Do you have something pointed to tell your Twitter nemesis about Donald Trump’s business conflicts? Are you getting ready to drop an armchair analysis of Elizabeth Warren’s DNA onto your mom’s Facebook page?
Do yourself a favor and take a deep breath before hitting “post.”
Debating anything online these days can feel like taking a bat to a beehive, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The Internet was created as a vehicle for exchanging information and sharing ideas, and it can still be a great tool for that purpose — if you can keep your temper.
Ryan Martin, a psychology professor who does research on anger at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay, said there are many people who simply decide online quarrels are not worth the stress. “Usually there isn’t a positive outcome,” he said. “But there are ways to navigate them that are healthier. What I would say is, think about the outcome you want.”
Commenters should be realistic about the slim prospects that they’ll be able to change the mind of someone TYPING IN ALL CAPS at the end of a news article, but that doesn’t mean nothing positive can come from a disagreement.
Martin said a good result, for many people, “is probably something along the lines of being heard: having the other person understand where you’re coming from.”
“When you’re having these discussions, put that first,” he said. “Put that ahead of winning.”
So the next time you see someone spoiling for a digital smackdown, it might be wise to ask yourself a few questions before joining the battle.
Is this the debate for me?
Most people at a party wouldn’t walk up to join a conversation where people are already screaming at each other. It should be the same online.
So when the president of the United States calls an adult film actress “Horseface” — and her lawyer tweets back calling the president a “moron” — maybe this isn’t the public affairs debate for you.
“Before you jump in, observe for awhile and see if you want to,” said Deb Roy, director of the Laboratory for Social Machines at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab.
Roy, cofounder of a nonprofit, Cortico, which looks for ways to improve the discourse, said social media companies should do a better job helping people understand the patterns and origins of the discussions they’re joining. Did that seemingly innocuous tweet grow out of a conversation among white nationalists? Before diving in, it’s worth taking a minute yourself to see where that imbroglio began.
But in the end, he said, it’s fine to treat social media as just that: media. You don’t have to be friends with the stars of a soap opera to be titillated by their conflicts, and you don’t have to participate in an online conversation to read with interest — and maybe even learn something.
“Are you going to this place to connect with people and treat them as humans, or are you looking for a media experience?” Roy asked. “If it’s a media experience, don’t react to the individuals behind it and go on the attack.”
Whom am I trying to convince?
There’s an old saying on the Internet: “Don’t feed the trolls.” There are some people posting provocative, insulting, and often extremely offensive things just to get a rise out of their targets.
Don’t give them what they crave.
Most of the interlocutors you meet online are not going to argue in good faith, but Martin said a thoughtful response might have an effect on the bystanders who are reading the exchange.
“If that’s the goal, then the best way to do that is to not come across as arrogant or hostile, or aggressive, or mean.” he said. “It’s to come across as well-reasoned or thoughtful.”
Martin said it can be effective to share a personal perspective on how a policy or issue affects you — without revealing information that jeopardizes your personal safety or emotional well-being.
If you have data that refute a key point, challenge yourself to present the numbers in a friendly and gentle way. People often become more defensive when confronted with information that conflicts with their views, and they may be more willing to listen if you don’t lord it over them.
Would I do this in person?
A fundamental problem with digital communication is that people do not display the same manners that they would when hearing another person’s voice or looking them in the eye.
Roy compared online behavior to the aggression we feel in the technological removal of our cars. Just as road rage makes you do things you would never do while walking by another pedestrian on the sidewalk, Internet anger makes you say things you’d never say to somebody’s face.
“Things are so decontextualized that you forget there’s another person behind that message,” Roy said. “Part of it is just how you behave yourself. When you notice you’re getting upset . . . try seeing the person like a person.”
Obviously, that’s easier said than done. But this is where the deep breath comes in. Try to remember that your sparring partner is more than a disembodied political opinion. Try to visualize the human on the other end of the fiber optic cables. He or she probably has a job, a worry, maybe a few kids in school — just like you.
Unless you’re dealing with a bot. There are automated accounts made to spread divisive views and misinformation online.
But it’s unlikely that a bot will be able to carry on a meaningful conversation, so it will be obvious relatively quickly that this is not an interaction worth your time.
If all else fails — and it often does — there’s no shame in logging off or joining a different conversation. Decline to perpetuate toxic exchanges.
Joseph P. Smith, a retired computer systems manager from Stoneham, spends about an hour a day discussing current events on Facebook and other websites.
He said he often replies to comments with at least some hope that the person who posted will see his side of things — or that he’ll learn something from them.
But he is ready to cut bait when he determines somebody’s not actually considering what he’s written.
“I’ve got a life to lead. I have lots of things to do,” he said. “I’ll divert myself if it helps me understand something.But [if] it’s not helping me . . . I’m out of there.”Andy Rosen can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @andyrosen.