"There were only echo chambers": inside the hidden world of Facebook debating

A growing collection of spaces designed specifically for internet strangers to debate each other, they are some of Facebook's busiest and most engaged groups

October 22, 2019
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“Does the prospect of a no-deal Brexit make a second Scottish independence referendum more likely?”

“Is the USA a force for good in the world?”

“What’s the best cover version of all time?”

Not questions posed to TV pundits or talking heads, or even conversations overheard round a pub table, the above in fact come from some of Facebook’s most engaged and busy groups—a growing collection of spaces designed specifically for internet strangers to debate each other.

Type in ‘debate’ in Facebook’s search bar and you’ll find a whole swathe of such groups. Thousands of members strong; heavily moderated; rules pinned to the first page—their names are things like “Sensible Debate,” “Discuss. Debate. Rant.” and simply “Debate.” Generally these are pitched as places to have robust and respectful discussions about anything and everything, within Facebook’s rules. In most groups, posts must take the form of a question and no comment can be deleted unless it breaks the group rules, which usually prohibit sexism, racism and homophobia.

Inside these groups, new discussions are started almost hourly to debate topics as diverse as British and American politics, veganism, philosophy, and whether blackface constitutes a crime. While some sprung up around momentous political occasions—like “Sensible Debate,” launched in Scotland during the 2014 independence referendum—others are almost as old as Facebook itself and still going from strength to strength.

In a time when society is more politically fractured than ever, and in the midst of an apparent existential crisis about so-called threats to free speech, what role do groups like this play—and what makes their members want to debate strangers on the internet when so many others would give anything not to?

Rachel, 31, is a social sciences teacher from Manchester and a long-time member of a “Political Debate and Banter” page with almost 2,000 members. She wasn’t a big social media user before joining the group but says that she sought it out when looking for an outlet to discuss the latest Brexit developments.

“It felt like when I was younger, I’d be in the pub with my friends every Friday and we’d be talking about the news, and sometimes politics, and it was all quite light-hearted,” she tells me. “But in the last few years it feels like we avoid it—someone mentions Brexit and everyone groans and says they’ve given up paying attention now. I needed somewhere else to test out my feelings and opinions about it all.”

It’s fair to say that Rachel might not be what springs to mind when you picture an internet debater: she is young, female, a successful professional, a mother of a young baby. But, she says, you’d be surprised by the diversity within these groups.

“There are probably more men getting involved but there’s loads of women, including amongst the admins. And there are people of different ethnicities and sexualities which is essential if we’re going to discuss racism or LGBT rights.”

For Neil King, 43, founder of the “Sensible Debate” group—which boasts nearly 12,000 members—this diversity of thought is key to keeping the group under control and largely avoiding much of the aggression and vitriol often associated with online debate. In the group’s early days, admins were balanced between supporters of Scottish independence and no voters; now that the group’s remit has widened to allow all topics of debate, they are an even balance of leavers and remainers.

“I started Sensible Debate because, at the time, there were only echo chambers available for the respective yes/no sides of the Scottish independence debate,” King recalls. “I was frustrated by not being able to voice concerns over Indy on ‘Yes’ pages or criticise the UK government on ‘No’ pages without getting a ban … I wanted a place where both sides could come together to debate sensibly.”

Like most of these groups, Sensible Debate has a clear set of rules pinned to its page which members are asked to abide by at all times: no trolling, no harassment and no self-promotion, amongst others. Moderators work hard to ensure the rules aren’t broken and act swiftly when they are. Longer-standing members also keep new members right, says Neil: “they know the admins don’t muck about so tend to behave themselves for the most part.”

But as issues of free speech and censorship have become more prevalent across the UK, other groups have attempted to carve out spaces where anything goes, free from rules or moderation—and Facebook’s ‘secret’ setting allows them to do so largely without scrutiny.

Thomas,* 25, was invited to join a secret—unsearchable and by invitation only—10k strong ‘Free Speech’ group on Facebook last year after attending a panel discussion about censorship on UK campuses. He was interested in the debate around free speech, but “not die-hard about it and definitely not an expert.”

The group made use of Facebook’s ‘entry questions’ feature to vet prospective members, Thomas recalls, asking them questions like “are you a snowflake who is easily offended?”

Some discussions on the page descended into what Thomas would characterise as racism and xenophobia, but there was little moderation and the self-policing nature of Facebook meant the group was largely left to its own devices.

“Facebook relies on people reporting each other, but in a group like that you would be going against the whole ethos to make a fuss,” says Thomas. “The point was to speak freely but the tone actually made me less likely to contribute and I just left in the end.”

For Facebook users of all political persuasions, it seems the site’s group function provides something they feel unable to access elsewhere, be it truly “free” speech, a sensible and balanced debate, or simply an arena in which to have the debate in the first place. While sites such as Twitter come under increasing scrutiny for their handling of abuse and extremist content, these pages largely tick along in the background, their members mostly happy and safe, their discussions mostly respectful and thoughtful. And, unlike oft-discussed “anonymous trolls,” most users participate under their real names, with information about their lives and other interests just one click away for other users.

“I think it gives people a new way of engaging in politics as the traditional notion of ‘my vote and politics are private and only for the voting booth’ is dying now,” reflects King. “It’s probably partly down to the detachment that social media facilitates, in that you can feel free to express opinions without the threat of a direct confrontation.”

Rachel agrees, also pointing out a growing distrust in traditional media and the political establishment. “I tried Twitter once and hated it, and I definitely never saw myself becoming a ‘Facebook debater,’” she reflects. “But it’s a place where you can just talk freely to people outside your bubble without any mediating influence—and that’s refreshing.”

“The world is getting crazier all the time and it’s hard to know who to trust,” she continues. “At least in a Facebook group you can take people at face value and make up your own mind.”

*Not his real name