Why arguing online rarely works

Why arguing online rarely works

By Seth Brown
Biblical Recorder

Have you ever been tempted to jump into an online comment section and take someone to task?

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:

  1. 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 navigate to this website for online content ideas and  share content online if it arouses awe, anger or anxiety.

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

  1. 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% of people share information online to give others a better sense of who they are and what they care about.

Additionally, 73% said they post online because it helps them connect with people who share their interests.

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

  1. Persuasion is relational before it’s factual.

In order to convince another person to change his or her 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.

EDITOR’S NOTE — This editorial first appeared at brnow.org. Used with permission.