The good, the bad and the ugly – debate on social media

One of the interesting and sometimes disturbing dimensions of social media is the insight you get into family members’, friends’ and acquaintances’ opinions and beliefs. Views they haven’t previously shared are suddenly out there as they share posts and participate in debates that are open for anyone to see.  It’s interesting to say the least, but it can also be deeply troubling. Especially in this day and age when many things have become so polarized and opinions and ways of expressing these opinions have become so black and white, not to mention extreme and rude. As a sociologist I can find following debates and reading the comment sections of social media updates fascinating, but it can also be sad and depressing. It makes me sad when so-called friends are just mean to each other in the name of debate. How people have the gall to be so rude when they are not face to face with the person they are talking to is beyond me, but this has actually been researched and found to be true: people are capable of saying things to each on social media that they wouldn’t be caught dead saying in person.

So sociologically this is all very interesting, but personally, reading the comment sections also makes me feel somewhat hypocritical. It makes me feel hypocritical because while I’m a social scientist and I write, publish and give talks to share my knowledge, I avoid participating in these debates. I avoid engaging in debates with people of detrimentally opposing opinions to me, even though I know that change doesn’t come about from only preaching to the already converted.

The reason I don’t want to engage is that I simply don’t know how. I don’t want to be drawn into an ugly argument peppered with insults, name calling and rude insinuations. I don’t want to have my words twisted into something I didn’t say or mean, which unfortunately is what I usually see in social media debates. I would be happy to participate in a calm and mutually respectful discussion, but on social media they unfortunately seem to be few and far between. So I choose not to engage.

But the other day I just couldn’t resist. A Facebook friend shared a post about colloidal silver. There is a growing and highly controversial trend in my country where people use colloidal silver as a health remedy, even though it really isn’t good for you and there are no studies at all that support any health effects. On the contrary. However, I am really no expert on the subject and I have no personal experience so I have just stayed out of it. The reason I suddenly decided to engage was that this said post was about how colloidal silver was supposedly medically approved until 1947 and that this information is proof of its benefits. Now I don’t know anything about this – that it has been approved before may very well be true, but that’s not the point. What got me was the argument that something that was approved over 72 years ago must be good for you.

I am a scientist – a social scientist – and while I am not an expert on colloidal silver, I am certainly an expert on how scientific research is done. I know about ethical guidelines and the rigor of the research process. I know how knowledge is created and that scientists constantly build on existing knowledge. I know that our knowledge continues to grow and that we know much more today than we did before. This is the reason that recommendations change and this is also the reason that we can know that something that was approved almost a century ago, in reality is extremely bad for your health.

That all makes perfect sense to me. What doesn’t make sense to me is to argue that something is good to use just because it was ordinated by doctors more than 72 years ago.

So that was where I couldn’t resist. I commented, explaining what I explained above about research and knowledge creation and development. I was polite, I thought, short and to the point. I didn’t take a stand on colloidal silver, just on the argument of something being approved so long ago.

And I got some responses.

What gets me though is that the responses generally didn’t engage with what I said at all, they were rather loaded comments about colloidal silver. The comment that really took the cake was about how NASA uses colloidal silver (again, I don’t know this for a fact) and that do I think that they are superstitious lunatics too?

At this point I want to point out that I didn’t breathe a word about either superstition or lunatics; I didn’t even think it. This person introduced these words himself, so I can only assume it reflects previous comments he has gotten in debates he has participated in.

But still, my feeling when reading the comment was, “what??”

I had said something calm and was as a result basically accused of name-calling, or at least of thinking of the person accusing me as a superstitious lunatic. How do you respond to that? Is there anything that I could possible say in response that would create a nuanced and respectful discussion? To me the comment about superstitious lunatics was below the belt; it was completely un-called for, and I really don’t think engaging in that would get us anywhere.

However, the problem is, that not engaging does nothing to bring people of different opinions closer towards a common understanding. It does nothing to create dialogue and to help us all understand each other better.

So, there’s the dilemma: to engage or not to engage? Either way, I’m not sure I can stomach it.

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