Social Media’s Antisocial Discourse

Can we escape our addiction to outrage?

“shallow photography of green bird” by Егор Камелев on Unsplash

You know the feeling. After several minutes of scrolling through the endless stream of your favored social media platform that one name appears above a post and, as usual, it’s offensive.

Righteous rage swells inside of you. Your fingers or thumbs start moving and — faster than your better judgement — you’ve shredded the fool’s ignorant, abhorrent opinion. Three to five feisty and frustrating comments later, one of you has given up. The other, having had the last word, claims a symbolic victory.

Although it makes the news regularly these days (e.g. James Gunn, Sarah Jeong…), the abundance of negativity on social media isn’t news. We have known for some time that Twitter, Facebook, and the proverbial comment section are bastions for behavior that most of us would not tolerate IRL. The content of most online debate is venomous, flippant, and haughty; a far cry from the eloquence that changes minds and wins new allies.

The participants are part of the problem, but not the whole story. We’ve invented platforms that encourage and facilitate the worst aspects of human nature. In 2014 the New York Times published an article which concluded with this quote from psychology professor Ryan Martin:

“The Internet exacerbates impulse-control problems,” he said. “You get mad, and you can tell the world about it in moments before you’ve had a chance to calm down and think things through.”

In 2017 Yale published a study conducted by neuroscientist Molly Crockett about the online expression of moral outrage in which she argued:

“Expressing moral outrage can be costly. Offline, moralistic punishment carries a risk of retaliation. But online social networks limit this risk. They enable people to sort themselves into echo chambers with sympathetic audiences. The chance of backlash is low when you’re only broadcasting moral disapproval to like-minded others. Moreover, they allow people to hide in a crowd. Shaming a stranger on a deserted street is far riskier than joining a Twitter mob of thousands.”

And speculated that:

“… the design of digital media platforms may encourage habitual outrage expression.”

The feedback loops inherent to social media help create habitual behavior. This is intentional. As former Facebook President Sean Parker put it:

“The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them … was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’ That means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content and that’s going to get you … more likes and comments.” — [source]

In fact several former social media executives have expressed concern and regret about the platforms they helped to build. Executives use the term “engagement” as a euphemism for the addictive nature of their platforms — but Twitter blinks, rewards, flashes, and addicts people just like a slot machine with push notifications, and endless scrolling.

Combine these habit-forming tools with some of the worst aspects of human nature and it’s easy to arrive at Maggie Haberman’s conclusion that:

“Twitter is now an anger video game for many users. It is the only platform on which people feel free to say things they’d never say to someone’s face. For me, it had become an enormous and pointless drain on my time and mental energy.”

Unlike Haberman, I don’t believe that Twitter is the only platform where people spit their venom without discretion. Reddit, Facebook, and the comment section of my local newspaper all suffer from destructive expressions of rage.

To overcome our addictions to outrage and impulse we need online platforms that are intentionally designed to facilitate high quality debate. With chemical addiction the drug matters. Getting hooked on coffee is a far cry from getting addicted to fentanyl. Similarly, the design and intent of the platforms we use to communicate has real implications for the communication that happens on those platforms.

I believe that the Internet (and even social media) can be an empowering platform to share thoughts and learn about diverse perspectives from around the world. I can read reporting from tens-of-thousands of journals, newspapers, and magazines from around the world. I can communicate with a multitude of different people in ways that the societies of the past couldn’t even imagine.

My gripe is not with the Internet. It is with the remarkably low quality of discourse and antipathy on the Internet. I am frustrated with platforms whose mechanics reward such foul discourse with endless little hits of dopamine. And I am frustrated with myself for taking the bait all too often.

My Own Debate Addiction

I have a bad habit of getting sucked into online arguments. My own addiction to debate and controversy began long ago, and over the years I’ve alienated several someones who I once hoped to persuade online, which I regret.

Nevertheless, I’m a huge believer in the power of debate to enlighten and enrich the lives of those who engage in it. I was a high school debater for 4 years, and an assistant debate coach after I graduated. I maintain that debate was by far the most educational experience of my schooling. In my own rehabilitation I am trying to apply the lessons I learned as a debater to my own online conversations.

The first lesson of debate is that the act of arguing is the least educational part of the whole experience. Expressing a position is easy and teaches you nothing. The real learning takes place before and after you give your speeches.

