as a problem, technology is not the problem but the solution. For example, the algorithms used on Social Media are programmed to increase revenues from advertisements, not to encourage the best argument. We could adapt the design and use of technology to serve the purpose of exchanging arguments. This could help solve a big paradox of our time namely that while technological change has lead to a “profound empowerment of individuals through exponentially greater access to information, tremendous ease of communication and data-sharing, and formidable tools for networking […] democracy — the political system based on the idea of the empowerment of individuals — has in these same years been stagnant in the world”.

So, what we need is a platform that meets the following criteria: First, it is built specifically for political discourse and focusses on the exchange of arguments. Second, it addresses the three factors discussed above. And third, it follows the general rules for a good debate. I will call this augmented arguing.
The platform would preferably be open source, so that the inner workings of the involved algorithms are clear. All posts are structured around a discussion on a specific political question, e.g. whether to support or oppose a given piece of legislation. After choosing whether I support or oppose the subject of the discussion, I can post an argument for my position or choose from a list of already stated arguments the ones I support. But after that initial statement from my side the algorithm will not only show me the arguments made in favor of my position but actually direct me to arguments made against my position. As user I am then asked to think of a counter argument. This ensures that I am no longer trapped in the echo chamber. Before posting any comments, my statements have to be evaluated by other users randomly chosen among the people with the same position as myself. This procedure lowers the chance for misinformation and also tackles the issue of hate speech or inadequate comments. Today, Social Media mostly relies on an ex-post mechanism where I have to get active once a comment has already been posted. This would not be the case on this platform. Because the evaluation is also coming from fellow users and not from a moderation team belonging to the staff of the platform, as is typically the case for news sites, the sense of community is also bigger and the allegation of censorship less likely. To keep users motivated and to promote good arguments, the platform could draw from the concept of gamification and e.g. award points to the two teams arguing for and against a certain position.

Platforms loosely following these criteria actually already exist e.g. in the form of liquid democracy and DemocracyOS, loomio or whysaurus. However, those platforms have not yet reached the mainstream of political internet discourse, partly because they are too complex and want too much and partly because fighting the quasi-monopolies of established players is extremely hard. Skeptics would argue that augmented arguing doesn’t stand a chance given the de-facto monopolies on internet discourse of platforms such as Facebook. Alas, I believe that two factors make the emergence of augmented arguing on a separate platform only a question of time. First, people are interested in debating politics, so there is growing demand. And not just from citizens but also from politicians that understand that they need to interact with their electorate. Second, citizens and politicians realize that current platforms do not offer the right environment for these debates. This means that a niche exists within internet platforms that could be filled by a platform aimed at augmented arguing. Let’s create it!

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