The internet is no place for reasoned debate

Wednesday 10 August 2016 by Reagan Bennett

A series of emojis.

Approximately 500 million tweets are sent each day – about 350,000 per minute. Much has been written about the social media revolution – a lot of it positive. But there is, inevitably, a darker side. Vitriol on social media rarely makes the news because it is so common, but one story recently hit the headlines. Ghostbusters star and comedienne Leslie Jones was the victim of blatant racism and sexism on Twitter. And rather than letting the incident slide under the radar, Jones stood up for herself and shared many of the vicious messages by retweeting them and reporting the users who tweeted them. Twitter removed some of the worst offenders by permanently deleting their profiles; it was a small victory for victims of social media abuse everywhere.

These racist attacks are symptomatic of a dark and increasingly prominent side of social media. Networks like Facebook and Twitter give everyone the opportunity to have a voice that can be heard globally. With just one tweet and a carefully crafted hashtag, a regular person can start a movement. If you are particularly passionate about an issue, social media is a good option to voice your opinion. But let’s get this straight: it’s not a place for a reasoned debate.

We’re living in a time of tumultuous political change and social revolution – and social media is playing a huge role. In the US in particular, Twitter is a whirlwind of posts about everything from gay marriage and controversial presidential candidates to race and gun control. With elections around the corner, political debate is present everywhere you look. Whether it’s about an important issue or what one candidate tweeted at another, it’s hard to escape seeing other people’s opinions laid bare online. And more often than not, these opinions lead to prolonged and heated arguments with no satisfying conclusion. Therein lies a major problem with debate on social media: it’s hardly ever civil and it’s hardly ever rational.

A large part of the problem is that it’s easy to act brave behind the shield of a keyboard and computer screen. On Facebook, comments are not even anonymous; your name and profile picture precede your comments. Yet some people still feel protected enough to be aggressive. Despite the lack of anonymity, people are more abrasive because it is easier to be rude in writing than in speech. The bigger problem, however, is Twitter. Users can achieve true anonymity through false identities, which encourages them to post even more hateful comments. In one study, 134,000 abusive social media mentions were reviewed and more than 88% of the messages were sent on Twitter. Even if it’s not your intention to incite anger or spark an argument, it’s all too easy to find yourself embroiled in a dispute online. True and productive communication relies heavily on interpreting someone’s tone of voice and body language – and both features are lost online.

The internet is no place to make a convincing argument because it encourages immediate reactions when a healthy debate requires us to slow down and think. Online comments can easily become too angry and disrespectful to be taken seriously. The odds of resolving a debate over the internet are not in your favor. An online debate can end in one of two ways: your contender may read what you have to say and suddenly open their eyes to the truth. They may profusely thank you for showing them the light. Much more likely, however, is that the argument will simply run in circles. Both parties will stand firm in their beliefs, giving nothing and trying to take everything.

Social media can be a force for good too, of course. Take, for example, the deadliest shooting in US history, which took place in Orlando just a few weeks ago. News of the tragedy went viral, which paved the way for immediate support and outreach of sympathy from around the world. A huge part of this support came in the form of hashtags used on social media to show solidarity with the victims. #PrayForOrlando and #OrlandoStrong were just two among many different hashtags people posted to show their support. However small a positive in the overall scheme of things, people took to social media to make something good come of this horrific event through spreading awareness. A GoFundMe page was started to raise money for victims and their families, people at the club could check in on Facebook to let family and friends know they were safe, and pride movements were publicly supported throughout the nation.

For all the positive movements like this, more often than not, social media seems to be a battlefield. For brands as well as individuals. They too can invite trolls or individuals looking to put their opinion across without taking the other side’s position on board. So, how do they tackle these situations?

Organizations must have a defined strategy in place when responding to harsh critics on social media. Many consumers have legitimate queries and complaints – and they must be dealt with swiftly and efficiently. But trolls are unavoidable and this is where the waters can become murky for brands. Trolls just want to get a rise. They do not have a problem to be fixed; they simply want to make someone angry.

It is possible to respond without further fueling the fire: some may choose to answer anger with humor, turning the tables on their assailant. Some attempt to take the conversation offline by requesting contact details. Some with a developed and thoughtful response. The important thing these methods have in common is refusing to stoop to the level of the troll. Entering into a slanging match will only produce a negative impact – and responding with canned template tweets simply dehumanizes the brand and undoes the work put in to create an authentic and engaging social media presence. With more than two-thirds of consumers heading to a brand’s social media page for customer service, it’s crucial that organizations are prepared for and deal with any and all engagements.

The internet is not a place for reasoned debate. In many cases, the name of the game is damage limitation. Take note from brands with good social media etiquette and take the high road. It is far too easy to cave in and embark on a fruitless, often aggressive back-and-forth, but what satisfaction will you get out of jumping into the black hole that is arguing on social media?

Reagan has left The Frameworks.


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