The lead up to the election was pretty brutal on the Internet.
Everything from climate change to Medicare privatisation to the right to be a Muslim was on the table. Micro parties with misleading agendas were dissected all over the place. Reasoned discussion was answered with crappy memes, facts met with excessive use of caps-lock, evidence stricken from the record when it didn’t match opinions.
It was like the Internet at all times, but more so. Internet intensified. And that’s just here in Australia. Checking out some Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, it looks like it’s been pretty intense in America for some time now, between the presidential election, racial tension and the never-ceasing discussion on gun laws.
Why Do People Engage in Debates on the Internet?
This really comes down to the individual. I’m no expert but I think lots of people just want to be heard. There’s something to be said for putting your views out there and finding people that share them, for better or worse. When you find someone that agrees with you, it can go a long way towards validating your position. Whether or not that is a good thing is up for debate, though. It’s probably a big part of why some people are so comfortable in expressing racist or xenophobic opinions; they are far from alone.
What Happens When You Engage?
If you try to add a different view to any discussion, you’re probably not going to change the minds of those who are disagreeing with you. Not necessarily because you are wrong, either. You can share studies, official policies, facts and information from reputable sources, but if someone really doesn’t want to believe you, they won’t. And the mere challenge of their beliefs can be enough to draw their ire down on you. When you’re passionately defending a position that isn’t rooted in facts, you have nowhere to turn except for personal attacks. These seem to range from fairly benign judgments on your intellect to nonsensical insults and angry threats of physical harm.
So, Why Bother?
If views like that remain unchallenged, we lend them a legitimacy that they don’t really deserve. Someone (possibly Edmund Burke?) once said “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Does it seem a little melodramatic to apply that to debates on the internet? Maybe. But look at it this way. We are more engaged now than ever before. We discuss issues with people from all over the world online. We have more access to information (both good and bad) than ever before. We don’t hold our opinions in relative isolation anymore. If we don’t ever challenge harmful views, we run the risk of them being accepted as truths.
Be under no illusions. If someone is coming at you online in a caps-locked rage about their favourite chocolate being halal certified, no explanation of what halal literally means will change their view. Talking about the export market won’t help them to see reason. Likewise, frustrated “YOU ARE A RACIST BIGOT” responses won’t change their minds, either.
Putting information out there is not for the benefit of the person with the questionable opinions. It’s for the silent observers. The people reading along at home who might be still forming their own opinion. A few reasonable comments here, a link to good information there. Things like that offer balance to a discussion and just might help someone to decide how they feel or prompt them to look further into whatever the issue is. I should know; I’ve been that person many times!
When It Gets Too Much.
Battle fatigue was a military term for an acute reaction to the stress of combat. I’m by no means comparing the stress of the online debate to that experienced by people who fight in wars. However, continually butting heads online is bound to have an impact. There’s only so many times you can read hateful remarks directed at you or what you believe before it wears down on you.
I’m calling it; Internet battle fatigue is a thing. I’m no expert, of course, but I did talk to a psychologist friend who agreed with me. The polite exchange of ideas, even when you disagree, is one thing. Weathering any form of attack, over and over, is exhausting and really upsetting. I found myself in a position not that long ago in a private Facebook group. Trying to explain yourself repeatedly to people who don’t want to listen is hard. Being criticised (deserved or not) can make us feel ashamed, angry or insecure. Add feelings of being misunderstood into the mix and you have one unhealthy cocktail. That day, the way I felt impacted my ability to sleep between my work shifts. I barely ate. I felt overly emotional and really drained. Talking to friends who’ve had similar experiences, they’d experienced similar responses.
What Should You Do?
As I said before, I’m no expert. I can only tell you what I do. And that is to take a break. Distance is a wonderful tool to gain perspective. In that instance, I decided to leave the group. In other instances, I’ve unsubscribed from the thread so that I didn’t get notifications. I’ve made a conscious choice to not look at the comments section again (or not to look at all!). Here on my blog, I filter and remove comments that are abusive. I also have no hesitation in blocking people here or on social media. I even sometimes adjust settings in advance so that certain people don’t see what I’m sharing to avoid the potential conflict.
I don’t enter into online debate anywhere near as much as I used to because it does take it’s toll on me. If you’re in the same boat and feeling like you’re constantly banging your head on your desk, give yourself permission to step back from it. You’re not obliged to right the wrongs of the world online. That is something I keep telling myself. There is value in standing up for what you believe in. There is value in sharing information and ideas. There is value in challenging harmful opinions and beliefs. But there is also a hell of a lot to be said for looking after yourself as well.
#FYBF @ With Some Grace.