Image from xkcd
Debating topics on the internet is vastly different than doing so in person. It can, however, be a valuable tool for sharing knowledge and influencing minds, but it needs to be done correctly. Here are a few tips to help you make the most impact.
Tone is difficult in text. People are incredibly good at reading tone in someone else’s words dependent upon how they, themselves feel. The best is to ignore tone altogether. Don’t try to read the tone of what someone else writes. Just stick with the content of their words.
Always strive to keep your own words, and the tone you type them in, calm and even. Stay away from loaded language that can imply anything other than an even tone.
Buzzwords are the bread and butter of the internet. They’re used to draw out emotional responses, often in otherwise rational people. Don’t use them. If you’re talking about GMOs, stay away from “shill” or “sheeple” or even “chemicals.” If you’re talking about religion, stay away from the common insults. Buzzwords are a terrible plague on our society right now. When your interlocutor uses them, dismiss them. They can only take away from the content of the discussion.
Understand the burden of proof, and when it lies on you, ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS, back up your claims with good evidence from reliable sources. Try not to use blogs as a scientific resource, unless they include a good set of reliable references (even if they’re entirely correct). Blogs are useful in political or social commentary that doesn’t rely as much on studies or physical evidence, but on opinion and analysis. Steer clear of YouTube.
When the burden of proof lies on your interlocutor, make sure they know it. Don’t start debunking their assertions until they provide evidence. Then, dismantle whatever evidence is unreliable or discuss any evidence that may be valid.
If your interlocutor refuses to provide evidence, and only fires off more assertions, then the conversation is over. Don’t be upset about it or storm out with a “rage quit.” Just realize that they are so terribly uninformed that their worldview revolves around sound bytes, and not data. If you make an assertion, ANY assertion, be prepared to support it. Always.
This is very important. When you’re speaking on the internet, other people can usually see the conversation. They may be a point where you become outnumbered. This can go one of two ways. Either the conversation can continue to be a rational discourse, just with more people, or….it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, you often see your opponents start to play off each other and cheer each other on. When this happens, the conversation is over. No amount of evidence, logic, or rational discourse will change the mind of someone who has cheerleaders.
Now, there are times where those same people will reflect later and have learned something, but in the moment, it’s no longer worth pursuing.
Contributor: Robert Sacerich
Robert is a Philosophy of Science and Bioethics student, as well as blogger and science advocate/activist. He has worked extensively within the secular community for various secular nonprofit organizations and public communication causes.
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