Technology

How to win an online argument

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 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 subreddit r/changemyview over a 2.5-year period. The forum is an unusually open-minded place: Users post their opinions on topics as varied as comic books and 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 them is pretty good. But Tan says 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. They'll usually interpret that as "nit-picking with their wording," Tan says, and thus what you say is unlikely to sway their opinion.

Don't act too intense — that 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 around points that your opponent didn't initially address. For example, 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 for 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 them.

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% 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. (Incidentally, a 2014 paper found that Twitter is "not an idealized space" for "rational" disagreement. Who'd've guessed!)

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 the Intersect's 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.

"Even though the Internet is mostly a self-organized bottom-up system, it is — by no means — democratic nor horizontal," Taha Yasseri, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, explained by email. "There are lots of social group formation, hierarchies, and dynamic structures that can have considerable effects on how things move and evolve both online and consequently in the off-line world."

Yasseri recently completed her own study of Internet disagreements. It looked at patterns of edit reversion on Wikipedia. But she can't be sure which of the reversions were changed back again and which actually "stuck," because, at some point, the edit flows become too splintered. There's so much noise in the data, Yasseri lamented, that it becomes hard to navigate.

Ironically, that sounds a whole lot like most online debates.

Caitlin Dewey is the digital culture critic at the Washington Post.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 16, 2016, in the Business section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "How to have the last word in a war of words online - Researchers identify arguments on a Web forum that changed people's minds." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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