There’s nothing quite as unexpected as people respectfully disagreeing with each other on the internet. It’s like the magical unicorn of social media.
The rules of common decency don’t seem to apply on the interwebs. Too often, we give ourselves a free pass to say things we would (hopefully) never say to someone’s face.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
If we really, actually, believe that love is the answer to conflict, why don’t we act like it in the comment section? Facebook often feels like ground zero in the war of words.
Think about how different social media if we chose to love anyway in our conversations online. Imagine how many destructive, friendship-ending conflicts we could de-escalate if we held space for each other on social media.
Why do we think preemptive love can make a difference in literal war zones if we’re not willing to give it a try on Facebook?
It is because we don’t think it will work? Or is it because we think peace is something other people make “over there”?
Or maybe we care about being right more than we care about being in relationship with people.
But the great thing about online peacemaking is that anyone can do it—no matter who you are or where you live. And you can start anytime. Including… now!
Here are seven ways to wage peace in the comment section…
1. Read (or watch, listen, etc.) BEFORE you engage.
Our brains are wired to form opinions quickly, sometimes before we have all the facts. One study found it takes only a fraction of a second to form a lasting impression of a stranger.
It’s even easier to react before we know what we’re reacting to when we’re not face to face. Resist commenting until you’ve read the whole article, watched the whole video, or made your way through the whole post. Be willing to listen to someone else’s perspective before adding your own.
2. Deal with your anger before you deal with the other person.
We’ve all been there. We’ve all felt the outrage coursing through our bodies when someone says something we find objectionable. Add to that the fact that when someone challenges our core beliefs on social media, our brains treat it as an actual threat—and, well, it’s not a great recipe for healthy dialogue.
When you feel your internal temperature rising, take a minute to practice some calming exercises before you respond. Breathe. Pray. Meditate. Vent to a trusted friend. Or write down your most scathing response—somewhere you can’t accidentally push “send”—and get it out of your system.
Then take a deep breath, and prepare yourself to respond with kindness, understanding, and love.
3. Ask yourself what you hope to achieve.
Our motives can be incredibly complex, sometimes unknown even to us. We may feel genuinely passionate about an issue… and at the same time want to put the other person “in their place.” Before you start typing, ask yourself a few exploratory questions:
Why am I responding to this?
What do I want to achieve with this interaction?
What do I want the other person to get out of it?
There are many valid reasons to engage in civil debate online: to advocate for your point of view, to share overlooked facts or perspectives, to foster mutual understanding and respect. But if it’s about winning or humiliating the other person, check yourself first.
4. Turn the caps lock off.
Resist the urge to internet yell by USING ALL CAPS. Same goes for excessive use of emojis or exclamation points!!!!!!!!!!! It’s disrespectful to the other person, it doesn’t do anything to advance the conversation—and chances are, it will discourage people from hearing you out. (Also, even a well-intentioned emoji is famously subject to misinterpretation.)
Roughly 93% of conversation is non-verbal, according to some experts. That’s 93% of our ability to communicate that we lose when we debate online. All caps, emojis, and exclamation points are poor substitutes for nonverbal communication. The best thing is to choose your words carefully and kindly—and let them do the talking.
5. Show respect.
Tone is tricky to navigate, especially in digital conversations. (Again, the screen that separates you from the other person also eliminates 93% of your ability to communicate.)
But do your best to communicate with a respectful tone. Try thinking of someone who always speak to respectfully—your boss, your grandma, your mentor. Then write your comment in the same way you would speak to that person if they were standing right in front of you.
6. Stick to the facts, ditch the snark.
Anger and sarcasm can be cathartic. Your brain releases dopamine whenever you have what you feel was a successful social interaction—like when feel you just “won” the argument on Facebook with your witty takedown. That’s what anger and sarcasm are so hard to resist online.
But a short-term dopamine hit is not worth a long-term hit to the relationship. Anger and sarcasm can often distract from your point and can even counteract your words. Even if you make the most compelling argument possible—if you do it with a snarky tone, that’s the only thing the other person will remember.
7. Debate ideas, not people.
Yes, this applies to everyone. The person you’re responding to. Famous politicians. Everyone.
Focus your critique on policies and actions. Advocate for your point of view. But remember, attacking people is never loving or respectful. It’s easier to forget the humanity of the other person when there’s a screen between you.
Remember, not every “wrong” opinion on the internet needs your response. People do not change their opinions easily. Chances are, your passing comment on the internet will not be the thing that changes the other person’s mind.
At the same time, some debates are worth having. It’s worth pushing back against hatred, prejudice, or the marginalization of other people. Sometimes it’s worth the extra effort to correct misinformation or simply to try to open someone’s mind to another point of view.
But just as we cannot bomb our way to peace, we cannot shout, troll, or shame our way to common ground on the internet.
If you want to push back hate, if you really want to make a difference, approach the conversation—and especially the person—with love.
Most of all, remember: no amount of online peacemaking can replace the peacemaking we do offline, face to face. There is also a way to draw closer to one another in our communities and neighborhoods: we can gather. In person. With THAT person.
THAT’S how we can really heal what’s tearing us apart. Take the first step today.
Learn more about Love Anyway Gathering
Note: This post was originally published in July 2017 and updated in February 2020, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.