Taming your inner troll: The 4 rules of sharing political opinions responsibly on social media

This is the second in a 2-part series. Read the first part here.

Source: https://xkcd.com/386/

Remember that time the Internet lost its mind? It might have been about holiday cups at Starbucks, a satirical racial joke by Stephen Colbert, a lion or monkey being killed, some actor saying something offensive or a journalist asking a politically incorrect question. While each issue has its own degree of legitimacy (large or small), the tidal wave of outrage it triggers represents the destructive potential of social media.The smallest perceived offense can ignite the Internet’s fury.

On the flipside, remember when we had a presidential race that featured candidates with such loose relationships to reality that people simply stopped being outraged. Like the proverbial frog that let the water heat to boiling around him, so too have many people come to expect, or worst accept, this toxic political environment. The deluge of unreality has blunted our ability to react appropriately.

Both of these examples of outrage and apathy demonstrate the importance of social media as a tool for social conversation. In my last post, I discussed how social media can help us as a society decide what is right and what is true.Knowing this will help us deal with outrage and apathy appropriately. Yet these examples also demonstrate that social media can be destructive and actually push us further apart.

To turn social media into a constructive force, we need guidelines to harness its power. Here I will discuss the 4 rules of using #SocialMediaForSocialGood.

The 4 Rules.

These rules are taken from Daniel Dennett’s book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking in which he relays debate rules that he received in conversation with the accomplished mathematician and game theorist, Anatol Rapoport.

1.You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
2.You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3.You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
4.Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

Let me take each of these one at a time.

You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.

This one is key on social media.The vast majority of Facebook arguments I have either seen or participated in became contentious because people were arguing against things their opponent was not saying. The format of social media lends itself to miscommunication because it is so constrained.You have 144 characters on Twitter or clunky comment boxes on Facebook to express yourself. You need to focus on the specific point the person is making and not argue against a conclusion you think they will make three logical steps down the line.

Suppose I post something negative about Trump like “whenever Trump talks, he lies a lot”. My conservative friends will immediately respond with how terrible Hillary is. The conversation is already off to a bad start because I didn’t say anything about Hillary, they just assumed a conclusion that wasn’t made. Re-expressing the argument helps to narrow the scope of the conversation to a manageable topic over social media: “I think your point is that Trump says things that are untrue, for example during his political speeches, well if you look at the context…” and so on. Now we are on the same page and won’t be talking past each other.

One last note, this rule also implies that the original poster is the person setting the scope of the debate. If Trump’s lying makes you want to say something about Hillary’s emails, then either take the time to logically connect the original point to the emails, which will probably take multiple back-and-forth posts, or post a new topic yourself. The conversation will be pointless if we continually talk past each other or bury each other in an avalanche of disconnected opinions.

You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

This is an important point for both participants in the conversation.It serves to close the ideological gap by allowing all parties to realize what they have in common. This also helps to further narrow the scope of the debate so you both know what is already considered true in this particular conversation.It also has a nice psychological benefit of lowering the oppositional barriers the participants might be feeling that are inherent in disagreements. Keeping with our Trump lying example, you as a Trump supporter may say something like “I agree that many of his comments are untrue at face value, for instance there is no way Mexico will pay for the wall.But he says these things to make a larger point about immigration policy….” and so on. Now we both know our common ground and where the disagreement begins.

You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

The point of the discussion is to get closer to what is right or what is true, so hopefully you are learning something along the way. You have not somehow “lost” the discussion by learning from your opponent.This is actually evidence of the back-and-forth process at work and should be encouragement for further discussion! Like the second point, this also has psychological benefit because it breaks down the divide between participants and reframes the experience more as two humans trying to decide what is right or what is true together rather than as a competition between two opponents.

Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

Now we both understand what the argument is about, where we are beginning from, and what the benefit of the conversation has been. So now, its time to tussle!

Let me make a few concluding observations:

·These steps do not necessarily have to happen in order or with every reply or post that is made.Some of them can happen a few times throughout a conversation or sometimes you can just check them yourself mentally. The point is that these guidelines should provide structure for how you approach discussing sensitive topics with another human; how you actually employ them is up to you.

·During political discussions, we are ultimately arguing about what is right and what is true (see the last post).We shouldn’t be trying to “win” or “defeat” an opponent. It also helps to assume good motives in others, for instance that they too want to better understand what is right and what is true

·However at times it becomes clear that some people have bad motivations, such as trying to belittle your point. I would argue that it’s not worth engaging these people because it will quickly degenerate into a rhetorical competition. The only level in which you could engage them is to argue that what is right and what is true should be the purposes of their arguments.

·Emotions play a big role and need to be observed mindfully throughout a discussion. Sometimes its just better to sit on that message overnight before pressing send.

·Be responsible, don’t drink and tweet.

So there you have it, my (actually Daniel Dennett’s) proposed rules for debating politics and other sensitive topics on social media. With these rules, we can overcome the cycles of clickbait outrage and sensational apathy and instead learn to thoughtfully use #SocialMediaForSocialGood.


Originally published at pedsadmit.blogspot.com on October 9, 2016.