7 Top Tips for Arguing Online Without Becoming a Troll
Wow, what a rollercoaster it’s been since social media took off and changed our culture within the span of a couple years. Sharing your photos over dinner with slides and a projector is no more, and nor is avoiding politics, sex and religion over said dinner. Or rather, the dinner remains controversy-free and instead we hammer it out with strangers online that we refer to as ‘sweetie’ when they piss us off.
Welcome to the world of online arguments, which has been my latest relaxing after-work activity for the past two weeks. And if I have learned anything, it’s that everyone seems to argue in the same way and the buzz of receiving a new scathing reply to a comment on Instagram loses its shine after a while.
I hear you wondering why I got into arguing online as a hobby and, aside from being for article research purposes, it does come with a backstory. For the past year or two I’ve been following controversial accounts on Instagram – and by that I mean very liberal, very conservative, very feminist and very pro-life pages. Being a fairly open-minded journalist I like to get both sides of the same coin before and after I form my own opinion. It’s like an ongoing chiseling down of my beliefs and convictions, refining and redefining them.
Funnily enough, I was not alone in doing this, although I was much less vocal. Many hardcore conservatives follow liberal accounts and vice versa, joining in the conversation to tell the account and their followers that they are COMPLETELY WRONG ABOUT EVERTHING. After watching these arguments play out, and obviously thriving on the drama, I decided I wanted to try my hand at it.
Because as far as I could see, everyone was doing the same thing and it was just so annoying. So I decided to do things a little differently. I gave myself some rules and some boundaries and off I went, on my adventure into trolling wonderland.
I think polarization of views and online echo chambers have become such a negative by-product of internet interactions and being able to share opposing views online is a great way to begin to disarm this growing problem. However, the way that we enter conversations where the person we’re debating has a view we inherently disagree with is important. Even when you might feel that they’re infringing on your human rights or disregarding you as equal (e.g. anti-LBGTQ views), shouting in capslock into the void does nothing for either party. Now you’re angry and they’re replying to you about how unhinged you are.
So this is my nifty guide, based off my experience as a silent lurker in online arguments, and as an amateur digital debater and all-round nice person.
Here we go!
COHERENCY (WHAT DOES THAT EVEN SAY?)
Spell check and fact check. I’ve watched it crop up, time and time again: wildly inaccurate statistics, combined with incomprehensible sentences. Spelling mistakes are acceptable, especially if you don’t have an app to check them for you, but sentences missing important words kill the point you’re making. This is especially true if your point has now got lost in all the words you forgot to type to make the sentence understandable.
Before aggressively hitting send, do a ten second reread over what you’ve typed. This is especially important if you have some ‘I don’t know’s over the subject you’re debating. Don’t pull rogue statistics from your head, as a quick Google will show how wrong you are, invalidating the point you’re making. It’s a lot less embarrassing than rereading it later and realizing that no one will know what you were trying to say – or having your debating opponent (or troll!) point out how stupid you are.
And they will. They will absolutely tell you that you are stupid.
Favourite Example: “95% of all abortions are performed on little baby girl embryos and that’s why feminists should be pro-life.”
ERGO, IT’S NOT A THESIS
Thus unto this fact, factually speaking parlance from my position of thus where I ergo am….
I think we (me and my fellow online argument enthusiasts) get caught up in the idea that the more we sound like we’re writing our doctorate thesis, the more credible our argument is. But I can tell you that it comes off as trying way too hard, when you’re the other person reading it. It also sounds like your ego is already bruised and you’re trying to salvage what dignity you have left.
It’s neat to use fancy words! But not so much if you don’t know what context to use them in or start using them midway through a conversation that’s not going your way.
In some ways, it’s a bit like Occam’s Razor, except instead of simple explanations being correct, it’s that the simplest way to say something is often the best way. So what that you didn’t hit someone with a good “notwithstanding” today? Saying “despite” probably sounded better anyway.
PROFILE CHECK – IT’S A REAL PERSON!
What are the chances! I thought it was going to be a knob of butter!
It’s really easy to forget that the people you’re talking to online actually have real human lives, feelings, family, and friends. And probably selfies. Even when their opinions seem like they must be satire and that this person could not possibly have two eyes, a nose and a mouth like me… they do!
We all cultivate wildly different opinions, somehow, through our unique experiences of the world but we’re still united by hurt feelings, a desire for likes on our Instagram photos, and (probably) our love of dogs. Doing a quick profile check on the person that’s really annoying you because they just said that women are only good for making sandwiches can help you to remember that their views might be from circa 1605 but they are still a real person. And taking low blows at them (like “why don’t you just go die”) is not ok.
Stay above board. Because most likely you know at least one person with terrible opinions that you still like/love to some extent. It would be upsetting to know they’d been harassed online, despite their awful viewpoints. As Christians love to say, ‘hate the sin, not the sinner’; hate on the opinion, not on the person behind it.
Also, Christians, please stop using that phrase to justify telling LBGTQ people you hate their lifestyle. Side note.
