When and how should you argue on social media?

Posted on February 12, 2020

If you never have a social media “friend” who posts something false, then you don’t have to read this column. For the rest of us, what should you do when you see lies or particularly egregious exaggerations or fallacies about political issues, officeholders or candidates?

Usually you should ignore them.

People hate to be told they are wrong and you will trigger particularly negative emotions by calling the writer out in front of their social media “friends.”

As we explain in PLI’s messaging guide, Voicing Our Values, people seek out information that conforms to what they already believe and reject information that disproves those assumptions. This is called “confirmation bias.”

In response to evidence that challenges those beliefs, people will stop listening and disengage from rational conversation. In fact, when you attack preexisting beliefs, not only are your arguments rejected, but it tends to deepen such people’s emotional attachment to false ideas.

So, you will almost always do no good in trying to change the writer’s mind. She or he will likely hold onto lies even more strongly and you may damage a friendship in the process.

Nevertheless, there are two factors that suggest we should sometimes point out political lies on social media. First, while we won’t persuade the writer, we may persuade other readers. Second, the 2020 elections will be so close that changing the minds of just a tiny percentage of Americans may do a world of good.

The most obvious situation where we can and should step in and make a (small) difference is when a “friend” reposts a meme that is clearly false. Unfortunately, we must expect a thunderstorm of Internet lies, gradually increasing from now until Labor Day, when social media falsehoods will probably outnumber truths. There will be photoshopped photos, doctored videos, and outrageous claims that have long been debunked.

These lies will rain down from every direction, including organized hate groups, astroturf efforts financed by billionaires, and foreign agents—certainly from Russia, but also probably from China, Saudi Arabia, and even Israel.

Your best tactic will be to address not the writer but the facts, and the best response will be to hyperlink to objective proof that the meme is untrue—like Snopes, Politifact, FactCheck.org, or Fact Checkers at AP, NPR, CNN or the Washington Post. In some cases, the best tactic will be to point out that the source of the meme is a Russian or a hate group.

Do not expect your efforts to be appreciated! And don’t expect that they will change many minds. They won’t.

But so much is at stake this year. So few voters will tilt the result one way or another. Some well-placed, sparsely written, cool-headed and hyperlinked comments can make a difference. It’s worth the effort.