Friday, June 22, 2018

Facebook Rules of Engagement

With the whole Trump-tearing-kids-from-their-parents thing going on the last few weeks, I've had occasion to think about when I should engage in Facebook debates/discussions. I know some people take the view (or at least say they do) that arguing on Facebook is pointless, that no one's mind is ever changed. In fact, I highly recommend a google image search for "arguing on facebook"--you'll get some real gems, like this one:

Source: @goldengateblond
I disagree, though, because my own mind has been changed by Facebook/social media discussions; LGBT rights, racial justice issues, and housing policy are the issues that first come to mind where reading debates about and/or talking to others about them online really opened my mind to a different point of view that I came to accept. And even more often, while my mind may not be changed in the sense of a 180° reversal of opinion, reading and/or participating in such discussions has adjusted, nuanced, developed, and refined my views on a number of issues, including abortion, financial decisions of the LDS Church, sex work, and free speech.

So I know it's possible for Facebook discussions to actually affect people's opinions. But how can I try to maximize the chances that minds change and minimize the risk that everyone ends up pissed? Obviously it's a hard question to answer, but my current thinking involves two basic rules of thumb for determining when it might be a good idea for me to engage: (1) is there a clear right/wrong answer on (or a particularly weak or specious argument being made in support of) a point in question?; and (2) is the subject of actual real-world importance?

The recent Trump policy of criminally prosecuting all adults who cross the border illegally (a natural and intended consequence of which is the separation of kids from their parents when the parents are placed in jails to await trial) is a good example of when I felt it was appropriate to publicly post on the issue and engage in discussions on other people's posts about it. There was a lot of flat-out false stuff being spouted (especially the claims that Obama did the same thing and that Trump was forced to do this by the law--and specifically by a law the Democrats had passed) that could quite directly and easily be refuted by citing to reputable sources, and there was a very clear morally correct position and a morally deficient position. And the issue obviously had grave real-world significance: families were literally being torn apart. So my two criteria were met, and, for better or worse, I engaged in a number of Facebook threads on these issues.

A hypothetical example of when I would definitely try to refrain from engaging would be if a friend posted something like "Obama was a terrible president who routinely abused executive authority!" On the first prong of my test, this is a pretty general, vague statement of opinion that can rationally be supported by some real facts (e.g., Obama said he couldn't implement DACA via executive order for years, then he decided he could; choosing not to defend DOMA in court, etc.). I disagree with the assertion, but it's not really something that can be resolved cleanly, and so Facebook probably isn't the best venue for it. And in terms of real-world importance, Obama isn't President anymore, so how people feel about him isn't all that salient to how the country moves forward. So no reason to get involved; just keep scrolling:

Source: Imgur
Of course, sometimes one of these prongs will favor engagement and the other will favor moving along. Ideally, I would try to only engage when both of them are at least reasonably strong--though this xkcd comic is always painfully relevant, too :)

A lesson I'm constantly trying to learn. Source: me.me

Then there's the question of when to leave a Facebook discussion you've engaged in. I think my intuition is: when it stops feeling like a discussion and becomes more of an argument. Signs of this include ad hominems, refusals to engage, flaring tempers, changing the subject, moving the goalposts, obvious bad faith, etc. However, I also try to remember that while the person I'm discussing/arguing with may be the least likely to change their mind (selection bias at work here), my and their Facebook friends might be reading along and following the debate (I certainly do this on threads I'm interested in--I highly recommend the "turn on notifications for this post" feature that Facebook offers), and those people are much more likely to be more open to any thoughtful, reasoned arguments and evidence I can present. It's helpful to remember that my audience is bigger than just my interlocutor.

Anyway, this has been another entry in the lawyers-overthink-everything scrapbook. I'm curious if any of you have ever considered when to engage in Facebook discussions. Have your opinions ever changed (or even just been affected) by the process? Or are you on the side of all the memes? :)

1 comment:

  1. I like your test. I struggle with this as well, mostly in the sense of "When do I respond to something that one of my conservative friends is posting which is flat out factually wrong or malicious?" I tend to err on the side of ignoring/blocking them rather than engaging, because in the case of people I'm thinking of, IMHO, I'm not likely to change their mind. Part of it is that I am also bad at arguing, so I feel like I'm the worst person to represent my position. Anyways, I do like your two rules. It reminded me of this TED talk:

    https://www.ted.com/talks/megan_phelps_roper_i_grew_up_in_the_westboro_baptist_church_here_s_why_i_left

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