Philosopher explores how to combat toxicity of social media

Regina Rini discusses how academics and students can avoid online aggression

February 15, 2019
Source: istock
Constant access to social media on the phone can drive people into ‘fights just to relieve boredom’, claims Regina Rini

When Regina Rini uses social media, she is determined to make it “boring to argue with me”.

The Canada research chair in philosophy of moral and social cognition at York University, Professor Rini was in London recently to speak at a seminar titled “Social media and democracy are incompatible – now what?”, which was organised by the Institute of Philosophy. By breaking down traditional ideas of sincerity and trustworthiness, and turning political debate into a form of entertainment, she argued, social media posed a major threat to democracy – and neither government intervention nor self-regulation seemed likely to offer a solution.

But if social media is so toxic, Times Higher Education asked Professor Rini, was there a role for universities in encouraging better forms of debate and getting students to engage more productively?

One suggestion she made to her students, she replied, was “not to have social media on your phone – portability and the ease to use the thing as a boredom reliever is such a driver of conflict. People get into fights just to relieve boredom.” She also hoped to “use the classroom to model good discussion, in a way that is translatable on to social media”.

When she witnessed a “cascade in a classroom where someone says something very unpopular and people start piling on”, for example, Professor Rini had “found it helpful to point out what was happening and say, ‘Regardless of who’s right, notice the social dynamic emerging in the class where it has become easy to say one thing and hard to say another, because more people are jumping in on one side.’” Building on this, it was possible to draw lessons about the dangers of “mobbing” on social media.

Many philosophy classes, according to Professor Rini, put too much stress on “the formal properties of argumentation” and not enough on “the social context of argumentation”. It could be counterproductive just to “arm people with the names of some fallacies and logical errors and then turn them loose on social media, without any preparation for all the extra social problems that exist. All you to get is a bunch of people obnoxiously quoting Wikipedia articles about logical fallacies at others. That just irritates them…

“It is part of the job to recognise that rhetoric is a real part of social and political life and to teach critical thinking with an eye on that as well as on the formal aspects of argumentation. What I consider a good interaction on social media is when people come away able to articulate what is motivating the other person in a non-derogatory way.”

As for her own interactions on social media, Professor Rini now tries to “be as polite as possible but to avoid tangents and ask people repeatedly to clarify their main point…I want it to be boring to argue with me. That way, the only people who will do it are the ones who sincerely care about the argument. If you care about the topic, you won’t get bored. If you’re just there for a fight, I want you to get bored and leave.”

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Reader's comments (1)

Some welcome and important points here and good to see a social medium being employed to spread the word!