Hidden behind an 8 minute opening speech is an entire year’s worth of research, revision, and fine tuning. At the end of each debate the judge typically discloses who won. Then they give the competitors feedback about which arguments were compelling (or not) and why. Competitors ask the judge questions about the decision, and in subsequent rounds they’ll have a chance to adjust their arguments based on that feedback.

For many debaters the topic is exactly the same for the entire year. Successful debaters do not have the luxury of holding onto their opinions too tightly — as the year goes on debaters learn which arguments within the topic are compelling and which ones are not. If you do not adapt your position, you lose rounds.

Outside of the individual rounds of argumentation, debaters are surrounded by veritable experts. Together, they explore the arguments that worked or failed, and discuss which judges they worked or failed on. Something every successful debater learns is how to adjust their arguments to the judge. Everyone evaluates the world differently. Understanding the person that you wish to convince is critical to actually convincing them.

When is the last time you saw someone on social media actually trying to understand their opponent in an argument?

Furthermore, coalitions form when people want the same thing, but often for different reasons. Building up a broad coalition is a process of understanding your different audiences, crafting specific arguments for each group, then negotiating and compromising between the groups. Some of your arguments will cross borders, but many others won’t. You cannot expect the same argument to succeed on a finance CEO, a permaculture farmer, and a rust belt factory worker.

Unfortunately, platforms like Twitter and Facebook give you little control over who your audience is for any particular message. Arguments that make sense for one group of people won’t be compelling to others, but will be broadcast to everyone nevertheless. Making things worse, a random troll can quickly derail an otherwise productive conversation.

Another debate club mainstay that is sorely lacking on social media is research.

Finding news articles, books, and studies that support the most compelling arguments — or to buttress ones that a judge found lacking — is the name of the game for successful debaters. In my day, debaters needed dollies to cart around massive tubs full of evidence. Nowadays they carry beefy hard drives with many gigabytes of cross referenced and carefully organized digital news clippings.

Contrast the process behind these 8 minute speeches with the often careless process of drafting a tweets. Contrast this dedication to research and evidence with the memes and flippancy that passes for argumentation on your favorite social media platforms. Contrast the community of people all striving to do the best research with your own social media echo-chamber. Contrast the high quality feedback loop of, “research, debate, critique, repeat,” with flood of likes, retweets, and emojis that comprise feedback on social media.

The feedback mechanisms on Twitter don’t encourage compelling or thought provoking arguments — they reward preaching to the choir with fire-and-forget messages. There is a constant barrage of new things to be outraged by. Forget missing the forest for the trees, on Twitter we’re all drowning under the weight of a zillion little bonsais.

Switching Sides and Empathy

The most powerful feature of of debate club is that debaters are forced to argue both sides of the topic. Each debater will take the affirmative and the negative side an equal number of times over the course of each tournament. To win more than half of their rounds competitors must find a way to be compelling on both sides of an individual topic.

In this way debate is the antithesis of our social media bubbles. It not only forces you to engage respectfully (and face to face) with people who espouse different views, it forces you to actively explore contradictory ideas and viewpoints for yourself. This exploration of ideas that you might not endorse is a powerful way to build empathy for people you don’t yet understand. It is also by far the best way to learn the weaknesses of an argument you’d like to defeat.

I do not encounter this kind of non-endorsing attempt to understand the opinions of others on social media. In fact, trying to understand offensive thoughts or people often feels taboo. As Lee Siegel recently wrote in a New York Times opinion piece:

“We thrill to a kind of pornography of exposing and shaming. […] There exists a kind of silent censoring of any attempt to understand a person’s ugly behavior rather than seeking exclusively to punish it.”

In the faux debates of social media the participants post comments at each other, and regularly fail to engage meaningfully with the actual arguments presented. The urgency of the medium makes evidence and research a low priority and responding right away a high priority. The thrill of our like-minded friends “liking” our most savage commentary drives us to continue posting for those with whom we already agree. Too often, simply trying to understand ideas outside of your circle’s realm of acceptability will result in castigation.

For many people, online debate is little more than a pressure release valve — a way to express an opinion without much hope of teaching someone something and with no intention or desire to learn something themselves. A venting of rage into the digital ether. An anger video game.

Playing this video game has, in my view, had a profound impact on the quality of our political conversations in general. To steal a phrase, he who fights with trolls must be careful lest he thereby become a troll. And if thou shout often into the abyss, the abyss will shout also into thee.

