26 October 2016
Internet is by design not a platform for rational discussion because everybody can weigh in anonymously. Photo: Internet
Internet is by design not a platform for rational discussion because everybody can weigh in anonymously. Photo: Internet

Can the internet facilitate rational discussions?

Wael Ghonim, a young Egyptian IT engineer who helped trigger the Arab Spring, which eventually toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, recently made a severe criticism of social media.

According to him, social media allows people from any corner of the world to spread unconfirmed or false information and news about certain events or figures across the cyberworld anonymously.

The information or news they send can reach hundreds of millions of people in the blink of an eye, and shape public perception about that particular event or personality.

Based on that information, whether authentic or not, people will easily jump to conclusions or form prejudices, and once those prejudices and conclusions are formed, they are very difficult to change.

In other words, any event or individual who becomes the subject of the information disseminated on the internet will be judged by the crowd, and seldom would anyone bother to find out whether the information is true or not.

Even if the information spread has proven to be untrue or misrepresented, no one would be held accountable for that.

As Ghonim puts it, social media is designed for dissemination rather than participation, for expressing one’s opinions one way rather than through a two-way communication, and for making cheap shots rather than in-depth discussion.

Because of its built-in flaws, social media allows you not to “speak to someone” but to “speak on something”.

So that begs another question: what is discussion?

I think discussion is an interactive process in which people who may have different opinions on a particular subject talk to each other and listen to each other patiently, and then try to find a common ground and reach a conclusion after careful deliberation.

Therefore, discussion is not only about spelling out one’s stand on a particular issue, but rather, it’s about exchanging ideas between different people on a subject.

I agree with Ghonim that to a certain extent, the internet – social media, in particular – is not tailor-made for rational and in-depth discussions, because basically anyone can weigh in on any subject anonymously without having to take responsibility for what they say, and that often generates argument and confrontation.

The built-in flaws in social media in fact have their roots in the natural-born defects in human nature: we often tend to confront rather than communicate with each other when differences arise.

Unless we are able to cultivate a culture of discussion in society, the cyberworld will continue to be a battleground dominated by war of words, prejudice and cutting remarks.

Wael Ghonim said he and his colleagues are developing a new breed of online communication that allows people to truly discuss with each other on subjects such as race, guns control, refugees and terrorism, and by doing so he hopes humans can learn how to settle their differences through discussion and reasoning.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 9.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate Professor of Law at the University of Hong Kong

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