Oh, the National topic.
If I, from my humble little ivory debate teacher’s stump, survey “the problems of modern America”, I might place this topic right near the front.
There’s a lot of issues with America. And with the world. But we can fix them— but only if we work together. And what may hold the key to our collective action? And why do we not work together?
Well, yes. Social media may be the key and its may be the issue.
Here’s the 2021 National Public Forum resolution:
Resolved: In the United States, social media is beneficial for democratic values.
There’s two major meta-battlefields that immediately present themselves. They make for intricate and potentially confusing debates, but also excellent teaching opportunities.
As a debater, I wouldn’t like this topic. But as a teacher, I love it.
The first is topicality. ‘Democratic values’ is a loose collection of ideas that may or may not (debatably) include, in my ranked order of topicality, voting, free speech, civic action to make your community better, freedoms of association, the press & religion, and truth. Whether the Aff’s benefits or the Neg’s harms truly fall under this rubric of ‘democratic values’ is a wide area of contention.
The second is uniqueness. There’s a lot of good and bad things that social media can do, but it’s not obvious that any of them are unique. Therefore, the onus is on debaters to show how their arguments are the result of social media and not of other things. The more unique a link is to social media, the greater access they’ll have two the impacts.
Now onto the actual arguments.
Social media helps democratic values, most topically (according to me), by boosting voting numbers and voting quality. Facebook, Twitter and other platforms have been used to remind Americans to vote, both by the platforms themselves and simply by users posting pictures of them out voting. There seem to be some social contagion effects: if your friends vote, you’re also more likely to vote. As for quality: social media helps people to spread information about candidates, making voters more informed.
However, the spread of information has a major downside in relation to voting. Misinformation in the form of agenda-driven news and conspiracy theories can actually dirty the waters, thus reducing the quality of voting. Most dangerous is the intentional weaponization of this information by foreign actors; famously, Russia interfered in the 2016 election through wide-spread social engineering campaigns on Facebook, but other countries, other platforms and other elections have also been influenced.
But, voting isn’t the only democratic value. A perhaps more-direct method to change your community (and nation) is through civic engagement— picking up trash, protesting to change laws, volunteering at a local school. Civic participation increases in both high school and college students who use social media more. And indeed, social media makes some versions of engagement trivially easy— signing an online petition, sharing pertinent info, etc. So, democratic action— certainly a democratic value— is therefore increased by social media.
Now, there’s a couple dark sides to this democratic action. First, it’s not obvious that an Instagram post or an angry Youtube comment actually has any tangible impact on the world, even though it might count as ‘civic action’. This rebuttal mitigates the impact of the last argument. Second, citizens may be less likely to engage in meaningful action if they’d already done some non-meaningful 'social media activism’ , satiating their desire to ‘do something’ and leaving them content that they’d put up a fight for change. If this were true, it’d turn the civic engagement argument.
Lastly, a constant push to change things in the world energizes a radical left faction in our country, the most extreme of whom believe all of our nations institutions are corrupt and need to be burned to the ground. This in turn speaks a traditionalist radical right movement who, rather than hoping to conserve some of our institutions, argues that we should leave things just as they are, cause they work fine (which they do, for some). In short: social media can polarize people and spark deep divisions by funneling us into ‘echo chambers’ where we only see and hear the most extreme versions of our values.
Truly, there’s a lot to discuss here, but much more that I didn’t touch on.
For more, see our Youtube lecture on the topic at YouTube.com/debatetrack, and for reference to what I mentioned, see our evidence brief at debatetrack.com.
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