Not long ago, I was searching for a used copy of a particular book on eBay and happened across a seller who had one available. Clicking on the site for more details, I found that the seller – who lived on the English-Welsh border – was using eBay to share some deeply eurosceptic views.
Setting aside the tactical mistake he was making of losing buyers who might have differed with his views, I thought I would take him up on some of his wilder assertions about the EU. I was polite and reasonable, and asked him only for his sources and his evidence. The exchange quickly turned nasty (on his part), and before I knew it he was calling me a ‘traitor’ to Britain. (I opted not to bid on his book.)
Jump ahead to when I created a Facebook designed to encourage a reasoned and sensible debate about the UK and the EU on my small corner of Facebook. Within just a couple of weeks of the page going live, the profanity filter had kicked in several times, and I have seen pro-Europeans labelled as ‘eurofascists’, ‘anti-democratic extremists’, ‘liars’, and ‘hypocrites’, and have been told that people like me suffer from ‘simian-like intellects’.
We all know how civility in public discourse seems to be on the decline, led on by those ubiquitous internet trolls hiding behind the anonymity of the online names they use to post comments at the end of blogs and online news-stories. But it does seem as though the online debate on the EU seems particularly vitriolic, at least on the English-language sites that I follow.
It also seems that the debate about the EU is particularly prone to the exchange of myths, misconceptions, and unjustified assertions. People are buying into the great Euromyths perpetrated by eurosceptic political parties and their leaders, and they are buying these myths without question, sharing them on social media. I have called many of them out on my Facebook page, and what most have in common has been in inability to respond with much real apparent knowledge to my challenges. “This is the way it is,” they seem to say, “and I don’t feel the need to justify myself or to actually think these arguments through for myself”.
There is a line of thinking in academia that the uninformed citizen can make up for their lack of independent understanding by relying on cues from political parties, media, and leaders. This allows them to act “as if” they are knowledgeable. But what if the knowledge they are accumulating from their usually highly partisan sources is deeply flawed to begin with? This mixture of myth and anger does the debate over the EU no good at all.