The Saturday debate: Online political discussion is doomed to disappoint

Here’s your starter for ten as we experiment with a new Saturday slot posing a view for debate:

Online discussion and interactivity works best when it is amongst people of common outlooks and shared assumptions, as that is what protects against it drowning in flames, drive-by verbal graffiti and point scoring rather than point development. But that means it works best when people are huddling together in communities of the like-minded. Such groups of like-minded don’t make for good political discussion or debate as they all agree on too much and don’t pay much attention to the occasional dissenting interloper.

Agree? Disagree? Comment away…

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This entry was posted in Online politics and Op-eds.


  • Iain Roberts 9th Jan '10 - 9:00am

    Online debate is much the same as any other kind – if you have a free-for-all and people with strongly opposing views, it quickly decends into a slanging match.

    One way to avoid it, as you suggest, is for the debaters all to start from the same world view, but you rightly point out that this inevitably leads to confirmation bias and those who disagree being either ignored or heaped with scorn and abuse.

    The alternative is the same as in the offline world: you have debating rules (explicit or implicit) and a chairman of some sort. Break the rules and you’re excluded from the debate.

  • Andrew Suffield 9th Jan '10 - 10:11am

    The only thing that’s really different about online debates is the near-zero barrier to entry to everybody. In a meatspace debate, random abusive people are unlikely to travel to the location where you are holding it just to disrupt the proceedings; in an extended online (public) debate they can stumble over your site and instantly deposit their contribution to the noise.

    On the flip side, this sort of instant response encourages people to respond instantly, without taking any time to consider the question or do any research. This means the debate tends to be biased towards emotional responses, with poor factual accuracy. You can dampen this by not having any people who disagree, but obviously that’s not very productive.

    Solutions? Well, it’s going to be the same as in meatspace. Have a fixed start and end time for the debate. Limit participation to those who sign up at least six hours in advance, and (implicitly) care enough to show up at the appropriate time. Already you’ve discarded drive-by trolling and people responding before they have time to think. From there you can work out the details.

  • Matthew Huntbach 9th Jan '10 - 11:00am

    Agreed. On-line free-for-all discussion is dominated by those who have time on their hands, or who are obsessives and so keep on doing it pushing their obsessive (and generally rather unusual) line for that reason.

    The way in which what appear to be highly democratic decentralised structures can become the dictatorship of people with time on their hands worries me, it’s something I’ve been thinking about for quite a while though I don’t yet have any clear answers. I think it can account for some of the feeling that politicians are an alien species, and the failure of the political left with its heavy reliance on committed activists.

  • Just look at Perfect illustration of the above.

  • Tony Greaves 9th Jan '10 - 11:30am

    In the Liberal Democrats it is probably just another effect of the moribund state of political debate within the party.

    Tony Greaves

  • Iain Roberts 9th Jan '10 - 11:49am

    Generally speaking, the standard of debate between bloggers is higher – perhaps because people invest more in their blog, feel a stronger sense of ownership and so have more incentive to make well thought-out posts.

    Debates between different bloggers, especially when they each post on their own blogs, are nearly always of a much higher standard than those in comment threads, even when the debaters have very different views.

    Maybe there’s something in the idea that expressing our actions have consequences. If I post something stupid and lots of people conclude that I’m an idiot, it’s neither here nor there if I’m posting on HYS. If its on my own blog and, as a result, I lost readers and credibility, it’s more significant.

    Not perfect though – there are plenty of bloggers (and newspaper columnists) who do perfectly well spouting venomous, poorly-researched rubbish,

  • Iain Roberts 9th Jan '10 - 12:08pm

    Good point LW. It’s amazing how often online (and sometimes offline) debates get heated over tiny (or even imaginary) disagreements between people who essentially agree. Other times someone misunderstands a point, or puts the most extreme interpretation on something someone’s written, and threads shoot off with completely false debates.

