The Digital Argument: Confronting the Ways We Learn and Argue in the Age of Social Media

Updated: Aug 19, 2019

Project on social media and arguing by Bre Westry in WRIT 3336:Histories and Theories of Rhetoric with Dr. I. Moriah McCracken (ilamc@stedwards.edu)


“Follow Me Back!”

As of 2018, it’s easy to assume that the majority of people in this country participate in social media in some way, shape, or form. Not only do we participate in it, we interact with it daily. In a questionnaire I conducted, 60.6% of people spent 1-2 hours on their social media platforms a day and 33.3% spent more than 2 hours a day on social media. We curate dozens of photo showcasing the highlights of our lives on Instagram; share, like, and comment on Facebook; and attempt to go “viral” on Twitter. Safe to say, it has become an ever present part of human social life.


But, social media can also be a place where we argue when we see ideas that conflict with our beliefs and values—the things that make up our innermost beings. Arguing on social media is theoretically not a bad thing. According to Jim Corder, “Each of us is an argument. We always live in, through, around, and under argument. All the choices we’ve made, accidentally or on purpose, in creating our histories/narratives have also made us arguments…” (Corder 18). Going by his reasoning, arguing is a vital and innate piece of who we are as humans. We use it to display and present our beliefs. If we use argumentation correctly and confront ideas that we meet with contention by ourselves, as Corder himself suggests, then we have the possibility of gaining understanding from an argument; however, this isn’t the way we argue on social media. We instead argue in comment boxes and rarely end up listening to one another; rather we seek solely for our “right” views to be seen and accepted—something that Peter Elbow notes, albeit under circumstances sans social media. Elbow argued that we need to expand from “not just ‘How can I change their minds,’ but also ‘Does my mind need changing?’” (Elbow 389). On social media we do not attempt to see the other side, we simply shout ours, claiming that the other person’s lacks a foundation that is factual or that the person is simply not logical enough to construct a sound argument. If we attempt to live within the other person’s narrative, we might begin to be able to answer those questions Elbow posed. After studying rhetoricians like Corder, Peter Elbow, and Wayne Booth, I became interested in how people argue on social media platforms and if there is a correct way to argue on social media. Is social media a beast that Corder and the likes never could have imagined when constructing their ideas on argumentation? The goal of my project is to attempt to understand how social media functions in our lives, what roles it serves in our argumentation process, and what about arguing needs to be relearned in order for it to stay a forum for exchanging narratives.


Social Media as a Classroom

While social media platforms are a space to share every day habits of life, it has also become a place for people to share ideas and information outside of themselves—a place where people can consume the news. Although Medium.com writer Donnell King feels that he has “never learned anything useful about politics from social media,” (King 2) many people that participated in my study said otherwise. Of the 33 people that answered the questionnaire, 22 said that they primarily consume their news through social media.


If that is true, then evidently a lot of people are learning something through social media. Whether that information is factual is something that we will get to later. It is helpful to note as well that King falls into a different age demographic than the majority of the questionnaire takers; only 3 out of the 33 fell into the 45+ age. The majority of our applicants were in the 18-30 age range, leaning heavily towards the younger years of that bracket.


Age differences actually play a huge part in the way someone interacts with social media. King says that he mainly uses it “to connect with old friends from high school and college I haven’t seen in 40 years…” (King 2). That is not the case for those in the younger age demographic. An article done by Taylor Lorenz of the Atlantic explains how teenagers are using Instagram accounts named “flop accounts” to seek real news and debate about issues that matter to them (Lorenz 6). These teenagers moved to these platforms because they felt that adults were not giving their ideas the serious thought and attention that they wanted. They wanted a platform that they could debate with each other in order to confront things that they didn’t agree with head on.

Let’s get back to the factuality of what people are finding on social media. Factuality sparks a number of the debates on social media. It makes it easy for people to dismiss arguments without taking an adequate amount of time to analyze them. The majority of those that completed the questionnaire said that they only sometimes find what they see on social media to be factual, but they determine its validity through research.


While skepticism is a healthy part of approaching contending narratives, it can also be a dangerous one. Booth noted that while we need to be skeptical so we search for factual evidence but we cannot take anything as demonstrable. Every claim from anyone can be deconstructed. (Booth 380). While King may feel that he cannot find factual information on social media, teenagers feel that that they are getting more factual information from their flop accounts than they would from because they feel that there are more eyes to check the information instead of a single reporter’s lens; but they do note that they have also had instances where they have spread misinformation but do their best to minimize it and correct themselves. If social media is to be this “classroom” of sorts for any demographic, then we must choose to reevaluate how we analyze information as it is flooded to us through these platforms.


