Whenever a major story breaks in the social media age, from the supreme court judgement on article 50 to the news that roast potatoes can apparently cause cancer – it sparks a heated debate. And in this post-truth world of alternative facts even the US president conducts his battles on Twitter. But what if you’re less interested in just shouting your view and actually want to try to change people’s minds?
Is there a way to argue more effectively on social media? Yes, there is, says Sean Jones, an employment and sports law QC, but we might need to change our tactics. He suggests learning from his mistakes. “Before I became a barrister, I was convinced I was brilliant at argument,” says Jones. “I found that a relentless condescension, refusal to concede any point and a tireless determination to prolong the dispute reliably wore out opponents. They walked away leaving me the victor.”
Sounds like a lot of debate online? That’s not surprising. “Bullying people into silence, as can happen on Twitter, turns out to be a very poor way to persuade them you are right,” he says. “I soon realised that my job was about persuading people.”
To do this, we can to follow a simple formula that works for arguments and then apply it to social media. Lady Helena Kennedy QC says: “I always think the best way to make an argument is to use the acronym Prep. Position, example, reason, repeat position.”
So, first, Jones says, ask yourself what is the point of the argument. “Generally, you want to end up stood together on common ground, so look for what common ground exists and go from there.” Next, lead with your best point. Lawrence Winston, head of litigation at law firm Squire Patton Boggs, says: “Keep it as simple as possible. The more detailed you make it, the more punch you’ll take out of your point.” Once the debate has got going, keep focused and don’t be repetitive. Don’t send 20 tweets saying the same thing.
And don’t get distracted. “Deal with one point at a time. People who feel a pillar of their argument crumbling will leap to another. Make sure a move to a different point is acknowledged,” adds Jones.
Be prepared to be the one answering questions and justifying your view, ideally with facts and figures. “Many Twitter exchanges begin with an arm-wrestle over who must justify their position,” continues Jones. “If your position is justified, don’t be afraid to accept the burden.” In fact, taking that more confident approach can help, even if you don’t know your facts, according to research. A study published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes suggests people will believe a confident speaker before they believe someone more knowledgeable. However, it is better to engage only when you know your case. “Don’t bluff or seem to be an expert on things you don’t know – you need to have at least some relevant facts or experience,” says Joanne Harris, bestselling author and active Twitter user..
Reason/and be reasonable to others
Make your main point and then add to your argument with short additions to further the debate. Winston says: “Sending bullet points can be more effective than a series of tweets with a longer message and make sure you stay credible.”
If anyone’s reacting badly, remember that they may be misinterpreting you – even if you try and make it clearer by adding emoticons, says Dr Sam Roberts, senior lecturer in psychology at Chester University. “The people you are arguing with can’t see your facial expressions or hear the tone of your voice. People can’t always tell if you’re being lighthearted or voicing a serious belief.” So, aim for clarity, he says, and explain what you meant.
Remember, however, that occasionally your opponent will be engaging with you just for a reaction and it goes without saying that you shouldn’t get personal, even if you’re provoked. “Bear in mind that you may be dealing with someone with mental health issues,” says Harris. “So do no harm. And don’t say anything to anyone that you wouldn’t say to them directly. Shouting on Twitter isn’t the same as shouting at the TV.”
When you’ve made your points, repeat your position and move on. Much of the debate on Twitter is never resolved and the chances are your exchange will probably end before they have been persuaded. “Be courteous and thank them for ‘talking’. You are more likely to resume constructively,” says Jones. If your debate is not going well, learn to spot when it’s pointless continuing. Harris says: “Bear in mind that however much you try, some people will never listen. Don’t waste too much time with these people.”
Remember that if someone keeps tweeting you, you don’t have to respond. You could consider blocking them, ignoring them or if all else fails, send them one of Jones’s Error Codes.
If you’re serious about being really open-minded, you might need to check your followers. People on Twitter suffer from what researchers call “selective exposure”. In conflicts, users are more willing to share and to communicate with their ideological friends than foes, according to a study from the Pennsylvania State University [PDF]. This is where you are surrounded by those who agree with you and your views become entrenched.
“Follow people who disagree with you and listen to them,” concludes Jones. “An advocate wants every aspect of their case tested. And you never know, it might be you who’ll ends up convinced.”
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