When Does Debate Become Trolling?

‘Now don’t be offended this is all my opinion ain’t nothing that I’m saying law’ – India Irie
I love to debate but I hate to argue. The problem is, one inevitably follows the other, especially if you happen to be in the pub or alcohol is somehow involved. It’s easier face to face though, you can smile and laugh and playfully shove each other to show you’re joking. Not the same story when it happens on Facebook though as I’ve found out a few times over the last couple of months.

I truly believe that one of social media’s advantages is being able to engage in lively debate with your friends (or even strangers sometimes) as it opens you up to a world of people whose thoughts and opinions you may have never otherwise come across. I believe that healthy debate and discussion is a great way to expand your mind and learn, in a way that is less scholastic than reading a news article or text book. I find social media particularly engaging as the language is often much more easily digestible. I love to read a good debate on twitter on Facebook, especially when there are ‘hot topics’ floating around (such as the recent general election) and I genuinely gain a lot of knowledge from reading other people’s viewpoints.

I also truly believe that if you’re going to come out on a social platform with a sweeping statement or opinion about something potentially controversial (politics, religion and children seem to be the biggest fire starters) then you have to be prepared for someone to disagree. And to me, it’s how you handle that challenge of opinion that dictates whether you’re having an adult debate or whether you’re venturing into troll territory.

I have great discussions with my nearest and dearest about whether the interactions I’ve had on line recently could be classed as trolling. Some think so, as they were debates where there has seemingly been no point in continuing a discussion when neither parties are going to back down or come round to the others way of thinking. I tend to disagree, I would never seek something or say something with the sole purpose of starting an argument, my intention will always be to show ‘a different side of the coin’ but as I say, written down in black and white, meaning is often lost and you invariably end up offending someone. I’ll give you a couple of examples and you can make up your own mind:

Example 1:
Last summer Mumsnet posted a meme with the classic Athena style ‘man holding a baby’ sepia imagine and scrolled across the top was ‘As a parent, I achieve more in 7 minutes than most people do all day’. I would try and find the said meme but the very thought if it still makes me so angry my blood boils to a temperature that would be classed as medically unsafe. Anyway, this did the rounds on my wall multiple times throughout the course of the weekend and I’d had enough. I posted what I thought was an innocent comment pointing out that although I’m sure mums and dads do work very hard, that doesn’t mean us childless contingent don’t. I think what I actually said was something like ‘just because I don’t have children doesn’t mean I sit around all day drinking wine and picking my nose’ I even followed it up with some winky faces and a couple of kisses to prove I was just being daft. Oh how wrong I was. The barrage of abuse that followed would make Katie Hopkins wince (the fact that my profile picture at the time was me drinking straight out of a bottle of wine didn’t exactly help my cause I must admit). I had poked a stick at the wrong bear and was tore a proverbial new one. I was called all sorts from ignorant, to stupid, to lazy, someone even took the time to look through all my previous profile pictures and comment on my appearance and weight.

I mean, I get that having children is hard, and I don’t have them so perhaps the bigger issue is that people feel I’m unqualified to comment, but I loathe the attitude that just because you’ve managed to bear life, it somehow makes you superhuman. And just to be perfectly clear, all my friends and family that have children are brilliant parents, and have adapted to the parent/pre-parent life balance brilliantly.It’s a very small section of the population that I’ve come across that seem to have this attitude and it’s this small section that felt the need to gang up on me and personally insult me.

1384385_10153398023625296_958118039_nThe offending profile picture that started the abuse!

Example 2:
A friend of mine posted a link to an article which was championing essential oils as medical treatment and was commenting on her disbelief that anyone would believe that as reliable medical advice. One girl then commented on her beliefs on essential oils and how she knows someone who knows someone who has a dog who’s married to someone who used essential oils and it cured her cancer. I commented (among many many other people) that I felt her argument to be paper thin at best and that she (and the original article posted) ought to be careful giving out advice they’re not medically qualified to give. Once again, I’m ignorant, I’m small minded, she knows more than me etc. I will hold my hands up and say in this instance, I may have made some snarky comments back, it’s hard when you’re trying to make a valid point, to keep your cool when someone if just throwing insults at you. And that was wrong of me, I get a black mark for that.

I could go on, but I’ll stop there for the sake of my own blood pressure.
Wikipedia describes an Internet Troll as

‘a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion’

I don’t think anything that I said above would fall in that category (of course, I would say that, it’s me and I’m bias) In both those examples, I could have prevented them. I could have not said anything, not rocked the boat, not offered an opinion. I accept some responsibility that I perhaps should learn to pick my battles a little more carefully and know my audience. However I feel that the torrent of abuse I got back was not warranted against the statements I made. In fact, in the case of the first example, it was downright nasty.

I never insulted anyone personally, there were no low blows, I didn’t call anyone a bad parent or a tree hugging, magic bean believing hippy. The word that bugs me the most and which seems to be most people’s go to insult in these situations is ‘closed minded’. No, I’m not closed minded, I just don’t agree with you. Massive difference.

So what have I learnt from my little tete a tetes on social media recently? Well, it hasn’t put me off expressing an opinion, after all, I think people, and thoughts and feelings is what makes the world go round. It has made me perhaps be a little more cautious about what I say and to whom and I would never want anything I say to be taken as gospel or cause offence.
My advice would be know your audience. If you’re the one Newcastle fan wading into to a discussion with 100 Mackems, chances are you’re not going to win. Safety in numbers is the name of the game and logic and compromise will go straight out the window – you won’t win. Pick your battles; ask yourself what you’re really hoping to gain. If you disagree with what someone is saying try and back up what you’re saying with fact. Avoid insults and low blows at all costs, remember there’s a person at the other end of that keyboard. Be nice to each other, in the same way you believe what you’re saying, they believe what they are, be respectful.
And please please, whatever you do, don’t piss off Mumsnet*!!

*only kidding Mumsnet, love all that you are!

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