Photo: Smallbrainfield (CC-BY-NC)

A guest contribution by Rich Mason

British people like biscuits. With tea, if possible. What’s more, personal preferences from the huge range of different biscuit varieties is a topic that goes deep. People feel passionately about their favourite snacks, and hold equally strong opinions about the shortcomings of crumby alternatives. Earlier this year I delivered a workshop asking participants to debate each other on the big question: “Which is the best biscuit?”. A fiery debate ensued.

I’m interested in the way people talk to each other, and how we handle disagreements. Devising the workshop, I reasoned that if there were ways to create a more constructive conversation on this hotly-contested question, it might show something about how to approach difficult discussions more generally.

Our civic discourse is badly broken, and seems to be getting worse rather than better. Reasoned and reflective debate is increasingly absent, and in its place we see bitter and unproductive exchanges, with people often in entrenched positions, not open to genuine discussion. When the conversation is about politics, the broken discourse is nothing less than a crisis for our democracy. As ideological divides widen and mistrust spreads, governing by negotiation and consensus becomes impossible. The result is a standstill, or worse: a swinging pendulum of extremes. One side with a momentary upper hand rushes to force through an extreme agenda, which in turn only escalates levels of anger and distrust from their opponents.

Causes are complex and exist across all social spaces, both online and offline. However it’s clear that some features of online spaces – in particular Facebook and Twitter – exacerbate underlying problems. As a result, such social networks are often the site of the most toxic civic discourse.

One much-discussed dynamic is the combined effect of echo chambers and filter bubbles. Sometimes used interchangeably, these are two distinct phenomena with similar effects. Echo chambers are ideologically homogenous social networks where alternative views are rarely heard Filter bubbles are the effect of algorithm-driven content filters, optimised to present us with what we are likely to find more agreeable. The combined effect of both is that people are more likely to have their existing views reinforced than challenged, and have poor understanding of their opponents. In debate this fuels a stance which is more often stubborn and angry, than open or critical.

Luckily, help is at hand. Several services are freely available to inhabitants of online spaces, designed to push back against the effects of echo chambers and filter bubbles. These fall into two groups.

In a balkanized online landscape, ‘border crossings’ are open to anyone wanting to take a trip across the ideological divide. FlipFeed is a simple button, which Twitter users can hit to be transported into the feed of a random stranger from across of the ideological spectrum. Curated content services such as Echo Chamber Club perform a similar function, with a weekly email digest of opinions and reporting for anyone feeling trapped in a liberal bubble.

Seeing things through the eyes of your opponent is a positive start. One problem is the constant motivation and discipline needed. Even the best-intentioned people might find it hard to consistently step outside of their bubble when it’s just so much more comfortable inside.

An alternative, arguably more powerful approach is to retake some control of the online content we encounter. An early offering, EscapeYourBubble is a simple plugin for Facebook which injects posts into users’ newsfeed designed to challenge their views. Newly launched by the creators of FlipFeed, Gobo goes further: individual customization lets users adjust several variables including more or less ideologically diverse; further to the left or right; angrier or calmer. Currently in Beta, Gobo is expected to launch for general use by the end of this year.

The power of these tools is that they don’t require discipline, or the specific desire to seek alternative views. Instead they are embedded in the regular newsfeed experience, balancing out bias perhaps without the user even knowing.

So there are several options available for breaking out of ideological silos and finding alternative points of view. However, this only treats the symptom and does not address the root cause of out broken discourse. It’s not enough to change what we see, we have to change how we act. We need to examine what Bret Stephens in a recent talk called ‘The Dying Art of Disagreement’. As he says: “our disagreements may frequently hoarsen our voices, but they rarely sharpen our thinking, much less change our minds … The crucial prerequisite of intelligent disagreement — namely: shut up; listen up; pause and reconsider; and only then speak — is absent.”

To be clear, working to counter echo chambers and filter bubbles is an important part of the work to be done. However we shouldn’t be tempted to think treating this alone will be sufficient for a better discourse. But on its own, that’s not enough. We need to practice openness and humility.

What can we do to promote these behaviours? It was this question that found me standing in front of a room of strangers, facilitating a debate about biscuits.

I wanted to see if structures and limitations push participants towards open and critical thinking, and away from a rhetorical slugging match. Taking inspiration from the amusing and obscene game “Cards Against Humanity”, participants were only allowed to contribute via cards dictating specific sentence formulas: “One thing which is better about your biscuit than mine is _____” or “If I could make one change to improve your biscuit, it would be _____”. Some encouraged a more nuanced appreciation of the opposing view, some a closer examination of what lay beneath participants’ own beliefs.

By the end of the workshop, the atmosphere was friendly. Not one of the debates had descended into violence, or even raised voices. More than this, every debating pair had agreed four distinct elements which both agreed would feature in a hypothetical optimal biscuit. The workshop showed that by more tightly constraining and structuring interactions, it’s possible to work positively towards consensus, as well as hold back impulses to break into a fight.

Could these ideas be applied online? A new platform attempting to use constraint and structure for a better discourse is Kialo, launched in August this year. Kialo uses a branching structure to visualise debates, and contributions have to be structured in relation to previous ones, either in support or against. It’ll be interesting to see whether Kialo’s users, like the workshop participants will become more thoughtful and positive. It also remains to be seen whether the promise of a rigorous debate will excite enough people to attract a critical mass of users.

If you want to be part of a better discourse, I suggest experimenting with the tools already available for broadening your online social spaces and content. But most importantly of all, be attentive to your own biases and behaviours. Of course, the actions of a well-intentioned minority can only have a limited impact in the face of structural dynamics pulling in the other directions. Content algorithms on ad-driven platform are designed above all to maximise engagement – likes, shares and comments. Research has shown that less constructive comments are significantly better drivers of engagement than a more conciliatory approach.

But that doesn’t mean we should do nothing. Cultivating better habits of intellectual curiosity, respectful engagement with different points of view, resisting the urge to lash out aggressively, will enrich the experience and outcomes of our own individual interactions. Ultimately making us better participants in our democracy, whether the discussion is biscuits, bullying or Brexit.