Note: This is a piece written in 2014 about my understanding of polarization in social media debates when it was still a new phenomenon. My views and understanding has evolved over time. A more recent article, written in 2016, was published by Huffington Post India.
As social media is being used to debate topics more and more (and the number of controversial topics to discuss are becoming increasingly available everyday), there is a very worrying trend. People are taking sides based on topics, not on arguments. Some so-called rational people fail to understand that something they believe in based on logical arguments may also have illogical arguments in support. They don’t show any understanding of the fact that something they are against may also have rational arguments to support the opposing line of thought.
The result is, people start bonding over which side of the debate they are on. Not on the basis of how intelligent and rational they are.
Yesterday I saw this thread (which isn’t actually an example of how worrying it is, but this is where the idea came to my mind):
A Facebook user who supports the BJP had posted a photo which said, “Indians… will go to America to see Statue of Liberty, will go to China to see Spring Temple Buddha, will go to France to see Eiffel Tower… but Statue of Unity in our own country is a waste of money.” This was meant to serve as an argument to support the expenditure of Rs 200 crore on a statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. I don’t know how you react to it, but I found this argument very irrational. Here’s a part of the thread that followed:
In this case, the person who posted the photo was gracious enough to loosely accept that his was not a good argument. But I wonder how often people counter arguments instead of a particular side of the debate. Look at User 3, for example. This user gives very rational arguments to support the Original User’s stand, so rational that I’m sure he doesn’t find the Original User’s argument rational. But does he state anywhere that while he may support the Original User’s stand, he is against that line of argument? Possibly, he is in favour of that argument too, so I may want to give him the benefit of doubt. And that is why I must say that this is not a specimen of how wrong things are these days. This is happening way too many times on social media these days, and I am sure many readers will connect with this:
1. Pick up a controversial topic, which has two sides to it: let’s call them Left Side and Right Side.
2. User L1, who supports Left Side, writes a very Stupid Argument on his Facebook wall to support the Left Side.
3. User L2, who otherwise doesn’t believe in that Stupid Argument but does believe in the Left Side of the topic for very rational arguments, LIKES that post (hypocrite!), and posts his own Rational Argument, the more sensible one.
4. User R1, who supports the Right Side, posts a comment which is actually a Rational Rebuttal to User L1‘s Stupid Argument.
5. User L2, who otherwise doesn’t believe in that Stupid Argument, but by virtue of supporting that post, feels obliged to defend even that Stupid Argument and picks up a fight with R1.
6. Users L1 and L2 meanwhile start LIKING each other’s comments on the topic. I don’t know who’s stupider.
7. Then comes User R2, who supports Right Side but posts a very silly reason as a Stupid Counter-Argument. L1 and L2 pounce on the new entrant. R1 feels R2 has a very shitty argument, but comes out in support of R2. They all pounce on each other.
Yes, they all pounce on each other, despite the fact that neither pair of supporters actually believe in each other’s arguments. They are united by only which side of the topic they are on. They are ignoring the arguments.
This is what several social media debates have become. Users are increasingly fighting over their egos.
Everyone has opinions. Having an unpopular opinion isn’t always bad. Opinions and the sides you take don’t show your character or intelligence. The reasons for why you say/support what you say/support, do. Can we all debate and take sides based on individual arguments? The topics will take care of themselves.