Sane ways to disagree on social media

I used to get into tremendous to-and-fro Twitter battles, and they’d empty me. I’m not the type to want to destroy someone, but if I saw comments from someone who had made things personal, got things wrong or made what I thought was a terrible argument, I would indignantly reply. Then so would they. And off we’d go, back and forth with comments or tweets that very obviously did not improve the discourse.

Extended social media arguments are both addictive and painful.

“How can someone dismiss my obvious attempts to be reasonable?”

“They’re dodging our killer questions! Clearly they just don’t have a reply - so I’ll keep at ‘em!”

“I can’t have “onlookers” get the wrong idea.“

Then there’s that agonising wait in between the comment that (we half-heartedly think) will rock them back on their heels, and their actual response (which they also think will be a mic drop). Finally, there’s the point where one of you finally gives up - sometimes with a passive aggressive emoji or the apparently dignified explanation “I need to go to work now”.

Later we realise most of these exchanges were not fruitful, with zero new points or breakthroughs, from the first comment to the 21st. So even if we were looking to “point-score”, most of the “match” was trash talking and arguing about penalties (and with no winners).

A painful waste of real life

Eventually we look up from our phone and see real life loved ones, friends and colleagues who are oblivious to our role in The Most Important Battle In the History of Twitter. We’re too embarrassed to admit why we’ve been so quiet (though often they know). We become oddly conscious of our breathing slowly returning to normal. And realise we weren’t blinking.

What a waste of time. Noone changed their mind about the issue or our evaluation of the other person - if anything, both of those went further apart. Social media had extracted the worst of us, probably giving us both a few more grey hairs and blood pressure issues. And in the back of our minds, we and our opponents knew it would be pretty awkward if we’re ever face to face (this happened to me once - joining a news organisation and in the first week, meeting someone I’d been exchanging Twitter volleys with).

Eventually, after over a decade of such wearying exchanges on Twitter and the ‘Book, I learned where to stop. Here’s what I learned.

How to disagree on social media: a one-and-done rule:

We aren’t going to stop using social media. And we shouldn’t, because despite their failings, Twitter and Facebook are still invaluable for connecting with the like minded, but also differing ideas. Don’t give those up.

And we also should not be afraid to disagree on social media, because differing viewpoints break us out of echo chambers. We just need to do it with civility and nuance, and stop when the debate turns toxic. (If you prefer to avoid it altogether as you know you can’t resist the temptation, that’s fairly reasonable too.)

To get the balance right, I follow a “one-and-done” rule. I write one response to posts (even the angry or nasty ones. Those are in particular need of some tempering) where I think a differing or calming perspective might be useful to any casual readers.

If the ensuing response to mine is civil and open minded, I respond again. As soon as the responses turn personal, mocking or nasty, I stop responding. I don’t try to point it out to the other person (unsurprisingly, that usually triggers a response very different to the one you’re hoping for). I just stop.

Nasty or weak arguments speak for themselves

It’s tempting to want to stay in a social media ding-dong battle because we want to correct someone’s misinterpretation about our argument or motives, especially since they might then subsequently misrepresent that to others. What if we can never work in this town again?

While we do need to be mindful if working for a particularly intolerant organisation (sadly there’s increasing pressure on them to “take a side” on issues which we might want to comment on), we underestimate most people’s ability to discern ranting from reason. Most sensible folks can tell when someone is just being snarky, unfair, vicious or personal, even if it’s their friends.

Do some organisations panic when the outraged pound on their door, calling for your head? Yes - which is why we need to drive a more tolerant, sensible public discourse culture.

That aside, howy, there’s no need to point out dishonesty or hate with an actual reply, which would just prompt more of Twitter’s nasty little “Didja hear what they just said about you?” notifications that will suck you into the outrage. It will speak for itself.

Let others rage, seek out the sensible

Sure, you will continue to see others get into bitter comment/tweet battles, including our friends and family, but also high profile and even respected journalists, academics and politicians. A Twitter Blue Tick, however, should never be considered a “credibility badge”. Many high profile commentators have already succumbed to placing much of their self-worth in how they (think they) perform in bickering and nasty exchanges, especially since many organisations simply giving up on holding their journalists to their workplace codes of conduct.

You should also think carefully about just how much value there really is in someone refering with pride to how they or their tribe “clap back”, “get in the face of” or “are dunking on” others. These are very generous metaphors for someone typing sarcasm on an iPhone, directed at a distant foe they will likely never meet or speak to.

Instead, perhaps set yourself some firm limits like a 1+1 rule. Get things clear in your own head about what is a productive and constructive use of social media. And turn that all into real life connections and the thoughtful real conversations that we need more than ever.

Connect with other sensible people, or those trying to be, at Fearless Curious: triggered or bulllied? 6:30PM Wednesday 28th August with Antoinette Lattouf, Tanveer Ahmed and Ky Chow. Dinner and two drinks included.

“Hang on ladies, I’m just, uh, sending a work email”

“Hang on ladies, I’m just, uh, sending a work email”

Ky Chow