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Social Advocacy and Politics: Why We Fight (and When and How) on Social Media

Hounded by haters and trolls? Do you get called out for your views whenever you share them by the usual suspects? If you only talk to people who agree with you, you probably do not get naysayers in your notifications. But if you are trying to change people’s minds about an issue, you need to expose yourself to disagreement. You need to engage in conversations on social media across position lines.

Getting your message out on Twitter, Facebook and other social media channels is the easy part. You tweet, wall post, pin and tumbl. The trick is to effectively engage in debate when you find detractors and misinformation. You want your debates to be well selected and to provide a vehicle for advancing your advocacy mission. You don’t want to get sucked down a rabbit hole for hours of debate that goes nowhere and influences no one to join your cause.

I generally follow a few basic rules when confronted with a potential debate. First, I ask if I can change the other person’s mind. If I can persuade them to see things my way, I will definitely engage. If I cannot see a way to change the other person’s mind, I ask myself if I can use the debate to influence the audience… the people watching our debate. If yes, then I will also engage.

Depending on who I am debating, there are different approaches and likely outcomes. If you are engaging  trolls—people who are just out to get you angry—you have to consider if you can turn their malicious intent against them in a way that makes debate watchers not want to be associated with them.

If you are engaging haters—people who are angry with people who hold your position—you have to deal with their belief. They aren’t just out to make you angry. They believe in their position and are angry with people who “don’t understand they are right.” For these opponents, you have to connect on an emotional level before they will even entertain your facts, figures and logic.

If you are engaging someone looking for a solution that differs on some basic ideological assumptions, like the relative role of the government versus the market, you can have a rigorous policy debate, where logic and facts matter… even if you are not able to change their minds.

In each of these cases you make your choice to engage and then follow the appropriate course of engagement. Along the way, there are some basic rules. 1) start by connecting emotionally (if possible), 2) after establishing an emotional connection you can move to fact figures and logic, and 3) if you are drawn into a more aggressive conversation, try to make it funny and light-hearted.

From a technical perspective, if you are engaging in a debate on Twitter, remember that if you @reply to someone, only the intersection of your followers see your tweets. If you want to be engaging the broader audience while you debate an individual (or group), be sure to incorporate hashtags for those audiences. Mention other people when appropriate. And, for your best comments, put a word or “.” BEFORE the “@” in your sparring partner’s twitter name. This ensures your key comments have a wider reach and, therefore, can influence the broader audience.

In general, I don’t recommend people getting into debates with trolls and haters. Those opponents can suck you into an argument you don’t want to be in. They can get you to lose your cool. Engaging them should be left to seasoned professional and masochists.

Whatever you do, don’t lose your cool. Remember, it is social media. If you step away from the screen, you have left the argument. Use this escape valve liberally.

And that is why, when and how we fight on social media.

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