Disagreeing Well in an Online World

VPEE Student Journalist, Antara Basu, reflects on the second panel of UCL’s Disagreeing Well event series.

The second panel of the Disagreeing Well Public Event series, ’Disagreeing Well in an Online World’ , was held on 26 March 2024 at Bloomsbury Theatre, as part of UCL’s wider Disagreeing Well campaign.

In our increasingly polarised world, disagreeing well is an art. The ways in which people behave, think, and communicate have undergone historic transformation with the advent of social media, especially in a post-pandemic society. Hoping to shed light on the art of living harmoniously with our differences, the ’Online World’ event explored themes of online harassment, free speech, the detriment of digital platforms and the need for better regulatory frameworks. From the 2002 launch of the iconic Blackberry smartphone, to the widespread use of social media - with 56.20 million users in the UK alone - the power of the online world is widely felt. It has amplified discourse, improved information access and democratised content creation. It has mobilised the masses across social movements like #MeToo #BlackLivesMatter. Simultaneously, it has reinforced echo chambers, spread misinformation and raised privacy and ethical concerns. As we navigate this digital landscape, mastering the skill of Disagreeing Well online has sharply come into focus. 

Chaired brilliantly by Ayesha Hazarika (Broadcaster and Times Radio presenter) , the panel brought together experts across disciplines: Inaya Folarin Iman (Journalist and Founder of The Equiano Project), Gina Miller (Businesswoman and Activist, Founder of the True & Fair Party), Dr Kaitlyn Regehr (Associate Professor and the Deputy Programme Director of Digital Humanities in the Department of Information Studies at UCL) and Shreiya Singh (President of UCL’s TEDx Society and undergraduate history student). Opening with a discussion on the impact of the online world, speakers acknowledged social media’s unprecedented connectivity but highlighted significant drawbacks. The panellists agreed that these platforms, driven by engagement metrics, are often counterproductive to healthy debate. The shift in focus from thoughtful discourse to catchy soundbites shortens attention spans and our consumption becomes distilled into clickbait titles, reducing the space or patience for nuance. 

Gina Miller, drawing from her personal experiences, recounted the predatory behaviour her children encountered online, underscoring concerns about online safety for young and vulnerable individuals. The rise in hate speech and cyberbullying accompanies data that shows 79 % of young adults consume sexually violent content before the age of 18. This alarming figure, Miller argued, highlights the urgent need for online regulation. Recounting her work on the Online Safety Bill, Kaitlyn Regehr noted that current regulatory efforts target extreme content, and fail to address the negative impact of repeated exposure to harmful content. This ’micro-dosing’ effect poses a challenge for moderators, who struggle to track explicit content over time. How we effectively regulate the internet, and who is responsible for this regulation, are million-dollar questions. Regehr proposed framing internet regulation as a public health concern, necessitating a collaborative approach between Big Tech, policymakers, and researchers. In contrast, Inaaya Folarin Iman, focusing on the drawbacks of heavy-handed regulation, flagged its potential to be misused by the political elite. The idea that companies and individuals can control what consenting adults access, or say, is a slippery slope. Overall, however, there was consensus among the panel that strict regulation measures are necessary to safeguard children and other vulnerable groups online.

Today, the online world diminishes our tolerance for opposing views. When algorithms tailor our experiences to develop strong echo chambers, it fuels a cycle of confirmation bias. A brilliant point during the audience Q&A highlighted the separation of disagreement from the personal self. When not accustomed to regular exposure to different opinions, identity often becomes a shield against alternative viewpoints. This is particularly concerning within higher education settings; institutions meant to embody free thinking. As a student, I’ve seen firsthand the reluctance to engage with different perspectives, with many unable or refusing to participate in constructive debate. As future leaders, students should aspire to interact with politics meaningfully. Yet, the allure of social media can sometimes encourage rushed commentary on complex topics. This approach contributes little to nuanced discussions, adding to a flood of comments that saturates expert opinion.

To address this challenge, I had the opportunity to interview Ayesha and Shreiya and gain their insights on combating misinformation, the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023, and integrating the skills of disagreeing well in student life at UCL. 

How well do you think the 2023 legislation, which incentivised the Disagreeing Well campaign, balances the protection of free speech versus giving a free pass to harmful discourse on sensitive issues’ 


The legislation aims to foster healthy discourse, but its effectiveness will be tested in student communities nationwide. While noble in intent, it will clash with the realities of human behaviour and whether our current spaces for discourse support healthy debate.

With rampant misinformation and disinformation, what proactive steps do you suggest students take to combat this challenge’


First and foremost, diversify your sources of news and information, to ensure you are exposed to a wider range of opinions, including those that oppose your views. And always take a few minutes to verify and fact-check.  Shreiya: I’d advise against relying solely on social media platforms for your news. It’s important to actively seek fact-checking websites. Also, make the effort to understand all sides of the issue by exploring different arguments rather than accepting information at face value.

How can the skills of Disagreeing Well be more robustly integrated into student life’


It needs to be structured within teaching itself. We have to approach sensitive issues with respect and encourage discourse proactively rather than side-stepping difficult conversations due to the fear of unpleasant reactions. 


Educators should consider building resilience among students for them to be able to talk about challenging issues. 

Lastly, drawing from the panel discussion about the pressure to be constantly vocal, do you think that students and everyone has a duty to educate themselves about atrocities across the world


Performative activism is a big challenge. Feeling the pressure to comment on everything because your friends are doing so is common. It is a brilliant thing to be curious about the world, but it is also impossible to be knowledgeable about everything. Be mindful of what and how you consume and respond, because commenting without full understanding does more harm than good. 


Adopt good practices, and refrain from mindless engagement. It is okay not to know everything but use it as a starting point for learning. 

The insights from the Disagreeing Well campaign guide us to navigate the digital landscape thoughtfully, promoting diverse perspectives and respectful discourse. Join us on 15 May for the next event in the series; Disagreeing Well in Public Life.
Meet VPEE Student Journalist, Antara:  I am a final-year undergraduate student, from India, in the Politics and International Relations programme. I am thrilled to be joining the UCL Student Journalism Scheme, where I hope to interact, collaborate with and learn alongside the rest of my cohort. My passion for writing and journalism has evolved since school and continues to flourish during my university journey. This is further enhanced through my experiences at UCL as the Editor-in-chief of Pi Magazine and the International Relations Society Journal (Circum Mundum). Being part of such a vibrant community is a wonderful experience. Through this scheme, I hope to find more of this as I explore the world of journalism and further develop my skills.   

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