Lose Your Civility Online in 5 Easy Steps

“I’ve never convinced someone by starting off calling them an asshole.”

That quote, or something very close to it, immediately engraved on my mind during a class discussion last summer. The instructor was sharing persuasive techniques during a lecture on how to write opinion editorials.

In modern times, one cannot bring up the topic of debate without thinking of the daily occurrence of people taking the tribal route in online conflict to an even lower form of discourse than what cable news offered over the last two decades. Ah yes, I’m talking about keyboard warriors. The more common term is “internet trolls.”

I define internet trolls as people who will say insulting or otherwise disrespectful things to you through a social media channel that they would not have the courage or gall to say to your face.

This phenomenon is becoming less frequent in my life, because I enforce some basic civility rules in social media discussions. I go by a three-strike rule.

Strike 1: Everyone has the right to a bad day, or making a mistake once. We are all human. Text-based communication can be easy to misunderstand when emotions kick in. Sometimes I’m the guy in the wrong, who needs grace. He who ends relationships over one misunderstanding will indeed live a lonely life.

Strike 2: I’m willing to let someone go rogue twice, with a direct follow-up reiterating the fact that respect is a basic requirement for productive dialogue. Reasonable people understand that, and usually come around.

Strike 3: Yuuuuuu’re outta here! My social media channels are meant for my enjoyment. If you try to make them into a hostile environment, then you have got to go.

Unfortunately those rules don’t protect the lawless “friend of friends” territory. That is inherently risky space. Many of those users feel that there is nothing to lose because a relationship is not at stake. The idea is that all is fair when criticizing a complete stranger. Some people take that opportunity to throw all civility to the wind and go trolling.

Market Watch claims that 27% of internet users have been trolled. In my experience, that has never once moved the idea forward. It has only risked cheapening the brand and reputation of the bystander mutual friend.

These are actual examples I have encountered in online threads.

1. Name Calling.

I have been called or alluded to, by name, as an enemy of women, a hypocrite, someone suffering from mental illness, uneducated, unread, and a few other things that I don’t want my kids or mother reading.

This technique comes directly from Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals: among them “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.” Rules for Radicals was ground-breaking when published in 1971. Alinski’s influence still lurks in any political campaign, or cable news debate.

Ridicule is the reason peer pressure works. No one likes to be mocked. The instinctive reaction is to deny, rebut and often accede to the demands of the prevailing influencer.

The technique is widely known today, and expected. It lacks the power it once had. If you are looking to influence someone, using ridicule creates a higher likelihood of you losing brand value than changing critical opinions.

2. Changing Positions in the midst of discussion

Forcefully advocating for your position in a respectful debate is the hallmark of a free society. Many of the people I respect the most are those who I agree with the least. One must know his beliefs and be willing to defend them. If you cannot defend them, they are not worth having.

In a recent discussion, a gentleman “friend of a friend” challenged a statement I made on an actual friend’s wall. We went back and forth a bit, then found that we mostly agree. Then another “friend of a friend” chimed in and the debate raged yet again. The things that the first “friend of a friend” and I had in common were gone. He began to argue from a much more rigid position, buoyed by a bad-cop character.

As in life, consistency is key. Being unpredictable is useful when you’re trying to destroy an enemy on the battlefield. When trying to convince a critic, it only adds confusion and increases misunderstanding. Know your position and argue it passionately. If your original belief is not strong enough to stick with, then it’s not a debate worth having.

3. Virtue Signaling

This is a new favorite of CEOs. They use a (typically political) news event to make a statement designed to get their names into the news cycle by criticizing a political policy, using an ethics frame. Tim Cook, Bob Iger, just about every western celebrity and even the current Church of God General Overseer use this technique. Social Media users are following suit. Here is an illustration:

Actor A: In response to (insert recent political news story), I want to reaffirm that I believe that all cartoons are deserving of dignity and respect.

Reply from Actor B: You have never even cared about cartoons until 7 minutes ago. You don’t post on topics that you could actually help with. What gives?

Reply from friend of friend: (digital nuclear explosion)

This is where my “only discuss things I actually know about” rule comes into play. Jumping on the bandwagon just for the sake of being noticed works for CEOs and celebrities. It invites conflict for regular people like us.

An actual real-life friend schooled me on this last year. We were discussing a topic, when I asked what he was actually doing to make things better for the people he was advocating for. Then the dude answered my question….. mind blown. We still disagree on that topic, but he has much more credibility with me than before.

Your reputation will be stronger in years to come when your energy goes into a cause that you believe in, rather than just your words.

4. Jumping to Conclusions

“You disagree with me. That alone makes you a bad person.” At least 27% of us have read something like that about ourselves online, mostly from strangers. This one is simple and short. Like my mom told me, “when you assume, you make an ass out of me and you.” Today, it’s more like making an ass just out of you.

5. Assuming your opponent is stupid.

This has actually become a part of digital debate that I look forward to. When a stranger decides to engage me on a hot-button topic, I know that it will only take a matter of minutes before that person says something like:

-“You should have paid attention in history class.”

-“You should re-visit your old friend common sense.”

-“You clearly do not have an education.”

Once a professor who was a big help during my first master’s degree program openly lamented that I have a conservative worldview, in spite of having a graduate education.

You never know who is on the other line. You could be debating healthcare policy with someone who actually runs a healthcare think tank, or debating national defense strategy with a retired general. If you treat the other person like she is an expert, you can never go wrong. Of course, true experts will never give you a reason to question their credentials.

There are a lot of fools in the world. They are not worth your time. That does not mean that you should not have a smart answer when they come to troll. There are some ideas that deserve a rigorous defense, so bystanders watching can make an informed decision.

Trolling is now as common as summer mosquitoes. The technique offers more liability than odds of success. Chances are that neither you, nor I, will convince keyboard warriors to rise to a respectful tone. As one wrote to me just yesterday, “civility is not always appropriate.”

We cannot change people like that. But we can hold ourselves to a standard of decency that builds our credibility among the principled.


Copyright 2017 Chase Spears All Rights Reserved

There is more where this came from. Connect with Chase online at Twitter and LinkedIn.

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