Social Media has Made Politics Unbearable

December 04, 2022

A long time ago I used to participate in and moderate an online political discussion community. Most of the participants were conservative or conservative leaning, while I was one of the couple of token liberals. The threads were like a debate club and each discussion was a sparring match. It was fun for a while…until it was not.

People Are Posting to Win

I approached many of the conversations there with an open mind and was not afraid to concede when I was wrong. However I eventually realized nobody else was. As I became a better writer and could form bulletproof arguments, folks would complain if I “beat them up” on their faulty logic. In most cases if you want to “win” an online debate the person you are talking to will not concede, your best outcome is to make them look foolish to everyone else reading the topic.

Engagement is Higher for Conservative Views

Working with news websites and online forums, I have seen that conservatives engage more. And they are more willing to engage in partisan debate. Folks with moderate and especially moderate liberal leaning views do not have as much interest in posting about their politics online. The result is social media looks more conservative than America, and Ron Paul won many online polls but did not win real elections.

People Talk Past Each Other

As social media has cultivated culture, it has lead to memes that may logically not make sense but have a different meaning to those that follow them. For the left “defund the police” can mean anything from its literal interpretation to engaging in reform of how policing works generally. Embracing this slogan began to backfire for folks with more moderate views after conservative media started to convince folks that there would not be police as crime rates were rising post-COVID.

Misinformation is a Denial of Service Attack

The most frustrating part of online political discussion is misinformation. In some cases the facts are made-up. In many cases the facts are wrongly interpreted to support an incorrect conclusion. People think misinformation needs to be debunked. However there is too much misinformation to do that for. It becomes analogous to the “denial of service” attacks websites face. Instead of hacking the site, the lazy attacker floods their server until they cannot serve anyone else. The only way to beat this is to block or ignore the attacker.

Three Lessons

From Randy Pausch:

  • It’s important to know when you are in a pissing match and get out of it as quickly as possible.
  • Most of what we we learn, we learn indirectly. This is the head fake.
  • Be earnest.

Head Fakes

Engaging with online comments is often futile, but sometimes you hear them from folks in person. People who you trust are more likely to listen to you, but you need to listen to them as well. Rather than engaging directly on what comes out of someone’s mouth, the best way to get them to think is to share stories that illuminate your own views and experience. It is not always easy to find and have these ready, but people respond to them much better than direct arguments.

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This work by Matt Zagaja is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.