In the physical world, you have no duty to provide an audience to any ranting bigot who decides to launch into an anti-immigration tirade outside Sainsbury’s. Nor are you compelled to expend time and energy arguing with strangers who question your right not to be sexually assaulted if you insist on dressing like that. Even if they claim to have your best interests at heart. Especially if they’re wearing a smug grin, a fedora and a slogan t-shirt reading “Devil’s advocate”.
If your aunt or brother-in-law is spouting questionable opinions about benefit claimants, asylum seekers, or whoever else their favourite right-wing hate rag has suggested is the cause of all life’s problems, you might struggle to tactfully extract yourself from the conversation. However, you don’t owe them your attention either. Slyly live-tweeting quotes and wry commentary will secure a few favs and retweets, sure, but it’s up to you. Zoning out and playing Candy Crush is also a perfectly valid option.
It’s pretty much the same online. The internet makes it much easier to talk to strangers, acquaintances and distant relatives about a variety of topics. Without Facebook, your aunt Irma’s opinions on Calais would probably have remained a mystery. If it wasn’t for Twitter, FeminaziFighter69 likely wouldn’t even know you existed. This doesn’t mean you’re obliged to read the string of angry messages he’s sent you from his parents’ home in rural Florida. It definitely doesn’t mean you have a duty to respond.
For many people, liberal use of blocking, unfollowing, muting and filtering is the only thing that makes social media tolerable. A single tweet can cause significant psychological harm for those affected by PTSD. Anyone who spends their life navigating hostility due to their disability, ethnicity, gender identity or any other reason is vulnerable to that same hostility online. It’s not surprising they might wish to curate a virtual safe space to allow themselves at least something of a break.
That said, I don’t believe that refusing to engage with views you find objectionable is always a positive decision. Particularly for those of us less in need of a temporary escape. After all, excluding people from your carefully-managed social media feed doesn’t make the problem go away, it just means you can’t see it anymore. Only people who aren’t victims of a particular type of bigotry have the luxury of performing this magic trick. To extend an analogy: clicking unfollow while Aunt Irma rants about asylum seekers is the 21st century version of fiddling while Rome burns. Those caught in the fire don’t have the option to ignore the flames.
Cynics will ask what the alternative is. The apparent pointlessness of online arguments is such a popular topic for humour it has almost become a cliché. However, anyone who fails to differentiate between angry back and forth about Doctor Who plot points and considered discussion of issues with real world consequences fundamentally misses the point. All social media is, really, is a method of communication. If a conversation is worth having face-to-face, it’s also worth having on the internet.
And some conversations definitely are worth having. People’s opinions affect how they treat behave in everyday life. In a democracy, the collective opinions of the population influence government policy. History shows us that ideas are not the only driver of social change, but persuading people to think differently is often essential for progress to be made.
Of course, it’s possible to accept that changing minds is important but believe that arguing online is not an effective way to achieve that. Challenging someone often prompts them to double down and defend their existing beliefs even harder, even if you supply facts proving they are wrong. And we don’t need expert knowledge to realise that ridiculing or insulting someone is unlikely to win them over. A lot of what passes for debate on the internet probably does achieve very little.
Still, it’s demonstrably untrue that online arguments can’t ever change opinions. It’s more likely if a level of civility is maintained, for sure, but I know for a fact that I’ve altered my own views as a result of fairly heated online exchanges. I can also think of specific times when people have told me our conversation changed their perspective. Sometimes, both of us have ended up thinking differently. That’s another thing about arguing: if approached with the right attitude, increasing your own understanding should be as much of a goal as persuading others.
What’s more, the nature of social media means that the person you’re directly talking to isn’t actually the only one you’re trying to convince. Most online conversations take place in front of a silent audience, and you never know who is watching.
If every time someone is confronted with Britain First propaganda they also read a thorough dismantling of its claims, they’re far less likely to end up accepting it as truth. If your teenage cousin sees you shutting down someone claiming that rape victims are responsible if they were drunk, it might give her the courage she needs to report her own assault.
At absolute worst, the feeling of frustration after an unproductive argument can spur you on to do things with more immediate positive consequences. Talking to people with upsetting opinions about the crisis in Calais helped motivate me to donate warm clothes for refugees, if only to prove to myself that I was different to those I was arguing with.
There’s really no better way to remind yourself why you believe what you believe, and why it is important, than confronting the alternatives head on.