“Is there anyone who ever remembers changing their mind from the paint on a sign? Is there anyone really recalls ever breaking rank at all for something someone yelled real loud one time?”—John Mayer, “Belief” `
We didn’t really need rock-solid proof that arguments on social media are pointless, but the Pew Research Center has finally provided some evidence. In a survey released recently, Pew says only 14 percent of Americans report changing their minds because of something posted, or a debate they engaged with, on social media.
Young men, to the tune of 1 in 3, changed their minds the most. While low, both numbers are higher than I expected, since it’s become so obvious online debates are useless.
If you’ve ever engaged in or seen a debate or meme on any prominent social media platforms, then you too have experienced the banal absurdity and relentless proclivity toward ad hominem debate that spirals out of control, rather than a nuanced, informed take on the issues at hand. This, in addition to the insanity that ensues after one has engaged in such a debate, proves the best way to persuade folks about important topics is to avoid endless arguments on social media, and try a few other tactics.
Social Media: A Playground for Toddlers
At first, Facebook, then Twitter, then Instagram seemed like fun and shiny new bridges toward connection, communication, and debate. Facebook particularly billed itself as a platform solely dedicated to connecting people. Twitter and even Instagram seemed like ideal virtual spots to make a brief but powerful point. With one tweet or post, voila! Skeptics would become believers.
So for more than a decade folks have been tweeting and retweeting, posting and threading, arguing and clicking away, late at night, with one thumb on an iPhone, knowing a tweet isn’t the Magna Carta but secretly hoping it might be that influential. As the platforms grew, particularly with Facebook and Twitter, debate and polarization has increased, but the art of persuasion has not.
Instead of making friends, people started unfriending or hiding the great uncle they argued with over Obamacare. Retweets are now on autopilot and Twitter debates could take hours—and for what? Think pieces started emerging about how dumb it is to argue on Facebook, but many folks just couldn’t help themselves. A article published by Inc. magazine summarizes the plot with which we are now all too familiar:
You’ve seen it happen dozens if not hundreds of times. You post an opinion, or a complaint, or a link to an article on Facebook. Somebody adds a comment, disagreeing (or agreeing) with whatever you posted. Someone else posts another comment disagreeing with the first commenter, or with you, or both. Then others jump in to add their own viewpoints. Tempers flare. Harsh words are used. Soon enough, you and several of your friends are engaged in a virtual shouting match, aiming insults in all directions, sometimes at people you’ve never even met.
I don’t have a large Twitter following or online presence, but I decided this last year that Twitter debates had to stop. I simply made the rule that if people argued with me about the articles I wrote, I wouldn’t engage, if even because that saves so much time. I’ve largely followed that rule and I don’t regret it. I’ve saved time and energy.
Changing People’s Minds Is Extremely Complex
What makes people think they can change another person’s mind online? Why do people even try?
In his 2006 album “Continuum,” John Mayer wrote a song called “Belief” that captured Americans’ powerful mixed feelings about Operation Iraqi Freedom. By then, America had been actively at war since 2003, and our boys (and girls) were dying for what many saw as a lost cause.
Writing for his Generation X and my millennials, Mayer captured both the importance of a person’s personal beliefs and how hard it is to change them. The song begins like this: “Is there anyone who ever remembers changing their mind from the paint on a sign? Is there anyone really recalls ever breaking rank at all for something someone yelled real loud one time?”
Those lines make one wonder: What does change a person’s mind? Does a billboard? Does a picket line outside an abortion clinic? Does a march for life? Does a tweet? Does a meme on Instagram? A lengthy Facebook post? Truly, as Mayer asked in the song, ask yourself: Have you ever changed your mind from the “paint on a sign?” Or a tweet? A Facebook rant?
Mayer captured the nuance of belief: A person’s mind is a hard thing to change, yet once made up, it can propel people to make really big decisions. The song ends:
We’re never gonna win the world, we’re never gonna stop the war. We’re never gonna beat this if belief is what we’re fighting for.
What puts 100,000 children in the sand? Belief can. Belief can. What puts a folded flag inside his mother’s hand? Belief can. Belief can.
So a person doesn’t change his mind easily, yet the sight of two huge towers burning down in New York City made a lot of young men and women believe in something so strongly, they went to war against a ruthless enemy. This offers a new perspective on why vacuous Twitter debates don’t usually change anyone’s mind about war, abortion, or even dessert.
So What Does Make a Person Change His Mind?
If social media fights are largely unproductive, what does persuade people? Surely we ideologues shouldn’t just give up entirely on the arts of discourse and debate?
Pew Reports that “although most people have not changed their views on a political or social issue in the past year because of social media, those who have also tend to place a high level of personal importance on social media as a tool for personal political engagement and activism.” While this makes sense, 14 percent is still a pretty small number. There are far more powerful ways to change a person’s mind about an issue that’s as important as war, politics, abortion, or free speech.
Last year University of California at Berkeley and University of Chicago researchers revealed the results of an experiment on this. They wanted to know if people responded to text or verbal conversations differently, and surveyed 300 folks to find out.
It’s no surprise to discover people did: “[T]here was a distinct difference between those who had watched or listened to someone speak the words out loud and those who had read the identical words as text. Those who had listened or watched someone say the words were less likely to dismiss the speaker as uninformed or heartless than they were if they were just reading the commenter’s words.”
What does this suggest? Research and anecdotal experience suggest that persuasion is not lost, but that social media isn’t the best place for it. Text is not the best place for it. The best avenue to change someone’s mind is through community, conversations, and education.
Think about it: Most people’s core belief systems are developed in their early years through repeated, daily interaction with close family members, friends, teachers, and peers. In college, another tier of belief systems is formed, either strengthening the previous foundation, altering it somewhat (or completely), as it’s challenged at a higher level of thought and discourse.
Finally, as a person enters adulthood, these beliefs have a chance to fully develop into a lifestyle. Core beliefs may often become somewhat fluid as people experience marriage, births, deaths, career changes, and further education, yet most people tend to exhibit the beliefs they formed early on as adults, albeit deepened with experience and application.
What Really Affects a Person Is a Sustained Relationship
My core beliefs about politics were developed through conversations with my dad and listening to Rush Limbaugh (really!). They were later solidified in college, but by then, I’d really formed the basis of what I believed through my comfortable yet intellectually challenging relationship my dad. He took the time to teach me about politics, government, and economics, which formed most of my beliefs about conservatism, including limited government, being pro-life, the importance of free market, and more.
College formed many of my friends’ strong beliefs about various ideas. Many parents change their mind about things their kids are experiencing by getting involved in their school and local communities. For a lot of people, involvement in local government can powerfully change their views about politicians and how government functions.
The same is true for people who pursue higher education, like business, medicine, or law. Years and years studying a topic into expertise can persuade a communist to become a conservative or a pro-choice advocate to become pro-life. Even listening to thorough debates and lectures, in person or via podcast, can have the same result. This debate featuring Federalist publisher Ben Domenech is a good example of the power of persuasion in a thoughtful, debate format.
Social media debates may seem fun, but they’re often a waste of time. They’re not changing anyone’s mind. Enjoy the medium, but if you really want to set out to persuade someone, put down your phone and try the old-fashioned way.