Debate in a digital world needs new rules

A version of this article first appeared in The Scotsman.

Climate change might be the greatest risk facing humanity. But maybe an even greater problem is the difficulty we are having agreeing with one another. Public debate has become more and more difficult. Trust has declined, and action is hampered by both actual and perceived vested interests.

The Young Academy of Scotland is working on how to change this. Our first event happened last month in Edinburgh, drawing together both participants in the most contested debates, and those who have to mediate those debates. Discussions online are particularly heated – with ‘trolling’ having evolved from sarcastic or playful interactions to a medley of death threats and angry denunciations.

Over the past two and a half millennia debate in Western culture has followed particular patterns. These patterns have their roots in Greek philosophy, Judeo-Christian beliefs and the development of parliamentary democracy. They are well codified, and anyone who debated in school, or is familiar with Parliamentary debates will have seen them in action.

The rules of debate we have inherited are not necessarily perfect, but they create a shared platform for sorting out difficult issues face-to-face. We are now entering a new world where most debate does not take place in person. A world where there are no moderators, chairs or people to take the place of the Parliamentary Speaker. A world where most issues are pre-digested online, underpinned by information that may be of dubious factual value, and where participants are fed conspiracy theories. We need a new approach to debate in this digital world.

That is why the Young Academy of Scotland have decided to run a programme to create new rules for responsible debate. We started with a full day workshop, where we drew together some principles for debate, which you can see in the wordcloud:


University of Edinburgh Chaplain, Harriet Harris, ran an exercise in which participants were asked to talk about a subject to one another. Those listening were asked, in turn, to agree, then to disagree, and then to show indifference to the person speaking. On my turn the listener was told to be indifferent. What I found interesting was that I felt like I needed to say things that were more and more extreme. I imagine that’s what a lot of online debate feels like – having to shout louder, to take a more extreme position to be noticed. Harriet prompted us to think about whether debate can ever be responsible.

And when a debate becomes crowded by loud voices making provocative statements to be heard, it is difficult for different views to be heard. Debates tend toward the extremes, and it can become difficult to forge a way forward. Sometimes it becomes necessary to have a polarised debate – historic examples like slavery or apartheid in South Africa are examples of why sometimes consensus or compromise are not the right approach. But all too often our public debate is hampered by polarisation. Polarisation that can make living together difficult. As societies across the world become more engaged in debates that tend to emphasise difference rather than addressing important issues it becomes ever more important to identify ways of debate that steer away from conflict.

Amongst other speakers the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, Ken Mcintosh and former Deputy First Minister Jim Wallace gave detailed observations about how debate happens in politics, Kal Turnbull made insightful observations about debate on internet platforms like Reddit, and his own website, where people are encouraged to engage in ways that appeal to other people to change their view on a variety of issues. Kirsty Wark gave observations on the role of the media in facilitating debate. St Andrews social psychologist Professor Stephen Reicher gave us a great explanation of the social dynamics at play in debate.

All of this, and the many other speakers, gave us a great start in considering what it might mean to have a way of discussing issues that is rich, rewarding and helps us to find the right path. The core group who have been working on this project from the Young Academy, led by Professor Matthew Chrisman (University of Edinburgh), include Dr Alice König (St Andrews University) and Rev Dr John O’Connor (Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow), bringing experience of philosophy, classics and theology to add to my interest in technology and participation.

As more debate happens online and the need to address important issues increases, so does the need to avoid unnecessary polarisation of debate. The rules of debate that have served us up to now are clearly not enough, we need to create a new principles for debate in the internet age. We believe that the more we talk about responsible debate, the greater the chances of making debate more responsible. Our workshop helped to outline some of the ways we can do that.

But this is just the beginning, the Young Academy, alongside the Royal Society of Edinburgh is seeking to bring this approach to a wider range of audiences. We are hoping to draw a range of principles together to underpin good debate. We hope these will be used in Scotland and beyond. We are planning festival events later in the year, with one scheduled for the Fringe Festival already.

We would love to see you at one of those events, or to engage with us through the Young Academy of Scotland, the Royal Society of Edinburgh or on twitter on the #YASResponsibleDebate hashtag.