Elevating The Discourse: Intention, Compassion, And Patience

If we’re going to elevate the discourse online we need to change the way we engage with alternative viewpoints, and we need to pick our battles more carefully. People change their minds when people they care about, trust, and respect make the opposing case compassionately, patiently, repeatedly, and in terms of their own values. This process takes time.

Research into when people change their minds has found that it’s rare for someone to simply encounter evidence, then change their mind right away. In fact, contrary evidence is (at least initially) more likely to make a person dig-in to their current viewpoint. Furthermore, the kind of evidence doesn’t seem to matter much. Fact based reasoning, statistical reasoning, appeals to emotion, and personal anecdotes all equally failed to convince participants in one study about whether or not vaccinations cause autism.

However, further research has suggested that this initial doubling down can be overcome as people continue to receive contrary evidence over time. One great argument might plant a seed, but that seed needs fertilizer, sunshine, water, and time to grow. If you’re in a one time debate with a stranger online, it’s unlikely that your seed will find a suitable environment in which to sprout.

Another major factor in changing minds has to do with identity. For example, it’s much easier to change someone’s beliefs about Thomas Edison’s brilliance than it is to change their views about abortion, because views about abortion are more strongly linked to identity, (e.g. Christian identity or feminist identity).

There are interesting neurobiological reasons for this, but the upshot is that making an argument about someone’s identity is a surefire way not to convince them. When you call someone an idiot, snowflake, or elitist you’re inviting your opponent’s defensive nature. Try to think of a time when calling someone a name caused them to re-evaluate their position and ultimately take your side. For me, it’s never.

Convincing others requires us to be intentional and careful in expressing ourselves without attacking our audience. If your goal is to get someone to change you must help them understand how their behavior or viewpoint is problematic without attacking their identity.

Lots of tactics do not work, but online debate is not hopeless. A study of the ChangeMyView subreddit produced some interesting findings about what does help people change their minds online.

First and foremost, people opt into debate on ChangeMyView. They are, at least ostensibly, acting in good faith when they post there. It should go without saying that this kind of openness to change is crucial. Anonymous trolls are acting in bad faith, you should give up on them in advance.

Even when a person is open to change, not every comment is equally effective at creating change. The comments that succeed most often in changing someone’s view included hedging language. Softening your own position allows room for the person’s current worldview, making them less defensive and more open to change. Using language like, “it’s probably the case that,” or, “in many instances” can all lead to a less defensive opponent. Berating someone into submission online only shuts them up, it doesn’t change them.

Use of external evidence and hyperlinks was also correlated with successful change as was comment length. Longer, better researched positions are more successful at winning hearts and minds. Conversely, the same study found that one liners essentially never changed someone’s view. If you’re tweeting a meme you’re only preaching to the choir.

Positive affirmation, and use of personal pronouns also seemed to help people change their minds. Letting your opponent know that you value their opinion will make them more likely to value yours. Genuinely valuing their opinion might lead you and your opponent to meet somewhere in the middle; a sign that both of you have learned something from the interaction. Consider starting your next argument with, “I think that’s a good point … Have you considered [your viewpoint].”

If you honestly don’t value your opponent’s thoughts, there is a good chance that you cannot change their mind. Your arguments will sound as patronizing as they are, and further entrench your opponents’ current beliefs. If you want a person to change their mind but cannot show them compassion (perhaps because you find their opinions vile) then the best thing you can do is find an ally who can remain patient while still challenging this person’s view.

Social media in its current incarnation is a bad environment for these kinds of conversations and debates. You will have much more success convincing people outside of social media. Next time someone posts something that makes you want to fire off a snarky reply, wait a couple days and then make up an excuse to go out for lunch, or catch up on the phone.

If seeing that person IRL doesn’t sound like a compelling use of your time, consider writing them a letter, or writing an op-ed instead.

Do some research. Try to understand their viewpoint and values, then try to combat their view from within their own value system. Publish it online or send it as a letter to the editor of a newspaper you like. You’ll reach more people and if you’ve crafted a great argument you’ll convince a bigger share of that larger audience.

We change our minds when people who actually care about us take the time (sometimes years) to help us change. Social media might have “democratized” speaking but it hasn’t fundamentally changed the way people listen. Shouting down haters on social media definitely feels good — but there isn’t any compelling evidence that it actually works to advance the conversation or affect real change.

Obviously, movements like #MeToo have utilized social media to change and shape our global conversation. These platforms have power, and we can use them even more powerfully if we tap into what we know about human nature and debate.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by + 370,771 people.

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