A growing collection of spaces designed specifically for internet strangers to debate each other, they are some of Facebook's busiest and most engaged groupsby Eve Livingston / October 22, 2019 / Leave a comment
“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…