Is there a way to have civilized discussions online?

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One of the most important things we can keep in mind as social media users is that for peaceful and productive discourse to happen, our goal is to create a space that allows for everyone to feel less hostile, less aggressive, and more open to collaboration or, at least, an agreement. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — There is always an argument going on somewhere on the internet. You don’t have to look far — your social media feed is a war zone, the comment sections are the front lines, and everyone is armed with either a reply, a share, a meme, a gif, a link, or a screenshot.

Given all the power and possibility we’re granted with social media, it’s really no surprise that things can get really toxic really fast. But for the countless conversations that end up in name-calling or Godwin’s law, there are many that result in productive discourse.

So now we ask: With it being so easy to tip the conversation into stressful and stubborn insult matches, how can we handle online discourses with enough care that it ends in peaceful terms?

Create a safe space

Arguably the most important thing we can keep in mind as social media users is that for peaceful and productive discourse to happen, our goal is to create a space that allows for everyone to feel less hostile, less aggressive, and more open to collaboration or, at least, an agreement.  

This always starts with being mindful about what you release on the internet and realizing that our actions online can be just as impactful as the ones offline, even if it’s not always as tangible. The power of our comments are emphasized even more when you take into consideration the potential amount of people who can see and be influenced by what we say, so a sense of accountability needs to be in place.

“The centrality of the communication process to online life places a lot of responsibility on its participants,” says Andrew Ty, an instructor at the Department of Communication of Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU). “We need to be aware of our power online in creating social relations. Instead of thinking about ourselves, [like] ‘I have to be responsible because I have so much communicative power online;’ we should think of others, [such as] ‘I have to be responsible because others could be hurt by my power.’”

Carlos Quiapo, an engineer who actively engages in online discourse with his family, adds that he usually takes time to assess posts he wants to share on social media. “If I want to share a post, I usually just save it first and read it again later. If I really want to share it again, that’s when I hit the ‘share’ button,” he says.

Another big factor in creating safer spaces is helping people not feel personally attacked even if you disagree with their statements.

“Concentrate on the argument and concentrate on the discussion. Understand where the person is coming from,” Miguel Lizada, an instructor at the Department of English of ADMU shares.

Lizada also feels that safer online spaces need to have more positive affirmations as opposed to pure criticism. “It’s important to end conversations in reconciliatory ways. I think this is one of my problems with Call-Out Culture. I’ve been called-out a couple of times already. In some cases, after the person has been called out and after the person has realized he has made a mistake, and he or she corrects it, there is no sense of affirmation,” Lizada adds.

“Call-Out Culture” — which Asam Ahmad defines as “the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and language use by others”— has been very common in online spheres and is extremely helpful in correcting fake news or pointing out problematic statements.

However, it can also easily cross the line into personal attacks if the user calling-out does so with the intention of humiliating or ‘taking down’ the person behind the message. It also happens unintentionally if the person calling out doesn’t take time to consider the feelings of the other person. It’s a fine line to tread, but some affirmation and positive reinforcement is also helpful in making things feel less hostile.

When dealing with focusing on the argument and on the facts, we should also be careful in recognizing what we perceive to be the ‘truth’ about the person commenting and when we ourselves reply.

“Sometimes, we should ask ourselves why we write online. Is it to become popular or to help in the shaping of public opinion?” — Danilo Arao

“[People think,] ‘What I say [on social media] is what I feel. I’m sincere about what I say, therefore it must be true.’ We sometimes confuse sincerity with truth. Both are closely related, but not exactly the same thing,” adds Ty. Understanding the difference helps us be more careful in dealing with other people’s personal truths, which can be very dear to them.

Ultimately, it always comes back to respect and making it clear that you’re speaking from a place of authenticity and compassion. And while in many cases, a lot of people hide behind anonymity online, several of us do have our profiles as our ‘perceived selves’ that we let become vulnerable.

Lizada, who has a certain amount of online followers, says: “Always remember that the more followers you gain, the more you have to realize whether you like it or not that you will have a public persona. You cannot just say, ‘Well, this is my opinion. This is who I am. Deal with it.’ … People will look up to you and whatever you represent.  You can take care of that by … being respectful and responsible especially in the face of healthy, productive discussions.”

Check yourself first

If you want to engage in online discourse, it helps to ask yourself why you want to do it and what your objectives are. “I think people should have reasons to participate in an online discussion, and they should be honest about and aware of them,” Ty adds.

“While there are online users who are responsible, there are those who post just for the sake of posting (or ‘mema’ in the youth's parlance)," shares Danilo Arao, a professor of online journalism and media ethics at the University of the Philippines - Diliman, in an email interview.

“Sometimes, we should ask ourselves why we write online. Is it to become popular or to help in the shaping of public opinion?” he says.

Arao also adds that we should also ask ourselves if it is in our place to participate at this certain time. “First, [people] should know if they have enough information to contribute to the discussion; speculation or second guessing does not help raise the level of discussion.

