The toxins killing intellectual debate

The hostility pervading online platforms is stifling provocative opinion and reasoned debate, and eroding the foundations of higher education

February 14, 2019
Barrels of toxic liquid
Source: Getty

Anyone who doubts what a polluted environment social media has become should read our astonishing interview with two scholars, commissioned to carry out research into hate speech online, who ended up being hounded by the trolls they were studying to an extent that left them traumatised.

It is only now, almost a year later, that the pair feel able to talk about the death and rape threats that flooded in after they began to investigate communication on Twitter.

For the academics concerned, it is vital that such attacks do not force experts out of public debate, but there is a real risk of this happening, they suggest, leaving scholars back in their “walled garden”.

The case highlights how rapidly conduct has changed on social networks in the past couple of years – reflecting, perhaps, the increasingly unhinged nature of real-world politics.

But it is also worth reflecting on how academic discourse on such platforms has changed.

Most who participate in online debate about higher education will have noticed the deterioration.

This was a point made well by politics professor Matthew Goodwin recently, when he noted that, compared with five years ago, there are now far more scholars sharing research, debating and collaborating on social platforms – all good things.

However, he continued, “academic Twitter…has taken a dark turn. It feels like an angry place, where that pursuit of truth, reasoned debate and collaborative spirit – all the reasons I thought we were here – is giving way to something far more toxic, something that is damaging to higher ed and how it is perceived.”

Goodwin is right. In a related development, there also seems to be a sizeable – and very vocal – minority who refuse even to consider alternative points of view.

“Clickbait” used to be the term for something that websites like BuzzFeed produced on frivolous topics, such as 2014’s classic “25 Signs You Drink Too Much Wine”.

For some, it has now become a standard insult with which to dismiss an article that does not directly correlate with one’s own worldview, or that is from the margins of popular opinion or a peer group’s agreed position.

It would be bonkers to suggest that everyone should agree with everything they read, and there’s no innate virtue in contrived controversy or cynically counter-intuitive opinions.

But this disinclination to engage and challenge sincerely held and articulated ideas seems to be a problem of growing proportions.

One of the great dangers of the internet age is that the plurality of views that has always been central to journalism falls away, leaving the echo-chamber approach to prevail at one end of the spectrum and genuine clickbait merchants – or, worse still, lone-wolf conspiracy theorists and extremists – at the other.

How or why is this relevant to universities? Well it may be that the fortunes of academia and the future of strong, independent editorial are closely intertwined – not because the decline of one will directly bring down the other, but because the same forces are eroding the foundations of both.

And the reality is that the slip towards mob mentality and professional offence-taking is as much a feature of scholarly conversation as it is for any other group (accepting, of course, that the violent and criminal abuse directed at the researchers we interview this week is another thing entirely).

When Chris Skidmore, the UK’s new universities minister, said in an interview with Times Higher Education last week that he “doesn’t believe that there is a creeping culture of censorship in our universities”, a sigh of relief will have been heard across campuses.

The silly, unevidenced bashing of universities for alleged widespread free speech abuses will, it seems, not be a feature of this minister’s tenure.

But the outrage that so often pours forth in response to unwelcome points of view offers a cautionary reminder of how easy it is for critics to spin this line in pursuit of their own agenda: to delegitimise and defenestrate academic expertise and opinion. 


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