A Guide To Arguing On The Internet
TLDR; Don't. But if you must…
I've done more arguing on the internet than I care to admit. And, while I'm happy to say my days of losing hours to Twitter threads, subreddits, and various comment sections are behind me, that doesn't mean I've forgotten those experiences.
What those experiences taught me was that, ultimately, arguing online is futile, wasteful… and addictive. I truly believe it is bad for us as a society, and that we'd all be better if we stepped away from social media when we feel the urge to spark up a row. That being said, going cold turkey isn't easy, and most medical professionals when dealing with real addictions will advise gradually weaning yourself off of the substance (when that's an option) rather than just stopping all at once.
With that in mind, I've put together this little guide to arguing on the Internet. This is not a guide to help you win your argument over whether Top Gun: Maverick was good, or whether wearing a Hello Kitty shirt is cultural appropriation. This guide is designed to help you cut down the time you spend arguing by helping you identify arguments that are a complete waste of time.
Camps, Factions, and Tribalism
One of the biggest blights on society that the internet has unleashed (in my opinion) is the coalescing of endless factions and the groupthink that comes with them. Some people participate in this without realising they are doing it, others openly admit that no answer can ever be "right" if it comes out of the "wrong" mouth.
There are examples of this everywhere. It could be democrats who spent five years attacking the idea of Trump's wall, only to twist themselves in knots trying to defend Biden closing the gaps in that same wall. It could be right-wingers endlessly lamenting cancel culture only to celebrate the sacking of James Gunn for some offensive jokes over a decade ago.
These people are almost laughably one-dimensional caricatures of their tribespeople. Don't waste your time on them.
"Trolls" and "Bots"
"Troll" and "bot" has become less of a label and more of a generic insult in recent years. The problem, however, is that the people who would wield such an insult rely on the term's original meanings for impact and everyone else knows it. But what are those meanings? There are plenty of detailed descriptions of these terms online, but we can boil it down to this;
A troll is a person who posts insincere and inflammatory content in order to get an emotional reaction out of others, while a bot is a dumb computer program that posts content based on some relatively basic criteria for some wider (usually nefarious) purpose.
So, here's the problem with calling someone a troll or a bot.
If they are a bot, they don't - indeed can't - care that you've outed them. It's just code. And, if you start calling out a troll, you're giving them the reaction they crave. Now think about how it looks under even the smallest pinch of logical thinking.
If you truly believe someone you are arguing with is a troll or a bot and yet you continue talking to them, you're the idiot who argues with trolls and bots knowing full well what they are. And if you don't really believe they are trolls or bots and just want to discredit or offend them, well, then you're the emotionally stunted person who calls people's names instead of making a real argument.
Ultimately, whether you suspect someone of being a troll or bot for real, or you just want to call them that to hurt them, the minute you start thinking this is the time to walk away.
Know What You're Arguing About
We are emotional creatures, and it can be hard to keep those emotions in check when having a little disagreement (or a full-on comment war), especially if it is about something we are passionate about. This is why so many online arguments devolve into name-calling and other personal insults by at least one of the people involved.
Now, if you're just looking to insult an individual - if that is your primary goal - then have at it. But if you are attempting to make a good-faith argument, you need to keep those emotions in check, and it's easier to do that if you remember what you are arguing about. So let's examine that.
When you argue with a person about a particular issue, you are not arguing with them! You are arguing with the logic that led them to hold their current position.
You may be wondering if this is a meaningful distinction. I believe it is because a person who holds a position without some clear logic that led them to that point is a person you shouldn't waste time arguing with.
"What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence." - Christopher Hitchens
If a person believes something on faith alone, or if they have an irrational hatred of someone or something, their opinions on those things are essentially worthless because they do not come from a place of logic. And, if their opinions are worthless, there is absolutely no point in arguing with them. Walk away.
But, for people who do hold an opinion that is based on logic, it is that logic you are disagreeing with. To give an example, someone who came to support Amber Heard in the recent trial (obscure reference, I know, Google it) based on Heard's account of events has a clear logical path between their opinions and the outside world. If a Depp supporter disagrees with this person, they are not actually disagreeing with them, but with Amber Heard's account. The Depp supporter can then make their case that Heard's account is unreliable or that other circumstances change the context, and so on.
As soon as people start arguing with the person rather than the logic, there is no hope of anyone getting through to anyone else.
You Can't Win Them All
Following on from that last point, it's important to remember that you can't convince everyone you're right. Sometimes that's because you're not right. Sometimes it's because their opinion isn't based on any rational ground so there's no way to change their mind. Sometimes it's a tricky, messy situation and there will never be a clear "right" or "wrong".
Whether you internally deem someone to be a troll and move on, or you both accept the conversation has run its course and agree to disagree, remember that no one is obliged to agree with you, no matter how right you think you are.
There are plenty more fish in the sea… to argue with.
Keep An Open Mind
This is right here is my biggest time saver when it comes to arguing online, and it incorporates the previous points. Unfortunately, it requires a little honest introspection, as well.
When preparing to dive into an argument, ask yourself; is it possible for you to change your mind on this issue? If you are arguing for transwomen to be included in strength-based female sports, would unequivocal proof that transwomen have an unfair advantage over women change your mind? If you are about to launch into a tirade about why electric vehicles are actually worse for the environment, is there any data that could sway your opinion?
If the answer is no, you might just be in a tribe or basing your opinions on irrational ground. As mentioned above, it would be a waste of somebody else's time to argue with you, so why not save their time and yours; don't bother.
And if you disagree with this article; fite me, bro.