Interacting Online with Differing Opinions: To Engage or Not to Engage?

Today’s digitally-connected world is more polarized than ever. As one who came of age before the proliferation of social media, I still sometimes sit back with amazement to think about how we can now easily interact with people and content channels all over the world.

While this has its myriad of benefits, it also creates a more substantial opportunity for conflict, as people with different religions and political ideologies converge in the digital space. Further complicating this is the reality that with social media we are apt to share more information about our deeply held beliefs than we would have previously. Especially for those of us who are introverts, prone to keep our thoughts to ourselves unless prompted.

As a result, we often learn more about people’s positions and ideologies by merely observing what they post, share, and how they comment on things. This has the opportunity to either unite us or divide us.

As I’ve gotten older, my introspective nature has become even more dominant, causing me to think longer about which opinions to air, what topics to comment on, and who to interact with on controversial issues. My general distaste for conflict finds me opting not to comment on a majority of posts with which I disagree. The phrase “pick your battles” comes to mind.

With these things in mind, here are a few principles I use to filter my willingness to engage.

1. Do I have a relationship in good standing with this person?

Furthermore, do I feel confident that they know that I respect them even though I disagree with them?

This filter also depends on the platform. These days, I’m more reserved on Facebook, where I personally know all my contacts, and odds are I’ll see them in real life. On the other hand, many people I interact with on Twitter, and to a lesser extent, Instagram, are folks I’ll don’t know and may never meet. That tends to help with my candor.

Please note, I don’t use the unfamiliarity to treat someone less respectfully than I would at any other time. I just feel freer to share my thoughts in that setting.

2. Is this issue a “hill to die on?”

In other words, is this of so much importance to me that I am willing to stick my neck out and risk ridicule, disrespect from others, and even potential de-platforming to comment on it? When I think in those terms, the number of issues I’ll argue about drops dramatically.

3. Do I know enough about my position and the other person’s position to speak intelligently about the topic?

In the world of the 24-hour news cycle, quite frankly, there is just too much information and too many scandals cluttering our newsfeeds to stay up on all of it. It can be overwhelming. I’ll admit, many times I’ll just skim headlines for the majority of trending stories without taking the time to read the details. I’m not a news junkie, so other things rise higher on my priority list than being conversant in the scandal(s) de jour.

I’ve tried unsuccessfully to engage on topics about which I was under-informed. It’s not pretty. Inevitably, the person I strike up a conversation with on such a topic can type circles around me, leaving me cramming articles to try to catch up and respond accordingly. Which brings me to my next point.

4. Do I have the time to have a meaningful conversation?

Has anyone else gotten into a debate online with someone, only to discover that for every one-paragraph comment you make, the other person replies with several mini-essays? Within a terribly short amount of time? When that happens, I can’t help but wonder, “Do you have the day off today?” “Do you have any other tasks to do or other people to visit with?” HOW DO YOU HAVE TIME TO WRITE ALL THAT?

It is nice to be able to go away for a while, think, research, and write something thoughtful in my own time. It just seems that Murphy’s Law often dishes me up with someone whose full-time job for the day is typing insanely long responses. That overwhelms me, and I want to be able to represent my side thoroughly, respond to them thoughtfully, and it is challenging to carve out large blocks of time to do so. Thus, I often remain silent if I can’t or won’t spare the time to do it well.

5. Is it a matter of eternal or significant moral importance?

In other words, is it someone whose soul is in danger of hell, who is espousing clear evidence that they do not know of the saving message of the gospel? Or is it a moral issue that is eating away at the collective soul of society? Is someone mispresenting the Bible? These topics are of utmost importance to me. I’ll engage with someone about salvation over politics any day. I’d much rather talk about a moral issue than about the latest bickering among D.C. elites.

That being said, it is true that immorality and politics are becoming more and more intertwined, as government becomes more evil and corrupt. That only serves to give me more pause. With eternity and the souls of individuals at stake, I pray that I choose my battles wisely. Sometimes I’m too cowardly and remain silent when I shouldn’t. Often, I think that chiming in on an issue won’t help or change anyone’s mind. In those cases, I  choose to save my discussions for matters of eternal life or death.

Conclusion

Those are the primary considerations that run through my mind when deciding whether to interact on a topic with someone online. Do you have any specific guidelines you use? I would love to hear them. Please comment with your thoughts or suggestions. Thank you for reading!

 

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About Summer Sorensen

My aim: to live out Jesus' greatest commands (Matthew 22:36-40) & have the most fun while doing it.
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