A few weeks ago, I was walking down the street when a small accident about thirty feet away drew my attention. At the traffic light, one car slightly but distinctly “kissed” the bumper of the vehicle in front of it. An unpleasant interaction between two strangers seemed about to begin. The tailgater looked, indeed, agitated. He smacked his wheel and cursed loudly. A woman got out of the other car and made a few steps towards the vehicle behind her. Passing right by the accident, I shivered slightly, imagining what the woman was about to say.
It was not what I expected. “Are you ok?” she asked, and I walked on humbled by this small act of kindness.
No matter how we bump into each other–with our cars in a busy street or with our opinions in an online forum–we often find it hard to respond nicely. It is all too easy to focus on what we perceive as bad intent, especially when the person we are interacting with seems angry. There is an important difference between these two kinds of “accidents.” No matter how unpleasant the small conflict between two drivers is, chances are that it will be eventually resolved without involving too many people. In contrast, a small conflict online can have much bigger repercussions. Some surfers of the virtual space may choose to become active participants in the debate. Many others will read without responding, but they will most probably make conclusions about those who do the arguing.
Online conflicts are common partially because of how easy it is now to share opinions on social networks and in comment sections. When we browse these spaces and see a viewpoint that we disagree with, it can be tempting to jump into a conversation to explain why the other person is wrong. Whether you are the one sharing or the one responding, it is not uncommon to feel angry, and even to wonder how the person on the other side of the screen could be so dumb and mean.
A mistake that most people make is that they approach online interactions as a possibility to correct misperceptions of others. It turns out that facts do not change minds, as cognitive psychologists studying the so-called backfire effect have concluded. Confronted with arguments disproving our position, most of us end up being more entrenched in it. This is especially true when the other person does not express any honest curiosity about our worldview, but instead joins the conversation to educate us.
If you are concerned about the culture wars that have engulfed the United States, it is worth exploring how online spaces work and how they can contribute to polarization by promoting radical opinions and pitching people expressing them against each other. But you should also remember that online spaces exist thanks to people who use them (including you), and that algorithms shaping these spaces are based on the human brain’s natural tendencies: simplification of complex information, reliance on emotion-based assumptions, confirmation of preconceived beliefs, and perception of the world as divided into “people like me” and “others”. These mechanisms determine behavior loops that are all too easy to fall into. And though these loops cannot be entirely avoided, we can notice them and explore ways of mitigating their negative effects.
“Why am I supposed to make this effort?” you may wonder. “It does not seem worth it if the only goal is to spare annoying people online.” There are reasons to believe that the way we approach arguments in virtual space have a serious impact on the future of democracy. I have already mentioned that, if you only participate in an argument to educate the other side, your adversary is likely to leave the conversation even more convinced about their opinions than they were before. This outcome is clearly not going to contribute to your goal to have the other person consider your point of view. And since interactions of this kind often end up being very emotional, they inevitably feed into the polarization cycle that is harmful for all the sides involved.
In a virtual dialogue, your brain uses its superb generalization skills to “make sense” of the person on the other side of the screen. Meanwhile, the other person fills in the gaps in their mental picture of you based on how you show yourself during the conversation. Leaving an online debate victorious, you may feel triumphant having put the other person in their place. But remember that they are now likely to go about their day with another confirmation of their belief that all the people with your background are ignorant and rude. You might not have planted this belief, but could you have done anything differently in order not to confirm it?
You should also keep in mind that people you have tried to educate online are likely to feel alienated, and might look for support from like-minded individuals. In the worst case scenario, your adversary might end up using support of radicalized communities that propose fixing social problems with violence. Of course, you may say that you are not responsible for somebody whose misconceptions you tried to fix with bare facts. But wouldn’t it be correct to assume that the cumulative effect of people’s actions matters? Choices you make interacting online, however insignificant they may seem in the grand scheme of things, are a part of this impact.
Megan Phelps-Roper is a political activist and former member of the Westboro Baptist Church, a Calvinist Christian sect categorized as a hate group. In her powerful TED talk I Grew Up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here’s Why I Left, she explains that the life-changing decision to leave her community was triggered in part by the kindness of strangers on Twitter: “They approached me as a human being, and that was more transformative than two full decades of outrage, disdain and violence.”
Phelps-Roper’s story offers us a powerful lesson. Every person has their circumstances that have shaped their opinions and reactions. Instead of assuming bad intent behind somebody’s angry words in a comment section, we can choose to approach them with empathic curiosity. People who sincerely wanted to understand young Megan ultimately showed her the value of a dialogue. “Assuming ill motives almost instantly cuts us off from truly understanding why someone does and believes as they do,” Phelps-Roper says. Instead of making assumptions, we should ask questions and look for things in common.
You might be surprised to know that many people on the “other side” of the political spectrum often hold opinions similar to yours. But neither you, nor your online adversary will get to discover your similarities if you only focus on differences. It takes courage, vulnerability, and some mindfulness to write in response, “I want to better understand your point of view.” You can eventually explain your position, too, of course, but do not make it your priority to make the other person accept your view.
And if somebody strikes you as particularly angry, you may actually wonder, “Is this person ok?” Something may be going on in their life that shapes their interactions online. There are probably some deeply emotional stories that explain why they are so passionate about the topic of the debate. You do not have to directly ask them “Are you ok?” Considering the absence of nonverbal cues in online conversations, and the fact that such expressions of kindness are still very rare during virtual debates, your adversary may, unfortunately, interpret your empathy as mockery or sarcasm. But you can still wonder in your mind what the other person is going through right now, and use this curiosity to shape your responses. You will never get to hear people’s stories if you only assume bad intent.
Next time you encounter some hostility online, take a deep breath and remind yourself of the maxim that holds true both in the virtual world and in life off-line: “Everyone is going through something, be kind.” And if the conversation becomes too toxic, just say something nice and walk away without looking back. Your words will not immediately fix the problem, but they might plant a seed of kindness that will eventually grow into something more beautiful than you can imagine.