  • Grumpy Old Man 9th Jan '10 - 12:47pm

    I am broadly in favour of the idea. Ian Roberts at 0900 outlines some of the major difficulties in expecting contributers to behave respectfully to other contributors, but at 1149 seems to suggest an elite (Bloggers) while others are excluded. Lonely Wanderer 1150 makes several good points based equally on ethics and good sense.
    In my case, I am retired and have the time available to catch up on political arguments, ethical differences and certain scientific areas of research, which I never had time for with a job and young children.
    I would suggest an absolute requirement for a moderator with the powers of a “Speaker ” which he or she would use to keep the debate on track. OT comments, use of industrial language, aggressive and disrespectful postings, would all be ruthlessly deleted and a msg sent to the originator explaining why the posting failed to meet the standard required. A Contributor who repeatedly failed to conform to house rules would be expelled from the blog. There could also be a Point of Order system. Any contributor who abused the system to derail proceedings could be summarily dealt with. Registration with the blog would be essential.

    First of all, the expense would be considerable, but could be considerably defrayed by using contributors of proven soundness in the mechanics of debate acting as volunteer moderators/deputy speakers, whatever their politics. Somewhat of a Libertarian myself, I deplore the necessity of so much centralised control, but in the bearpit which is the political blogosphere I suggest that the skeleton offered indicates the minimum required for the idea of an open forum to work.

  • Oh come on, lighten up! We’re Liberals, we believe in free speech don’t we? Sure, occasionally there are posts by idiots like Martin Day, or people with eccentric axes to grind like the Neil who thinks we are nazis, but by and large the standard of debate on LibDem Voice is such that people who post infantile messages or who set out to be gratuitously offensive can just be ignored.

  • “We’re Liberals, we believe in free speech don’t we?”

    Hhhmm I think that’s the biggest myth in the world. So-called liberals are very good at sermonizing about freedom of speech – until a minority group that they have a particular fondness for are, in their view, offended by that very same free speech.

    The Dims are as wedded to political correctness as are the other parties, if not more.

  • Bert, unfortunately for your argument the only instance of that occurring recently was Chris Huhne coming out in favourof keeping out Geert Wilders, which was widely condemned by the rest of the party. I think you’re setting up a strawman which little resonance in reality. In my view, no-one objecting to free speech can properly be called a liberal.

  • I look forward to LDV publishing some nice cartoons of Mohammed soon, as we are so wedded to free speech.

  • Malcolm Todd 9th Jan '10 - 3:27pm

    ColinW: You’re apparently demanding that LDV publish specific material to prove they’re in favour of free speech. Is that irony, or can you really not see the contradiction?

  • Don’t recall making any demands, just a suggestion. I like cartoons, don’t you?

  • The thesis suggests that the best debate will happen in places where the users share an interest but disagree on a lot of issues. If this were true, one would expect the highest-quality debate to prevail on the most popular party-political blogs, where many people come together who share a party but disagree on their common direction. So we would expect the ranking of quality of debate to go something like: ConservativeHome, the big Labour blogs, LDV.

    In reality, that doesn’t happen, because even the big blogs seem to segregate their users into an in-group and an out-group based on ideology. For instance, the ConHome in-group is the UKIP-sympathising tendency and the out-group is anyone to the left of David Davis. Liberal Conspiracy has a left-wing in-group. LDV doesn’t have that divide, but it also isn’t as interested in policy as those blogs, so there is less substantive debate.

  • Iain Roberts 9th Jan '10 - 4:26pm

    My point is, I think, much the same as that made by Adam Bell. Not (as Grumpy Old Man may have wrongly interpreted) that there’s some blogging elite who are better at arguments, but simply that people will generally try harder and debate better when they’ve more to lose by not doing so, which may be money, readers or the respect of their peers.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Jan '10 - 10:00am

    How are bloggers an ‘elite’? Anyone can set up and run a blog

    Anyone can, but people who have time and willingness to do it consistently are not representative of the population as a whole. Plus, one might note, the really successful and influential bloggers are those whose views are pleasing to the wealthy elite who run our paid-for media and so get plugs there which build up their readership.

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