arguing online

By: Seth Brown

Baptist Recorder

CARY, N.C. (BP) – Have you ever been tempted to jump into an online comment section and take someone to task? The impulse to argue online is a common experience among internet users, and the amount of time average Americans spend online is only going up. That means the opportunities for digital dust-ups are rising.

Negative responses to social media posts are the most commonly cited reason people engage in online scuffles, according to Barna Group. Yet our attempts to set the record straight rarely feel successful.

Although not impossible, it is quite difficult to change someone’s mind about a topic by arguing about it online. Here are three reasons why.

We’re flooded with provocative information.

The internet is considered one of humanity’s greatest inventions because it gives people access to seemingly endless amounts of information. But even the smallest fraction of what’s available online is far too much for any individual to take in.

We’re inundated with information, so we skim our way through the flood. People simply cannot thoroughly assess every news article or essay. Internet users tend to consume and share information based on the headlines and buzzwords that affirm their pre-existing beliefs. We enter most online conversations about big topics with biased and limited information.

In addition, the pieces of content that people are most likely to encounter about a controversial issue – viral posts – are also the most likely to provoke strong emotions. A 2011 study in the Journal of Marketing Research showed that people are more likely to share content online if it arouses awe, anger or anxiety.

Taken together, these trends mean that our online arguments often begin with fractured information and high emotions. That’s not a recipe for rational discussions.

Social media is tribal.

The basic networking principles that many social media platforms rely on – helping people find online connections based on mutual friends, experiences and interests – are the driving force behind their widespread use. People of all stripes are deeply motivated to seek out and associate with others like them – their tribe.

A study by The New York Times found that 68 percent of people share information online to give others a better sense of who they are and what they care about. Additionally, 73 percent said they post online because it helps them connect with people who share their interests.

Most social media users are not primarily concerned with the accuracy or credibility of the material they post or share online. They use content to identify with their tribe.

That makes it difficult to successfully argue online because your opponent often feels as if you are calling into question their in-group, not merely the facts at hand.

Persuasion is relational before it’s factual. 

In order to convince another person to change their mind, you have to consider the big picture. They are a human with emotions and relationships, not just an avatar for the position you want to defeat. A successful argument means you must win the person, not just the point.

Author James Clear says convincing someone to change their mind means you must convince 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.”

“The way to change people’s minds is to become friends with them, to integrate them into your tribe, to bring them into your circle. Now, they can change their beliefs without the risk of being abandoned socially.”

The best way to navigate an online argument is usually to take it offline. Find ways to connect with people that help deepen your association or friendship with them.

Social media is great for connecting with people who already share your interests, but developing friendships with people unlike you takes face-to-face interaction. Instead of engaging an online war of words, invite someone to dinner, coffee or church. You may eventually win the argument and a friend.

The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things” (Proverbs 15:28).

This article was written by Seth Brown a writer for the Baptist Recorder and was originally published at brnow.org.

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