Never has success in an online argument had less to do with who’s right, and who’s wrong. Indeed, many great debaters would privately maintain that there is no right or wrong. Only good or bad debating strategy. And the debating strategies of Web 2.0 can be a far cry from the exchanges we were witnessing just ten years ago.
Online debating has evolved into a dirty, psychological war, and nowhere is the modern toolkit of dirty debating better showcased than on Twitter. For this post I’ve identified twelve strategies commonly used by Twitter’s big hitters. Here they are, in the manifesto of the professional, and not so professional, Twitter debater…
DON’T TRY TO EDUCATE IDIOTS
Idiots are idiots for a reason. They don’t listen or think. If they’ve reached the age of 30 and still believe that the Earth is flat, or that all women who get married do it purely so they can divorce the bloke for his money, then nothing you can possibly say will change their minds. People whose views ignore an overwhelming body of contradictory evidence should themselves be ignored. If NASA can’t persuade a flat-Earther that our planet is spherical, it’s pretty certain that you won’t either. Why waste your time trying?
AVOID ANY SIGN OF AGITATION, FRUSTRATION OR ANGER
That means no block caps, no exclamation marks, no multiple question marks, no swear words, no personal insults… If you feel youself getting to the point where you want to use heightened expressiveness, stop, go away for half an hour and then return.
RESIST THE TEMPTATION TO REPLY STRAIGHT AWAY
No one can see what you’re doing, and they don’t know whether or not you’re in a position to reply immediately. Wait until you’ve properly thought through what you’re going to say, and then post it – regardless of how long it takes. If your opponents want an explanation as to why it took you so long, you can’t go far wrong with “I have a life”.
NEVER ADMIT YOU’RE WRONG
It doesn’t matter how wrong you are, or how many people disagree with you – provided you don’t acknowledge that you’re wrong, the game is still on. So the easiest and most reliable strategy in modern online debating is simply never to admit you’re wrong. What happens, is that your opponent eventually tires of hitting the same brick wall, and gives up.
This flat-out refusal to admit defeat extends right up into the highest echelons of debate. It’s a tactic employed by business leaders and politicians. People’s patience is not infinite. In the end, the monotony and futility of trying to get you to admit something you’re patently not going to admit, will exhaust them.
MINIMISE YOUR WORKLOAD
Don’t be drawn into processes that incur you in effort. One of the most common tactics used by online debating opponents is to demand citations or references. Their plan is to tire you and make the argument a highly negative, laborious experience for you, so that you’ll become more inclined to give up. Use a set-piece response when confronted with a demand for a citation or reference. Here are some common options…
“Do your own research.”
“Google is your friend.”
“You’re the one who needs proof – not me.”
“I don’t work for you.”
Quick, to the point, and instantly throwing the ball back into the opponent’s court.
USE AS FEW WORDS AS YOU POSSIBLY CAN
Experienced debaters will attempt to get you to embark on long, convoluted responses, which incur you in time and thought. Be aware of this throughout the debate, and keep an eye on your own wordcount, versus that of your opponent. If your own wordcount is significantly higher than theirs, they’re probably “throwing sticks” for you.
Metaphorically, you’re the dog, running round the field fetching the stick they keep throwing. The trick is to reverse that so that you’re throwing the stick, and they’re doing the fetching. The less you give them, the more they’ll have to do in order to keep the argument going. A simple “No it’s not” can be a lot more powerful than ten tweets of meticulously-crafted reasoning, which they’re going to ignore anyway. And also, the more you say, the more there is for your opponent to pick holes in.
NEVER APOLOGISE, NEVER EXPLAIN
It’s an old maxim, but even in an argument, where explanation would seem to be essential, the maxim can be very apt. If you watch the behaviour of professional organisations when they’re argumentatively prodded on social media, you’ll notice that their responses are extremely concise, and they ignore everything they don’t feel it’s in their interests to answer. Those are the people to whom the risk of losing an argument most matters, and the strategy they choose is ‘never apologise, never explain’. It works.
In summary, you ignore everything your opponent says unless it gives you an easy opportunity to further your own agenda.
DON’T TRY TO RE-PACKAGE A POINT YOU’VE ALREADY MADE
Most debaters will try to re-word or re-angle their arguments when their opponent appears not to have understood or taken any notice. But, and this is the most important sentence in the post… People don’t labour an argument because they don’t understand what you’ve said – they do it because they don’t want to suffer the egotistical damage of losing. There’s no point in re-packaging something they already understand but simply don’t want to acknowledge.
A lot of opponents will just troll you out by raking back over points you’ve already addressed. It’s often a deliberate tactic to tire or frustrate you. So once you’ve made a point, let it stand as it is. You don’t need to waste your time linking to your original statement. If you reply at all, you can just remind your opponent that you’ve already stated your position.
FORCE YOUR OPPONENT TO WORK
With this strategy, rather than making statements in a debate, the debater instead asks questions. “Where did you get that information?”… “Why would that matter?”… Lots of hows, whys and whats. The goal is not only to keep throwing the onus onto the opponent so they have to do all the work, but also to make no real assertions of your own, so there’s nothing for the opponent to question. Once you have an opponent answering your questions, you have control of the argument, and it’s almost impossible to lose.
If you’re ready to make an assertion within a debate, see if you can re-word it so it becomes a question.
The ad hominem strategy is a sign not only of poor debaters, but also of insecure debaters. It’s normally used when every other tactic has failed, or looks likely to fail.
Ad hominem diverts the conversation completely off topic and instead attempts to shame or embarrass the opponent into silence. Here’s an ad hominem example…
Despite ad hominem being among the lowest forms of debating tactic, it has a high success rate, because people will so often prioritise their own egos above the importance of the issue they were debating. In particular, implications that the opponent has no life or is in some way weird, scary or potentially even dangerous, have a powerful ability to silence critics. The goal is optimum embarrassment for the opponent.
It’s really important to look out for ad hominem tactics from your opponent too, as one of the best ways to counter ad hominem is to call out the tactic as the desperate, lame resort it is, and declare yourself the winner.
IDIRECTING / SUBTWEETING
To ‘indirect’ a debating opponent is to respond to what they said without acknowledging them directly. This is very heavily associated with Twitter, where messages can either be sent specifically to a person, or just published for a general audience of followers. On Twitter the practice is most often known as subtweeting, and it’s a particularly powerful strategy for people who have a substantial social audience. It may, when employed by very powerful or influential people, even cross the border into bullying territory. The idea is that instead of replying to an opponent’s comment, the debater ‘press-releases’ a response to their entire follower-base. Subtweets often include liberal doses of ad hominem too. For example…
Notably, this strategy allows the subtweeter to re-spin what their opponent has said, making it more objectionable to their followers, gaining the subtweeter more support and sympathy, and painting the opponent in a more negative light. “He called me an idiot” may be a re-spin of “I think you’ve got this wrong”, for example.
Very much a powerplay tactic, robbing the opponent of a voice and making them feel powerless – especially when used in conjunction with the Block function. If you block someone on Twitter, they can’t reply to anything you tweet unless they have another account.
‘Indirecting’ is again among the very lowest forms of online debating.
And here we reach the very bottom of the barrel. Screenshot debating is the practice of replying to an opponent by capturing a screenshot of what they said, then posting the screenshot as an image, along with a scathing contradiction. This method is again commonly used in conjuction with the Block button, so that the bescathed party is unable to respond.
And that’s twelve. As you can see, even the losers can win if they know the tactics.