Debating on Facebook is the worst

Social Media
Picture by Andreas Weith, 27 september 2016

I have trouble keeping my mouth shut. At work, with friends, and on social media. A good debate sharpens the mind, and hopefully gives you a new perspective. However, with social media, I’m increasingly frustrated.

Why I argue on social media

I have a way with words and a need to express myself. On top of that, I feel truth and well-formed scientific arguments are very important. So, when something I know is wrong pops up, I tend to wade in. The fact that I’m a privileged cis white man probably has something to do with that. The risk of a harassment campaign against me is reasonably low. At least, I hope.

But talking around a coffee table with some friends, or in a bar — remember those from the before times — is one thing, arguing on social media is quite another.

A writer is in essence an entertainer, and I feel that in this day and age, an entertainer needs to be visible. So I’m on Facebook, Twitter, and several other social media. Also, connecting with people, especially now, is fun.

Unfortunately, like in real life, I sometimes feel the need to start a discussion on those social media. This is more so when I see things that I consider dangerous bullshit. That includes political bullshit (posts promoting the wonders of libertarianism for example), covid bullshit (bullshit that costs lives), or scientific bullshit (flat-Earther stuff, for example).

What happens

Of course, entering a discussion on social media is usually about the same as sticking your hand into a wad of razor wire. It hurts as you go in, when you pull out, and in-between. And yes, I said ‘hand’. You perv.

It usually goes one of two ways:

The first: people get pissed. I’ve been called a left-wing fascist, an idiot, and other things. I don’t do name-calling on social media, so that’s when I usually stop responding.

The second, people start to post bullshit retorts and bad science. I’ve been stuck in pages-long discussions about how governments are by definition evil, and long Twitter threads about planes and headwinds that ‘prove’ the Earth is flat. Those are harder than the first category, because after a while you realize your arguments are not landing and the replies are just a bottomless stack of bad deductions, deflections, and hand-waving.

Why does that happen?

Social media are made for small bite-size portions of texts. They are the arena of memes and one-liners on brightly colored backgrounds. That does, however, limit the possibility of debate. I’ve increasingly realized that when you post something on Facebook or Twitter, you’re usually condensing that argument to its bare minimum.

It’s like an iceberg. What you see is a simple statement, but below that statement is a mountain of assumptions about science and history and everything under the sun. A statement like ‘Covid has a 1% fatality rate’ has underpinnings about what Covid is, what a fatality rate is, and some math.

However, not all mountains are equal. Mostly I call out things that I believe are built on a pile of bullshit. I got into an argument recently about Covid supposedly only being a seasonal flu that was hitting harder because of the ageing EU population and state of our underfunded healthcare. Now, the numbers on this are simple: it’s bullshit. The assumptions are bad: the number of infections are lower than flu and the fatality rate 10 times higher. Ageing population doesn’t explain this, aside from the fact that Covid is deadlier than flu across all age groups. And healthcare has been underfunded (stupid, stupid) but would have failed even if a ton of money had been poured in the past decade, because Covid is 10 times deadlier than flu, and nobody had antibodies.

So, an argument against this was simply a reference to some facts. You’d think. And there’s the rub. The facts were simply dismissed. Fresh bullshit was posted. My arguments are based on a mountain of arguments — hopefully sound — but you can deflect the argument numerous times by denying every part of that mountain individually. So around we went. And again. And again.

Flash cards

With social media, false equivalency seems built-in. You see two posts making two arguments. One is backed by a mountain of science, the other by a mountain of bullshit. But the only way to separate the two, is if you already know the science. Meaning you’re not going to change somebody’s mind. If they believe a mountain of bullshit, a few words based on science isn’t going to topple that mountain.

Basically: a debate on social media is not a debate. It’s swapping flash cards; flash cards often filled with lies. If you already agree you press thumbs up, if you don’t, you press angry-face, or add your own flash card. And that’s it. There’s only the bare minimum of fact-checking, and no difference between the flash card built on thorough research and the flash card with toxic lies. And the lie peddlers have the advantage of being able to peddle lies that people like to hear.

I often feel soiled after such a debate, which drags on for days, costs me time, and energy and leaves me with nothing. No sense of accomplishment or pleasure, like I get from putting together a coherent post like this one. No idea if I changed the mind of even a single person — most likely I never do. It’s just… wasted effort. Better to post cat pictures all the way.

So… stop

Social media are as much a way to keep in touch with friends, as a pool of filth. It’s like you talk to your friends in a virtual bar, and your table is in the middle of a sea of screaming lunatics.

I should stop, but that’s not so easy. I’ll be doomscrolling on Twitter, and then something jumps out. A piece of really bullshitty bullshit. I try to resist… but sometimes it’s hard. I have a somewhat pathological need to write. Facebook is the worst,and I think, slowly dying already. I should possibly jump ship on that one at least.

One reason for writing this post is really to drill it into my own head: don’t debate on social media. It’s a waste of time.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands