Anti-Social Media

If you’re reading this anytime after 2004 — the birth year of Facebook — perhaps the idea of face-to-face communication sounds old-fashioned. Incredibly, people used to have conversations while in the same room without the aid of technology. We actually spoke with each other in private, when no one else could hear, and no photos or videos captured the occasion.

The onslaught of social media has brought many wonderful things, but I’m not sure it’s been useful for civil dialogue or for the formation of a thriving republic and a happy society.

WinSome aims to change even this.

In other words, we believe that our approach can make a difference even in the ironically-impersonal world of social media.

Pretend He’s Here

The fundamental principle to remember when dealing winsomely with people online is to treat them as if they were with you in the room. If you hope to win a person to your worldview, and you wouldn’t say something to his face, don’t say it online. Pretend he’s here, with you now.

The problem with online persuasion is that it’s part personal and part performance.

Almost every interaction is performed before an audience of complete strangers. We’ve raised a generation of young people who are so intensely aware of this that even their most personal and intimate moments are recorded and posted, sometimes streamed live, to a global audience. It’s only natural that such interconnected folks would carry out their political conversations online as well. The consequences can horrify.

Don’t get me wrong: Social media didn’t ruin civil discourse.

Political speech went sour from the start. We’ve been punishing people with our voices, pens, and even poems, since the dawn of recorded history, and perhaps earlier. It’s not new. However, the lightning speed distribution channels offered by social media have amped up the hurt and watered down the welcome.

Online, for some reason, we feel free to insult, to mock, to demonize and to denigrate, people who we’ve never met. We verbally body-slam folks about whom we know only what we read and hear from the mainstream media and from other online sources. We do the same to the supporters and defenders of these newsmakers. 

The so-called ‘discourse’ online rapidly becomes dissing and coarse, as people lash out at strangers whose motives are a mystery, but who must be refuted and/or silenced.

Having produced commentary online for more than a decade in written and video formats, I’ve often been stunned at the virulent hatred that spews forth in comment threads. More often than not, it seems the attackers have not even read the story, or watched the video, but merely skimmed a headline before going off like a rocket on a topic that triggers their ire. Beyond the ordinary verbal combat and insults that fly, social media often play host and facilitator to overtly racist and anti-Semitic rants. Things are said here that I have never heard from anyone face-to-face. Perhaps that’s because I’m surrounded by a nobler group of friends and family, but when I read some of the comments under our videos, I wonder if these hate-filled screeds are cranked out by some form of high-tech A.I. — in this case, Artificial Ignorance.

I’m not suggesting that you attempt to engage folks who think and write like that. Frankly, they need a change of heart before their minds can unclog. They’ve become so blinded by their rage that they can’t understand common sense, grace or decency. You might, however, pray for them.

Nevertheless, there are many people who spend hours online daily seeking information, and expounding upon it, who might listen when approached winsomely.

Even as I start to address this opportunity, I hesitate. A little voice inside my head asks, “Is it really worth the time?”

Better to spend five hours with a person face-to-face, than five minutes online.

Some of my ideological allies seem to think they’ve been called on a crusade to convert strangers on social media. The countless hours they devote to plying the social media seas would be better invested getting to know their neighbors, strengthening bonds with family, and growing closer to real friends.

Here’s why: So much of human communication depends on non-verbal cues. This explains why so much of online discourse consists of ranting and raging. We’re not able to read non-verbal signals among the mere words we see on screen.

In addition, let’s be honest, most people do not write well. Even those of us who have invested our adult lives in the writing trade often stand in awe of our inability to connect and to clearly communicate what we mean via text to people who can, ostensibly, read.

I’ve often heard family members express frustration that their text messages are misinterpreted. I used to encourage them to just make a phone call, so they can settle in moments what has remained confusing for minutes or hours. For some reason, we have grown to prefer this muddled messaging medium, and we often shrink from real human contact, even if only by voice.

So, even as I record my thoughts on this topic, I’m sharply aware of the limitations of communicating online. For that matter, I’m writing this book with the full knowledge that many people will misinterpret what I say here, or even worse, will judge me based on what some reviewer writes about my book, without ever reading what I wrote.