Facebook the Warzone

Though social media has created this theoretical educational forum where people can learn and share new information and ideas, it has also become a warzone where people end up arguing without giving care to truly understanding where the side they are opposing is coming from. Sometimes people even end up straying from the ideas that brought them to argue in the first place and resort to personal attacks of character and their trustworthiness. That is why Minda Zetlin suggests that we should abandon arguing on social media altogether in her article for Inc.com. She suggests that we would be better off making a short video or talking face to face rather than writing out whatever we want to say, citing a study done by UC Berkeley and University of Chicago researchers in which 300 subjects read, watched video, or listened to arguments about hot-button social topics and then were interviewed about their reactions. “Those who had listened or watched someone say the words were less likely to dismiss the speaker as uninformed or heartless than they were if they were just reading the commenter’s words. (Zetlin 2). This research lead her to conclude that we arrive at a better understanding of compromise by talking to one another.

While social media can be a bombardment of negative, hate-filled comments that do nothing to bridge an understanding or coming to terms of each others narratives creates an environment lacking in actual communication causing people to not want to interact with each other at all. It also doesn’t seem to be going anywhere for a long time. It is interesting to note that the majority of the questionnaire takers said that they would rather ignore people’s ideas than confront them, but just because they are ignoring doesn’t mean the comments are stopping. There are still arguments occurring on social media.


Arguing for a Purpose

So what needs to be done about how we interact on social media? Do we abandon it’s use in argumentation altogether like Zetlin suggests, letting it become only a place to share videos of cats and leaving the arguing for face-to-face interactions? Do we throw our hands up and leave social media as it is? Or do we simply need to relearn how we interact and argue with each other on social media by partially adopting lessons that rhetoricians like Corder, Booth, and Elbow. Corder introduces an interesting approach to arguments called the Rogerian pattern (Corder 21). The pattern is a set of five steps that tell us how to approach a personal narrative issue. You need to take the issue, take an honest effort to understand the other person and their narrative, and give your opinions and reasons, analyze what you have in common. This will hopefully help lead you to a coming of terms and common ground.

If we are to relearn how we argue on social media, I propose a set of steps so that arguing on social media has purpose instead of being an arena to bash heads until both sides are bludgeoned and bloody:

1. Read, listen, or watch post/picture/video containing contending narrative.

2. Take the time to fully analyze and come to terms with the narrative by conducting Google searches for scholarly and/or factual evidence.

3. Approach the person with your opinions and ideas with your reasons privately outside of the comment box respectfully.

4. When interacting on social media take the time to read carefully. Written interactions can come off differently than verbal ones.

5. Attempt to come to terms or at least bridge a fellow understanding of each other’s position or beliefs.

I believe using a system similar to this will allow us to use social media as a platform to live in others narratives. The social connection abilities of the platforms are too great an opportunity to pass for us to turn away and say “We just can’t reasonably argue on social media.”



Works Cited

Booth, Wayne C. “Blind Skepticism versus a Rhetoric of Assent .” Blind Skepticism versus a Rhetoric of Assent , www-jstor-org.ezproxy.stedwards.edu/stable/pdf/30044679.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A6c6d39b70a87d7a1fe0a544ec4915528.

Corder , Jim W. “Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love .” Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love , www-jstor-org.ezproxy.stedwards.edu/stable/pdf/465760.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3Ac872027505e5d809654a6f7eb1c96b97.

DeLuca, Katherine M. “Can We Block These Political Thingys? I Just Want to Get f*Cking Recipes: Women, Rhetoric, and Politics on Pinterest.” Why Teach Digital Writing? > a Rhetorical View of Writing, Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, 15 May 2015, kairos.technorhetoric.net/19.3/topoi/deluca/case.html.

Elbow , Peter. “Bringing the Rhetoric of Assent and the Believing Game Together--and into the Classroom.” Bringing the Rhetoric of Assent and the Believing Game Together--and into the Classroom, www-jstor-org.ezproxy.stedwards.edu/stable/pdf/30044680.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3Acd531f3573d15cc73c7302307eb81385.

King, Donnell. “Do You Want to Spend Your Life Arguing on Facebook?” Medium.com, Medium, 10 Mar. 2018, medium.com/@donnell.king/arguing-on-facebook-wastes-life-b05088928645.

Lorenz, Taylor. “'Flop Accounts' Are the New Teen Thing on Instagram.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 30 July 2018, www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/07/the-instagram-forums-where-teens-go-to-debate-big-issues/566153/.

Zetlin, Minda. “You Should Never, Ever Argue With Anyone on Facebook, According to Science.” Inc.com, Inc., 29 Nov. 2017, www.inc.com/minda-zetlin/you-should-never-ever-argue-with-anyone-on-facebook-according-to-science.html.

Primary Research available at: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1prGqXmIBPXxKJqkR820AC6a2tvGU0lxafyLK5yJhrCs/edit#gid=814007241

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