Disagreements are a fact of life, whether you're online or off it. But it's a fact universally acknowledged that arguments are frequently more entrenched on the Internet.
Luckily, for the commenters and Facebook feuders of the Web, a new study from researchers at Cornell University suggests that there are some specific techniques you can use to win arguments online — short of never engaging at all, of course, which is a victory of its own kind.
The study, which will be presented in April at the International World Wide Web Conference, analyzed 18,000 threads in the changemyview subreddit over a 2 1/2-year period.
The forum is an unusually open-minded place: Users post their opinions on topics ranging from comic books to capital punishment and invite people to persuade them that they're wrong. If the original poster is persuaded, he awards his opponent a "delta," the mathematical symbol for change; if he's not persuaded, he does nothing.
That last bit is important, because it allowed researchers to identify and analyze the arguments that actually change people's minds. And while they were looking at r/changemyview specifically, Cornell's Chenhao Tan — a doctoral candidate in computer science and the corresponding author of the paper — said they believe their findings can be generalized to other online settings and social networks.
So, if you want to shut down the latest conspiracy meme on Facebook, or if you'd like to push back against a Bernie Sanders campaigner in your Tinder matches, try the following techniques:
Respond to the initial statement sooner rather than later.
Respond in groups: You're more persuasive to the person you're arguing with if other people are arguing your side, too.
Have a few back-and-forth exchanges with your opponent, but never go past three or four. Up to that point, your chance of persuading him is pretty good. But Tan said that "when the back and forth goes on for too long, your chances at persuasion become very low."
Link to outside evidence.
Don't quote the person you're arguing with, who usually will interpret that as "nit-picking with their wording," Tan said, and thus what you say is unlikely to sway their opinion.
Don't act too intense, which scares off people. Stick to calm, even-keeled language.
Write a longer response if you're actually trying to change someone's opinion. A one-liner probably won't do it.
Last but not least, try to base your arguments on points that your opponent didn't initially address, i.e., if your weird uncle posts that he's voting for Donald Trump because Trump will improve the economy, you should argue that he shouldn't vote Trump, because of his views on Muslims. The researchers found that arguments whose "content words" differed from those of the original poster were more likely to persuade him or her.
There are a few caveats here, of course. I don't want to give you the false impression that you're now equipped to smite all the world's trolls. For one thing, 70 percent of the people this study looked at were unpersuadable. For another, the links between these techniques and opinion changes are correlative, not causal.
On top of that, the social and interpersonal dynamics of opinion change are messy and complicated, beholden to more forces than these findings may suggest. I might have a better time convincing you of something if I'm a Twitter power-user, for instance, versus some random egg with an Internet connection.
All that said, the dynamics of opinion-change on social media are critically important, both because there's so much misinformation online and because this is increasingly the venue where people get their news.
After I ended my long-running column, "What Was Fake on the Internet This Week," I got a lot of questions about the best way to correct misinformation and misguided views — including whether, in this current environment, that was even possible. This research seems to suggest it is, though not in every instance, and only with some difficulty.