Intensely aware of these human hobbles, I stumble onward.

The first thing I’ll note about the art of persuasion online is that you navigate its pitfalls almost entirely in the dark, but you’re deceived by the presence of words and images into thinking that you see and understand what the other person is actually thinking.

Having spent a number of years producing a satirical news site, and several books, I’m perhaps more cognizant than some of how easy it is to misunderstand motives online.

Years ago, I wrote a satire piece about the Speaker of the House in which I imagined the most unlikely think she would say in a given situation, and then quoted her as saying it. Months later, I got a harsh email from a college professor I’d never heard of. She said that she had posted my story on a discussion forum for hurricane survivors, and that some people were traumatized by it, and that I should apologize to them.

Another time, a woman who had read one of my satirical stories contacted the board of directors of the nonprofit I ran, and insisted that I be fired. She did not understand the difference between comedy and satire, and did not realize that she and I were actually on the same side of the issue.

Fact-Check It First

As I write this, our president has dubbed most of the mainstream media as purveyors of “fake news.” But back in the early days of blogs, I was intentionally creating “fake news” not merely to amuse, but to make a point.

So, my first warning about online dialogue and persuasion is to do your research before quoting or posting links to online content. Make sure it’s not intentional satire, and that any so-called facts under discussion can be established by more than one source. This latter part can be more difficult than it seems. Because of the interconnected, cross-linked, nature of the internet, you can often find dozens, or even hundreds of sources that seem to corroborate a bit of information, but a careful exploration of these sites reveals that they all drew their ‘facts’ from the same source. Conspiracy theory sites further muddy the waters by claiming to have information that the government, corporations, or some other party, doesn’t want you to have. Thus they head off credibility questions by telling you the information can’t be corroborated because “THEY don’t want you to know.”

Years ago, before the internet, a family, neighborhood or small community would effectively ostracize a person who repeatedly made fantastic claims about things that could not be proved. Online, however, such people thrive, since the supply of passionate-but-gullible  readers and viewers seems inexhaustible.

Don’t be one of them. Do your homework. Do what a journalist should do. Corroborate claims via multiple, independent, disinterested parties.

This sounds alien to a generation which has been raised on the internet, in an era when even journalists can thrive by pushing single-source, anonymous stories.

Perhaps I sound quaint to suggest it, but only truth will last. False narratives eventually get exposed, and those who pushed that ‘fake news’ become suspect ever after.

WinSome strategy relies on integrity.

Knowing how treacherous these online waters can be, we take extra precautions to assure that we’re not sucked in, and taken down into a vortex of lies.

Knowing our human willingness to believe things that reinforce what we already believe, we must also be ready to do one of the most difficult, and painful things — to apologize. When we have been deceived, we need to ‘fess up, and express our regret without reservation. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, apologizes must be genuine and unqualified. We don’t employ politician apologies: “I’m sorry if you were offended.” We get precise about what we did wrong, ask forgiveness, make amends and make a personal commitment to avoid the same mistake in the future. 

Because many of us have a firm point of view, we’re easy marks for the liars and tricksters. We ‘like’ and re-post plausible stories without fact-checking, because, “well, if it’s not true, it ought to be.” This truth about human nature should sit on the front-burner of your mind. Every time we read or hear a story that appeals to our inner sensibilities, we should immediately assume it’s false, and then investigate to see if it’s not. 

Guard yourself against the temptation to share unsubstantiated information, from uncorroborated sources that have a viewpoint to advance. I’m not speaking merely of conspiracy theory sites, but also of those we consider respectable. Almost all news is curated and crafted by humans, and even the stories pumped out via algorithms have their origin in human computer coding. We humans are fallible, flawed and tempted to tilt the table in a way favorable to our views. Nothing should be accepted at face value.

You might complain that this sounds like a lot of work.

It is.

I wouldn’t blame you for avoiding social media as a platform for persuasion. And I’ll repeat that a few minutes face-to-face with someone, building a friendship, beats hours of online ‘sharing’.  Personal contact, looking someone in the eye, supersedes sharing specious information with an audience of strangers.

If you’re going to try persuasion online, you owe it to yourself to put in the work to make it effective and honest.