Election season is heating up, have you noticed? Your Twitter feed sure has, and so have all your relatives on Facebook. Chances are you don't have to look far to find social media posts you disagree with—strongly. But you've probably held yourself back more than once from jumping in and sharing your own two cents.
That's probably a good instinct. Social media is, generally speaking, a pretty terrible place for substantive political discussions, especially with those whose views diverge from your own. Snark, righteous indignation, and self-serving groupthink hold sway. But that doesn't mean changing somebody's mind—respectfully and meaningfully—is completely impossible. Here's why that's so hard and what it takes to pull it off.
There are some good reasons to shy away from wading into heated social media discussions, especially where politics are concerned.
Most obviously, there's a lot of distance between you and the other commenters on these threads. You aren't in the same room at the same time. You may not even know many of your Facebook friends' friends, so there's social distance as well. That can lead people to be more strident in their comments than they would ever be face-to-face.
As online harassers have themselves found when confronting their targets in person, it's much harder to be really nasty to people when you can actually see their reaction. One reason online abuse is such a huge problem is because the Internet insulates users from the consequences of their behavior.
But a there's a second reason that's less often remarked. People often don’t read comments that carefully. Social media is designed to be consumed quickly and reacted to immediately. Even if you put together a reasoned argument, someone may skim it and respond only to a certain phrase you used.
Then you may feel the need to clarify what you said, and you can get sucked into an argument that feels totally unproductive (or worse)—because it is; you're both just defending a position that you might not have even felt that committed to a moment ago.
And finally, it's nearly impossible to see anyone's mind change in the moment. If anything, people seem to harden their positions and often refuse to concede any points.
Nevertheless, there are a few good reasons to consider wading into a discussion—even briefly.
First, many people form their opinions, at least in part, based on whether they think others share those opinions. Psychologically, it's really hard to be the lone person supporting a particular point of view. (And the reason the classic movie 12 Angry Men is so powerful is because one person ultimately stands up to the rest of a jury and convinces them of the defendant's innocence.)
But by stating your opinion on social media, you're letting both the original poster and anyone seeing the post know that at least one other person out there has a different point of view. That may help others out there to see that they aren't alone in their beliefs.
Second, it's important to recognize that your brain is constantly trying to tally how frequently it encounters information. That subconscious calculus helped early humans survive in natural environments by letting us predict what might happen in the future. But the digital environment scrambles that mental math.
Thanks to handy "unfollow" and "mute" buttons, we get to choose what bits of information to attend to—and that's inside information environments that are all shaped through a combination of human judgment, algorithms, and the many people and entities that pay for access to our attention.
Yet the fundamentals of human psychology hold true all the same—namely this one: The more frequently you encounter a piece of information, the more favorably disposed you are toward it. That means that even a few comments expressing an opinion that differs from the original poster's can influence what people imagine to be a commonly held opinion.
And finally, even though people may not change their minds instantaneously, your comments can influence someone's sense of coherence in their beliefs. People typically try to maintain some overall consistency in the things they believe. As a result, they tend to discount beliefs that differ from their own.
However, when we encounter many arguments that undermine our beliefs, we may shift our opinions to align with a different point of view—just so long as we can maintain overall coherence among our new set of beliefs. So even if you don’t feel like you're making any headway changing somebody's mind on a single comment thread on Facebook, you may still have a longer-term impact on what they think—which you won't necessarily see in your news feed.
So if you do choose to a comment on a political post, try to keep your end of the discussion civil. Even when others get nasty, you aren’t doing your side any favors by slinging mud. Feel free to walk away from the discussion after making your comment. You don’t need to defend it to the death. But be prepared to engage in a real, civil discussion with people you disagree with—once in a while, those actually do still arise on social platforms.
The truth is that for all the shouting matches that happen online, there are still lots of people out there who care deeply about their beliefs and are willing to share them and have them challenged respectfully. Real conversations help moderate everyone’s opinions, because in order to respond to what someone else says, you have to represent the world the way they do for a while.
Ultimately, that can result in the two debating parties leaving their discussion thinking about the world a little more similarly than they did when the conversation started—even when they disagree.
The vitriol and inanity many of us encounter on social media daily may hint otherwise, but there's still value to expressing your opinion, as long as you do it kindly and with respect. After all, you can't expect the outcomes you want in life if you aren't willing to tell other people what that is.