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4 Tips for Dealing with Opponents of your Cause on Twitter

December 2, 2009

As Twitter continues to grow at record levels, more people are bumping up against each other and, in some cases, butting heads in the Twittersphere. As we all continue to develop new ways to use this exciting new tool, I’ve discovered ways of dealing with people whose politics are diametrically opposed to my own.

Quick aside for those of you new to Twitter (you know who you are, you’ve uttered the phrase “I don’t get it”). Let me explain a little background. In many ways, Twitter for me is more about following hashtags and topics rather than about following people. By hashtags, I mean those words or abbreviations preceded by the number or pound sign: #. People who use Twitter invent hashtags to tag and find conversations on certain topics within the Tower of Twitter Babel. Instead of following people on the Twitter website, users resort to applications like Tweetdeck (my preference), HootSuite, etc. in order to follow the issues they care about. I will openly admit that I’m one of those people who love to share information. Until recently, I was the person who posted too much on listserves. When I realized that Twitter is a space where you can’t share too much, I’ve re-directed my energy there and learned a lot in the process.

As a person passionate about immigrant rights, I’ve been noticing more people using Twitter who are opposed to just and humane immigration reform. I’ll refrain from calling them ‘haters’ or ‘racists’ but they believe in “personal responsibility”, abiding by laws even if they are unjust or outdated and, in the words of cognitive linguist George Lakoff, they have an authoritarian worldview that sees the nation as disciplined father-dominant family (“Do it because I told you so.”).  As someone who sees my country as a nurturing family, I often find it difficult to engage the other side. Here’s what I’ve learned:

  1. Judge whether an argument is really worth it. Outspoken opponents of your advocacy issue are not going to change their point of view; no matter how persuasively you state your case and no matter what facts you cite. The opposing tweeter is not going to suddenly type, “I see your point! You’re right and I was wrong!” Not going to happen. That said, debates can help sharpen your advocacy skills. To break out of our issue silos in our balkanized media age, it’s healthy to engage the other side. But often these are not the folks you are going to convert and enlist in your movement.  The people on the sidelines, the tweeters who are eavesdropping on your conversation, are the ones you want to enlist. Keep that in mind and be sure to tweet in a respectful manner. As Quakers put it, recognize the light of God in all people.
  2. Give yourself a time or tweet limit. Debates on Twitter often go in circles, especially between entrenched sides. Before you jump in, tell yourself how much time or how many tweets you’re willing to commit. More than 10 tweets can be excessive no matter how passionate both parties are. You have a life offline: enjoy it (I say this in part to myself because I wasted an afternoon at the museum by tweet debating on my iPhone).
  3. Use hashtags to tag team the opponent. When you start or engage in a debate, be sure to include a popular hashtag so that your allies can see the conversation and jump in. While Twitter is not the right place for a town hall (see #4 below), it is useful for your opponent to grasp that you’re not alone in your “kooky” beliefs. One funny thing I’ve noticed is that tweeters opposed to my beliefs are often using hashtags without realizing their meaning or perhaps to pick a fight. For example, #ri4a refers to “Reform Immigration for America”, a pro-immigrant campaign by many immigrant rights organizations. Some folks interested only in heavy-handed immigration enforcement, have used #ri4a in their tweets.
  4. Redirect your opponent elsewhere. Conversations between multiple members are difficult on Twitter: the more people you include in tweets cuts into your 140-character limit. I think a better option is to redirect your opponent to a blog post or another online space where comments are allowed, i.e. “Let’s discuss this further over here…” There are many advantages to this. Not only will the blogger love you for getting a conversation going on their site, it provides a way to track an overall argument and involve others.
  • For avid tweeters out there: Based on your experience, do you have other recommendations for debates on Twitter? What would you add or disagree with above?
  • For folks unfamiliar with Twitter: don’t let this scare you away. It’s still worth dipping your toe into the white water rapids of Twitter. Be sure to use an application and follow hashtags or search terms you’re most interested. Find me on Twitter @willcoley and let me know how it goes!
4 Comments leave one →
  1. jamesmcarthy permalink
    April 5, 2010 7:46 am

    Great advice ! to be practiced in offline life as well.

  2. kyledeb permalink
    December 9, 2009 3:45 pm

    This is great advice, Will. Strategies for dealing with nativists are always welcome, and I have been having trouble on twitter. I’m not a fan of 140 character debates.

  3. December 2, 2009 4:15 pm

    -judge if the argument is worth it or not: like in real life, this is a big winner

    -give urself a time or tweet limit: i like to think of this more like give ANY argument an emotional limit, however long it takes, if u start to feel really angry, u gotta back off and take time to feel better. no point is worth fostering these feelings.

    -use hashtags to get others in on the argument: like in real life, i find this a bad tactic. if you can’t make your point on your own, you can’t make your point. so be it. if you are right, this other person will be persuaded eventually by reality. thats the nice thing about actually being right, reality backs you up in the long run, you don’t always have to make the point right then…. See More

    -redirect your opponent elsewhere: i guess :S the bottom line is if u couldnt make your argument to them they aren’t going to read the media u provide them with, most likely.

    other suggestions: YES! it really must be kept in mind on twitter, fb and in real life, we are all very very similar! when i find myself too upset with those whose ideas i find genuinely abhorrent, i try to ask them about their family, or their favorite foods, or something else personal so i can have a better sense of my ‘opponent’ as just another person on my big planet earth block, we are all neighbors and family with eachother now, so we better start practicing patience, understanding, acceptance and tolerance towards eachother or we’ll just have another dark age on our hands.

    best to you!!! 😀

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