Let’s get that obvious and ultimately unhelpful piece of advice out of the way. If you’re here and reading this post, you’ve already given in to the siren song of someone being wrong on the internet. But all is not lost. Change happens in you, my friend. Your perspective needs some adjustment for the sake of your own stress levels. So let Uncle Alex share their secret to not getting your life and sanity sucked out of you by randos on the internet.
1. Assume until proven otherwise that the other person is arguing in bad faith.
Most of us are kind people who want to believe the best in others. Deep in our souls, we want to believe that the person on the other end of the keyboard is just ignorant and wanting to be enlightened, or one argument away from understanding your position even if they still disagree, or at the least willing to listen.
Well, put that out of your mind. Place your faith in humanity in a lockbox and stick it in the back of the closet for the duration. In my entire career of arguing with randos on the internet – and I’ve done it a lot, thanks to being someone who was peripherally involved in climate change research among other things – I’ve encountered a grand total of three people who were actually interested in having a good faith discussion. The rest were just, with varying degrees of verisimilitude, pretending in an attempt to waste my time.
If you’re not sure what I mean by “good faith” and “bad faith”:
Arguing in good faith – The other person is approaching this argument with honest intention. They are willing to listen, understand your position, modify their argument if necessary, and maybe (GASP) even change their mind. They are entering into this discussion with, at the very least, the intention of listening.
Arguing in bad faith – The opposite of the above; the intention is basically dishonest or duplicitous. They’re not in it to reach understanding or have their mind changed or even listen to a damn word you’re saying. They just want to waste your time, make you mad, suck out your energy, or all of the above.
This is the foundation you need to start on. This isn’t a call to be rude or insulting out of hand – unless this addresses your ultimate goal, more on that later – but you need approach from word one with the understanding that the other person is not actually interested in having a debate, discussion, or argument. They’re interested in pissing you off. Sure, be open to the possibility that they’re the rare sort of unicorn that does want to have honest intellectual interchange and then you can have a really satisfying conversation – but don’t set yourself up for disappointment.
And what this frees you to do is take a step back from what’s in front of you and address it as a performance rather than an honest communication1.
2. Decide what your goal for the argument is.
And no, it should never be, I’m going to change the other guy’s mind or make them admit they were wrong2. That is, again, setting yourself up for disappointment at best, endless frustration at worst. You need to decide what you want to get out of this discussion, when you will consider yourself satisfied or having “won.”3 Probably the most major cause of troll-induced frustration is that you’re allowing some asshole who doesn’t give a shit about you (or facts in general) to determine what the victory condition for this encounter is – which means it’s going to always be out of your grasp.
Fuck that. You are choosing to engage, at this point. You decide what you want out of this.
Here’s a few sample goals to give you an idea what I mean:
- Thoroughly debunk the other person’s bullshit first point, ignoring any goalpost shifting
- Give the other person enough rope to display the breadth of their utter bigotry
- Explain your argument in full for the benefit of anyone watching
- See how long you can counter-troll or insult the other person publicly <— this is not an approach I tend to use except for that time I repeatedly told the anti-trans guy to go fuck himself, but goddamn that was really satisfying
And so on. The point is knowing what you want out of this exchange and pursuing that goal rather than being tricked into playing a game that you cannot possibly win.
And if you don’t have a goal for this particular encounter? If there’s nothing you want out of it? Skip directly to point #5. You don’t owe anyone free access to your time, energy, or expertise. Mute, block, move on.
3. Remember all public argument is performative.
When you’re a scientist choosing to engage with obvious trolls, the question is often why you would want to waste your time like that. The thing you need to keep in mind is that you are never arguing for the sake of changing the mind of the person sea lioning you. You’re arguing for the people who are witnessing this public exchange. And there are a lot of reasons why you might want to do that. Including:
- They’re disseminating incorrect facts and there needs to be pushback and debunking for future reference.
- They’re espousing hateful, unacceptable views and it needs to be demonstrated that no, their viewpoint is not universally accepted.
- They’re acting as if their opinion is fact, and an alternate viewpoint needs to be offered.
- It needs to be demonstrated that their blanket statement is proven false by your very existence.
This is a non-exhaustive list. But keep in mind that you are almost never trying to convince the person you’re actually talking to – they approached in bad faith. You are addressing the silent watchers who may actually be listening in good faith. So keep that in your thoughts before your frustration gets the better of you. If you want to really give yourself a pep talk, think about how this asshole that’s started shit with you is maybe doing you a favor, because they’re giving you a chance to reach others.
Also remember: their arguing is just as performative.
4. Do not get distracted.
There’s a thing skeptics call “the Gish Gallop.” It’s named after creationist Duane Gish, who used to derail debates by posing an endless series of questions or counterpoints, to the frustration of scientists. Because the fact of the matter is, when the other guy is a total bullshit artist who doesn’t actually care about facts, they will always be able to throw out more random shit than you can sling back, even if you have the fastest research fingers in the west.
You see Gish Gallop-like moments in a lot of internet arguing; someone poses a lot of questions they obviously have no real interest in having answered, but it’s sure going to waste a lot of your time. Or people will try to distract you by being insulting, by moving the goalposts, by changing the topic.
Keep your eyes on the prize. Remember your goal. And keep going for it.
5. And then walk away.
So then what, after you’ve had your performative argument and reached your goal?
Walk away, because you’ve accomplished what you were after. Feel free to block or mute or otherwise ignore any further attempts to engage. And if that means ye olde randome asshole runs off to their sweaty friends and claims they won because they made you block them? Who the fuck cares.
“Winning” and “losing” are relative, despite what many people seem to believe deep in their souls. You have “won” because you accomplished the goal you set for yourself. The other person declaring victory does not in any way detract from that.
The fact is, you have zero control over someone else’s smugness level. All you can control is the way you choose to address your end of the argument. And when you come down to it, no matter how furiously they masturbate about how they made some SJW mad on the internet, they’re still a sad, pathetic asshole who gets off on being a sad, pathetic asshole. That is not a path you want to go down.
Walk away tall.
1 – This is not permission for you to argue in bad faith. Even if you’re taking that mental step sideways and understanding what you’re about to do as a goal-motivated performance, it behooves you to still be honest in your interaction. This is a defense against trolls manipulating you, not permission to engage in the same behavior you’ve come to hate.
2 – “Make the other guy admit he’s wrong” isn’t such a great goal if you’re having a good faith argument either, because it indicates an unwillingness to listen on your part. And I say this about even science issues that I’ve discussed with well-meaning but misguided people who weren’t trolls; my goal wasn’t to beat them into intellectual submission, it was to educate. It may seem like a fine line, but there’s a definite difference between helping someone understand facts and putting them in a corner and trying to make them lose face. Sometimes the greatest victory (in an honest conversation) comes from, “wow, you gave me a lot to think about. Thanks.” Keep that in mind.
3 – The fact that so much gets framed in terms of “winning” and “losing” is not great either, since it precludes compromise and places an arbitrary appearance of “victory” over things like, you know, having actual evidence to back up your claims. That said, I’m using “winning” and “losing” here because most of these bullshit internet arguments effectively are contests with arbitrary rules thanks to being initiated by bad faith actors.