Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Social media subverts critical thinking

By Jason Brooks

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There is a big problem in trying to initiate a discussion on a current event or political issue via social media platforms. The people that respond are capable of answering in the worst possible ways without having to suffer any real life consequences. However, people such as this do nothing to damage the way political discourse is carried out. It is rather the nature of social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, which by their nature encourage closed-mindedness.

Flickr/tsevis

On Twitter, there is very little space to justify what one believes. In a Tweet, there are only 140 characters in which one may be able to make political statement. This amounts to about two short sentences, or one long one, if you feel the need to let your stream-of-consciousness take the reins. You can easily make a clever joke, a shout-out, or drunken potshot at your least favorite politician within that limit. But that’s all you are capable of doing. There is not nearly enough space to allow you to defend your position thorough reasoning, evidence, or rhetoric that could fully justify your position. Because of this limited space, people often resort to sentimental platitudes that endorse their opinion rather than support it.

For example, if someone (let’s say her name is Mary) were to make a Tweet supporting the legalization of Drug X, someone else (let’s say his name is John) who strongly opposes that viewpoint would want to respond to this by making broad generalizations about the nature of people who use Drug X recreationally, all while endorsing his own side. One can do these sorts of things in 140 characters, so John will do just that. If Mary wishes to address John and his viewpoint by offering well-reasoned arguments that support her position and are backed up by peer reviewed studies that testify to the relative safeness of Drug X, when compared to other alternative legalized drugs, she would be plum out of luck. One-hundred-forty characters is simply not enough space for her to be able to fully defend her position. She would be forced to state a summary of an argument supporting her position in its most basic form, and perhaps she could back it up by posting a link to a news article along with her comment. John is extremely unlikely to click on that link, and whatever summary Mary gave John can easily be blown off as meaningless rhetoric.

Twitter does not allow people to have the ability to have their way of thinking challenged in a serious way. Granted, whether or not Mary could successfully convince John relies heavily on her debating abilities, but the chance to be able to make that attempt should be present. Because of how limited Mary is in her response, John is able to form an image in his head of what the opposite side looks like, and he wants to remain comfortable in his own position, so he thinks of them as being dumb, and he becomes more closed-minded.

Facebook is different than Twitter in that the limit on how much one may write is much less restrictive, to the point where it is possible to have civil discussions with real content. Even so, it has problems that can undermine these discussions.

The presence of “liking” something on Facebook can devolve discussions into contests of “whose side is more popular.” Being able to express blanket agreement allows people to throw their support onto one side of an issue without having to give the slightest thought to the other side. An indecisive person observing this issue being discussed may see that one guy involved in a discussion has been consistently getting more “likes” than the other, and may simply conclude that the guy getting the most likes must be right. This makes it easier for people to forgo critical thinking in favor of a populist mode of thinking that could lead them to regard an issue in terms of simplistic sentiments and platitudes, as opposed to actually assessing the arguments being presented and deciding whether they are of any merit.

Being able to “like” a comment is also problematic in that short comments are more likely to be “liked” because they can be quickly read and comprehended, so that if someone responds to a well thought out paragraph with a terse rebuttal, it is more likely to be “liked”, even if it fails to address the arguments of the other side.

However, one is still capable of ignoring these “likes” and reviewing the content of someone’s comment without letting the little number get to them. As much as I hate to admit it, the ways my mother comments on Facebook are better than the way I do it. I’ve observed that when she is discussing any sort of issue or topic that needs thought, she’s willing to pound out these massive walls of text supporting her side. Even though I can disagree with her, I can still respect the fact that she has an attention span and that her way of thinking is better than the current hashtag way of thinking. In this way, I think we should all be a little more like our parents, in that we should be willing to discuss issues in a civil manner without resorting to short little quips that ultimately do more to harm our side than to help it.

Jason Brooks is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]

1 Comment

One Response to “Social media subverts critical thinking”

  1. Chris on October 17th, 2012 1:59 pm

    Also scary is how quickly misinformation can be spread through trending.

    [Reply]

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