(Check out this article for more info about why we act so differently online.)
YOUR OPINION IS WRONG, SWEETHEART
It’s quite amusing to read an argumentative conversation on an Instagram post where every comment ends with ‘honey’, ‘love’ or ‘sweetheart’. It’s so passive aggressive but also totally negates the intellectualism that you might have written with.
“Don’t feel sorry for me. I’m not bitter like you are, honey.”
I remember at university living with a housemate that left post-it notes on my food cupboard asking me not to keep stealing her chicken in the freezer, with a smiley face at the bottom. This feels remarkably similar.
Except it has another quality to it too. Terms of endearment, when said without endearment, are just patronizing. It’s unnecessary and ends up making you look bitter (ironically for the account that wrote the above quote).
Just stop it, hun.
NO ONE IS TWELVE YEARS OLD AND, IF THEY ARE, LEAVE THEM ALONE
Since time itself began, twelve years old is the age to use when insulting someone’s maturity or intelligence. Eleven or thirteen will not do! It must be twelve!
Has someone said an opinion you disagree with online? Tell them they’re twelve years old. Get them where it hurts.
As you might have guessed by now, my overarching rule is to avoid insulting people if you don’t want an argument descending into chaos and ‘sweethearts’. However, this is such a common and frustrating ‘insult’ used in online discussions that it had to be it’s own point.
There are a large number of online accounts partaking in controversial discussions that are actually made by twelve year olds – please don’t argue with these accounts, they are literally children. That’s why profile checks are important.
The rest of the people you’re interacting with, however, are not twelve years old. So calling them twelve is an invalid point. You are not saying anything. You are not furthering the discussion. You are saying words that are fruitless.
The best response you’ll get out of this is ‘I’m not twelve years old, asshole’. The worst is… much worse.
BOUNDARIES MAKE ME HAPPY
“Hello! Whilst we’re debating, lets not misquote (“enlightened”) and use inflammatory language like ‘pathetic’. I’m absolutely keen to keep replying to you and discussing the topic but this conversation will have to stay calm and respectful for me to continue ”
This is an actual comment I wrote. When I decided to take up online arguing as a pastime, one thing I didn’t want was for it to become stressful or to anger me. People have very opposite opinions to mine and that’s something I can easily accept; but receiving nasty comments were clearly not going to brighten my day.
So I made a boundary that I wasn’t going to continue debating people that commented disrespectfully – and that I’d tell them that. I tried to imagine how interesting online interactions would be if everyone debated respectfully and open-mindedly. Now, that’s never going to happen. But at least by making this boundary for myself, all my personal interactions and debates would be respectful.
The person I sent the comment to could not, unfortunately, continue the conversation thereafter (“I don’t respect you. I respect only my Father in heaven”), but that was ok! We left our debate and I went off on my Instagram travels to find a new controversial topic to talk about.
It saved us both trouble. She (I profile-checked) seemed to be getting angered by my comments so I saved her the emotional hassle of continuing the conversation, whilst I saved myself the displeasure of being called ‘pathetic’ for being pro-choice. It wasn’t fulfilling so we stopped. No more stress for Lonna and me!
Boundaries are important for every relationship, including online chats with a stranger.
IF IT’S NO LONGER FUN, STOP!
As I said in the beginning, it’s been a bit of a hobby for me. It’s not really hyperbole to say that; I’ve actually enjoyed having interesting conversations with people who disagree with me. As politics divide us and people appear to become more rigorously defensive of their viewpoint, talking openly about controversial topics can be helpful in understanding someone who seems so alien to you.
(For more on rebutting angry comments, check out this article)
Whilst I do recommend it – especially using my hot tips! – if it’s becoming stressful and it’s no longer fun, just stop. You will probably never change someone else’s opinion through comment exchanges on an online photo and, honestly, it’s not your job to. Even if you’re thinking “but if I stop replying they’ll think they’ve won”, honestly no one will even be thinking about that online conversation in a couple hours’ time. Timelines and news feeds move on and so should you.
Pick it up.
Does it bring you joy?
Throw the whole conversation out.
FAMOUS LAST WORDS
I have been commenting on controversial social media posts in my spare time for two weeks – and I really don’t have that much spare time. So this all comes with as many pinches of salt as you feel necessary.
I’m going to continue my deep dive into the world of online arguments and report back to you with self-corrections and more fun tips, as and when I find them.
I’ll leave you with my favourite comment of all (not directed at me, just one I stumbled upon):
“HOW STUPID DO YOU LIB FUCKS FEEL NOW!! YOUR WRONG AGAIN!! FUCK YOU LIBS LIBERALISM IS A MENTAL DISORDER!!”
– INSTAGRAM, CIRCA 2019, COLOURISED.
Since writing this article, I’ve continued to spend all of my free time debating online (fun!) and there are a lot of things that have changed.
To find out where my deep dive into internet debates has taken me and for some (wild) screenshots of the conversations, sign up to the mailing list using the form below!
I promise you, no spam.