It’s a familiar story.
It’s midnight and I’ve spent the last 30 minutes reading a heated comment exchange on social media. I’m not quite sure how I ended up down this rabbit hole, but one thing led to another and I’m hooked.
Then I see it, a comment so against my values that I can’t scroll past it. Adrenaline pumping, I roll up my sleeves and draft a clever and scathing response putting said commenter in their place. I am careful to proof-read my thesis before posting so as not to provide fuel for petty comebacks. I’m anticipating all the “likes” I will receive… each one a little dopamine hit of validation.
Before I click “post”, I’ve learned to consider the following questions to reflect on whether I am approaching this in the best way.
What is your intention?
Is this about your ego or your ethics? If you care more about “winning” or even punishing this person for their opinions, then it’s probably best to log out and get some sleep. The world doesn’t need any more bullies.
If you genuinely want to help convince this person of your perspective, then consider your language carefully. Leading with an attack or being too aggressive may further convince them of their perspective, reinforcing you (and what you represent) as the enemy.
What is their intention?
Sometimes people are just looking for a fight. Look for clues in their tone to give you a warning before going head-to-head with a troll. Sometimes anger can be masking deeper challenges. On Alan Alda’s podcast Clear+Vivid, Sarah Silverman talked about how she reached out with compassion to a fan who attacked her online. Her reaction was transformational for him, and led to him seeking out the help he really needed.
Is what you are saying supported by facts and evidence?
There is plenty of #fakenews on the internet already. No need to add more. Citing reputable sources in a reasonable tone can add credibility to your message. While changing someone’s perspective is not as simple as providing them with the facts, at the very least, we can be conscious of not spreading false information.
Are you focusing on the person or their behaviour?
While it can be very tempting to take cheap shots at the commenter’s appearance or intelligence, it is far more constructive to separate the individual from their message. Value the person, criticise the idea. In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear writes of the power of social connection:
Convincing someone to change their mind is really the process of convincing them to change their tribe. If they abandon their beliefs, they run the risk of losing social ties. You can’t expect someone to change their mind if you take away their community too. You have to give them somewhere to go. Nobody wants their worldview torn apart if loneliness is the outcome.
Is this the best medium?
Research shows that people have a far more empathetic approach when they hear people speak as opposed to reading a text extract of their words. In the 2017 study “The Humanizing Voice: Speech Can Reveal, and Text Conceal, The Presence of a Thoughtful Mind in The Midst of Disagreement”, scientists at University of California, Berkeley and the University of Chicago studied the reactions of hundreds of volunteers when exposed to arguments they disagreed with. Participants were then asked to judge the person who communicated the argument. The volunteers who had only read the argument in written form were far more dismissive of the author’s intelligence and reason than those who heard them speak via audio or video. The study authors wrote:
When two people hold different beliefs, there is a tendency not only to recognize a difference of opinion but also to denigrate the mind of one's opposition. Because another person's mind cannot be experienced directly, its quality must be inferred from indirect cues.
If the person you disagree with is known to you, then perhaps a phone call or coffee would be a more effective way to engage them in discussion.
Have you thought about what you can learn from them?
In the words of the economist J.K. Galbraith, “Faced with a choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy with the proof.”
A few years ago when I was in Berlin, I met a man from Canada who was staying in the same hostel room as me. After chatting for a few minutes it became very clear that we held the complete opposite views on politics and key social justice issues. My immediate instinct was to make an excuse to leave the conversation as quickly as possible. Instead, I mustered my courage and said “Would you like to share a meal with me?” What followed was one of the most interesting dinner discussions I’ve ever had. I fundamentally disagreed with almost all of his opinions, but he spoke with compassion and reason and completely didn’t match the image I had in my head of “people like him”. While we didn’t convince each other of our perspectives, we were successful in broadening each others’ perception of those beyond our echo chambers.
When it comes to commenting on social media, if I don’t know the other person, my general rule now is to log out and go to bed without posting my "mic-drop" reply. If I do know them, then I would usually opt for a direct message or phone call over a public comment. I still believe that dangerous ideas must be challenged and don’t want to agree by omission. It is the method of that communication that makes the difference.
What is your rule of thumb? Do you generally engage in conversations on social media? Share your thoughts in the comments below (and remember to play nice!)