For thousands of years, the classic forms of discussion were reserved for only a handful of people. Social status, education, and literacy excluded broad sections of the population for a long time so that only a few were allowed to participate in the political dispute. Access to Cicero’s stylistic speeches was almost exclusively reserved for members of the Roman upper classes. Later, although the London Debating Societies were formally open to all, irrespective of gender and social background, members of the rising middle class benefited more than the poor dockworkers.

Furthermore, discourses were often fought out by letter until well into modern times, making them slow and lengthy. The correspondence between Lasalle and Marx included more than 130 letters which they exchanged over the course of 14 years. Anyone who has ever tried to forge a pen friendship certainly knows how much patience is required. Not every letter was sent; some were reconsidered and arguments were reformulated. The discourse was subject to conventions and rules.

Digitisation, on the other hand, has led to a huge transformation of debate culture. The online world knows hardly any barriers, for example there are no journalistic access restrictions regarding origin or levels of education. The “marketplace” where everyone meets in Rousseau’s pure democracy is open to the public on the internet. Rhetorical forms liberate themselves from rules in the digital space and must at best comply with the netiquette. This leads to a much higher diversity of formats and number of opportunities for participation. Discourse has finally found its place at the centre of society.

Where there is light, there is also shadow: anonymity, which mainly allows the liberation of status and background, reduces the hurdle to writing your own contributions and requires little reflection. Inhibitions have been stripped away as insults and disparagement become rife. Although spontaneous conflict seems more authentic, the collective shitstorm does not contribute to a successful discourse.

Dirk Pflüger

How Digitisation affects the Culture of Debate

JAM #26 — DISSENT!

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Successful Arguments — A Plea for Diversity
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Stop shouting like a lunatic, we’re having an academic debate
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Fight Back or Go Unheard: The Public Dispute over Islam
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How Digitisation affects the Culture of Debate
Dirk Pflüger

Disputes in Law
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The Value of Rule-Based Confrontation
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A second shadow is the pressure of remaining up-to-date. Those who find themselves among digital competition in the race for likes and retweets – that is to say rewards – cannot spend too long working on phrasing and revising posts. In contrast to the slow exchange of written correspondence, it is the moment that counts here; whoever comments first in 140 or more characters wins the race.

Third, digitisation is leading to a greater polarisation of discourse. Social media and the internet are becoming a system which reinforces and validates. We are mostly stuck inside so-called filter bubbles: Due to the analysis and organisation of digital participation with the help of artificial intelligence, we are often confronted only with what we wish to see and hear. Before the digital age, considerable effort was needed to maintain a certain worldview and to avoid confrontation with other opinions and views. Today, though, a great deal of effort is needed to break out of the filter bubbles again.

However, the digital world offers unprecedented opportunities to find things out in detail and in good time before having a qualified debate on a topic. We argue much more publicly and more often than before. It would therefore be wrong to aim for a return to the supposedly better dispute of the past. Instead, we should use our energy to curb the spread of false information so as not to be influenced by it – but without suppressing unpleasant views. For this purpose, sensible limits of freedom of expression must be negotiated openly and a (neutral) moderation of the digital dispute has to be established.


Computer scientist Dirk Pflüger, member of Die Junge Akademie since 2015, conducts research at the Institute of Parallel and Distributed Systems at the University of Stuttgart.