Let’s talk about….How online discourse gets derailed

From trolling to doxing – why online discourse always seems to go off the rails

The Instagram account ‘Crazy House Prices’, run by Dublin-based teacher Ciarán Mulqueen, is well-known for highlighting some of the more unbelievable rental prices on the market, as well as offering advice on how to navigate the housing crisis. This week however, Mulqueen had to take down one of the posts about a €4,000 per month property when it emerged that a handful of people, after seeing the post, had taken it upon themselves to show up to the property and shout at and harass the owner.

  This unmeasured response – to go from disagreeing with someone’s actions to actively going after them personally – is, unfortunately, nothing new. In fact, the impulse to react disproportionately seems like a common occurrence whenever a disagreement is reached online. Even the tamest of topics quickly turn incendiary, pushing people into choosing one of two widely opposing sides, and all too often disagreements with someone on the opposite side turn toxic.

  From trolls to doxing (a form of cyberbullying that uses sensitive or secret information), so much of online discourse seems to veer away from the topic at hand in favour of ‘winning’ against the person on the other side of the debate. It becomes about cruel insults or ‘clapbacks’ to the cruel insults, or it becomes about putting a person in danger by revealing their private or identifying information online.

  Maybe it’s due to the anonymity you can adopt once posting on the Internet, or the fact that people get fed up and forget to consider the real-life implications of what happens online. However it seems to me that one of the reasons we so often find ourselves having these ‘black and white’ debates is due to how our social media platforms are constricted in the first place.

  All the big social media platforms operate via algorithms written to create a personalised experience for the user. Once you spend a little time interacting with a given platform, it isn’t long before the algorithm figures you out – what you like and what you don’t like – and want to show you to keep you online.

  After all, keeping you online is the main objective for these platforms. The longer you spend logged on, the more they can market to you and convince you to buy whatever their advertisers are selling. Crucially, users spending more time online also adds to the wealth of consumer data that these platforms have at their disposal – a commodity that is only becoming more and more valuable as we continue towards a more digital society.

  However the nature of algorithm-based social media platforms means that our curated online spaces are in danger of becoming echo chambers, our feeds parroting the same opinions we hold back at us. We here only what we want to hear, only what we already agree with, and become reassured that our point of view is the ‘right’ one because it’s the same one that’s seemingly flooding the discourse.

  This encourages us to commit fully to our opinions as they are, and consequently, closes our minds to anything we don’t already believe. Of course this is not to say that it’s outside the realm of possibility to have a nuanced discussion online, but when people are less inclined to listen to opinions different than their own, capacity for progress is severely limited.

  It’s ironic that the access to millions of different people, different opinions and different experiences that the Internet affords us has led us to have more shallow discussions. Hopefully, as we become more conscious of the pitfalls of personalised algorithms and how we debate issues online, we will find ourselves having more nuanced discussions.