Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Correcting people on the internet

This comic is constantly referenced in my house. Visit XKCD for more great comics.

Hello Polite Readers,

Oh goodness, I gave in and added an image. I couldn't resist, this comic is just so perfect for today's topic, which is about how to be polite when correcting misinformation on Facebook and other internet forums.

Now that we live in a world where we're constantly connected to almost everyone we know via Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Pinterest, Tumblr and more, we're also constantly bombarded with their opinions about everything. And sometimes, we find that the people we know are just plain wrong. Next thing you know, you've spent the entire day arguing with them and five of their like-minded friends, and you have nothing to show for it.

Personally, I don't really like to argue on-line anymore. I got burned by too many people who were not at all interested in my politely stated facts and just decided to insult me. I do still occasionally get into it with people over something I feel especially strong over, or when people are spreading clear misinformation, but otherwise I avoid it. Here are my guidelines for when Someone is WRONG on the Internet:

1. Is it fact or opinion? It's very hard to change people's opinions by arguing on Facebook. But if you're polite, you can usually correct people about facts. Say things like "Actually, that study has since been proven to be based on bad data" or "I'm sorry, as much as I wish it were true, this one is an urban legend."

2. Is it important? In the grand scheme of things it doesn't matter if your uncle believes that Microsoft will give him a million dollars for forwarding an e-mail. On the other hand, it does matter if someone is spreading dangerous misinformation about treating the flu with lead paint (I think I managed to make up something so ridiculous that no one has actually suggested it and no one will be offended, right?).

3. Do you feel confident in your argument? If you don't have a really informed opinion and reliable sources to back you up, don't jump into the fray. "Actually, I heard someplace that Donald Trump's toupee is made of kittens" is not as strong as "Here is a five page expose on the wig factory that uses 100% kitten fur."

4. Will it make things awkward? Arguing with a distant family member who you see every few years is not a big deal, but getting into a political debate with your parents before Mother's Day brunch might make for a sulky family meal. Likewise, arguing with your troupemates might lead to sore feelings at the next practice, and arguing where would-be customers and clients can see it may cost you business.

5. Can you stay calm? There are some things I never get into arguments about because I am SO passionate about them that I will get myself so wound up that I can't even function for the rest of the day. Even if I manage to remain polite in my posts, I stomp around the house buzzing with anxious energy, just wishing I could say what I really want to, wishing the other person wasn't being so dense. It's unfair when those around you have to suffer the results of your arguments.

Over all, it's a complicated subject. Sometimes it feels like by not arguing with people, you're tacitly agreeing with them. Sometimes the answer is to make an opposing post of your own on your Facebook or blog, but that can look passive aggressive and cowardly. So choose which soapbox you're going to stand on, and make sure that whatever you say is polite, well-informed, and has plenty of sources to back it up. Good luck out there.

Is there a situation where you struggle to keep your cool? Send me a letter at and I'll do my best to advise you on how to be calm and collected.

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