Second, are inflammatory comments dominating a discussion thread? It may be best not to engage them as it would be one's waste of time. Third, do you have a new reference, perspective or idea to offer that hasn't been articulated by other online users? Mere validation of another person's point is good, but original ideas are better,” Anilao says.

Being aware of your own biases and shortcomings are also essential in fostering more productive discussions. “We are not correct all the time. And we were not born with our political views. We grow into them ... If you're being rude to someone for disagreeing with you, it doesn't mean you're better — you're just rude,” adds Trisha*, a communications manager. Coming in with this awareness might also prompt others to question and be more aware of themselves as well.  

And according to Ty, there is one last crucial step in checking yourself: “Be prepared to have your reasons for participation change and be prepared for the same to happen to your expectations of the others and their world. This is because an online discussion must generate a new social dynamic that includes you and others. You can't come in expecting not to be changed by an encounter, and if those others aren't willing to change also, then the result is what some categorize as unproductive discussion that goes nowhere.”

People will have their own reasons for chiming in, and knowing your own motivations and faults will help guide your words and actions without insulting or disrespecting anyone. And if you find that your reasons are to put down the other side instead of making them understand your point of view, then some reconsideration may be needed.

Understand why social media can cause us to react more negatively than necessary

Ty says that one reason why online discussions can become so heated is because users tend to perceive a need to be more defensive of their online personas.

“The first thing that we do on any social media account is to construct the self that people will see,” Ty shares. “But because we’re responsible for creating that identity, we feel very protective of it … It’s meant to stand in for who we are.”

He explains that because of this ‘sense of ownership,’ created by the feeling that we’ve placed so much of ourselves on social media, criticism on content we create can affect us very personally. On platforms like Twitter, users also have a sense of “turf” on their pages — they want to protect it yet also want to open it up to the whole world.

Taking this feeling of protectiveness and putting it together with the very public nature of social media only makes it worse. “[There is] a 'spectacle' aspect of social media as well as the 'pressure' of coming out as the 'winner' of the discussion,” shares Trisha*, who says she usually observes online discourse rather than openly engage.

“[People think,] ‘What I say [on social media] is what I feel. I’m sincere about what I say, therefore it must be true.’ We sometimes confuse sincerity with truth. Both are closely related, but not exactly the same thing.” — Andrew Ty

Beginning with this understanding can prove to be helpful when trying to be more considerate and patient with both yourself and others when participating in online discourse. 

Oftentimes, people are also strongly offended by opinions differing from their own because they’re so accustomed to being surrounded by opinions that match theirs. Arao explains that this could be due to the Uses and Gratification Theory, which says that people actively look for media that affirms their own beliefs and meets their own satisfaction. “[This] could explain why people have varied reasons for using [and] maximizing social media based on, among others, level of education and political beliefs,” Arao adds.

Josef Olaybal, an art director who actively participates in online discourse with his peers, also shares that Facebook tweaks users’ algorithm, making everyone live in their own social bubble. He tends to engage with people online not necessarily to change minds or win the argument, but when he feels that not all sides are being represented.

“Introducing other points of view … is important,” says Olaybal. “You might not change that specific person’s mind, but it [can] still influence those silent readers who are on the fence regarding the subject ... So I try to ask before participating: Do I really feel compelled to? Is it a question no one's asking?”

Know the time and place for everything

It proves to be tricky, but reading the situation and trying to understand what reaction is needed is essential in creating healthy and productive online discussions.

For example, a lot of people pick their battles when they can tell if engaging will not result in something fruitful, but instead end up in pointless arguing. It could be as simple as recognizing the objectives of the other person (if they’re just trolling, for example).

“Responsible online users should avoid ‘feeding’ the trolls. The level of discourse on social media should be kept at a high level, in such a way that only a healthy exchange of ideas is tolerated on one's social media account,” says Arao.

But if you can’t tell from the get-go, we can always gauge the situation before coming in with a response right away.

“How is the person I'm talking to reacting? Are they emotional?” Trisha shares when she weighs the status of a discussion.

Jason Chamberlain, a copywriter who engages in the comment sections of news articles and the like, shares his approach. “I would … practice the habit of asking questions first before making assumptions on other people … if there’s something that you find you want to disagree with,” he shares. “Because a question can be challenging enough to who you’re opposed to but it doesn’t attack them in any way — you’re just asking them to explain themselves more.”

Knowing when to disengage helps as well. We can ask if it’s necessary that the two parties agree on certain topics, or if the issue can even be completely resolved via online discussion.

It’s not to say that we should never engage, but knowing when to resist, when to question, and when to respond in what way is critical in the interest of healthy dialogue. And while we want to be respectful, we should not sacrifice our point in order to completely accommodate the other.

“I don’t want to say that we need to be overly polite … Being overly polite leads to disingenuous conversation. There’s a time and a place for anger and even harsh criticism,” Cruz adds.

In the end, we must always try to respond in ways that are respectful of each other and contributes positively to the culture we want to have on social media. “[Online discussions] are about realizing that what we exchange in communication (ideas, opinions, feelings, etc.) are important but not more so than what we produce in communication: social relations and community,” Ty shares.


*Names are changed upon the request of the subject.