Debating on Twitter: A guide for academics

I’ve been in more than a few Twitter debates over the years. Sometimes it’s worth it, usually it’s not. It’s worth it when it serves an educative function, but it’s not if it gets personal, nasty, or time consuming.

I still fall into the trap of worthless debates on occasion, yet I’m trying to get better about holding back from those.

If you find yourself before a potentially worthwhile Twitter debate, here are a few principles I’ve tried to hone over the years (again, with varying degrees of success.) I’ve found they’ve helped me make my point and have a positive impact.

1)  Only engage in debates where you truly have expertise.

It’s not worth bloviating about things you merely have an opinion or hunch about. If you don’t research it, let someone else who does chime in.

2) Don’t pull the credential card or use arguments from authority.

Yes, it’s frustrating when a rando argues with you about your area of expertise and refuses to recognize that maybe, just maybe, someone who researches a topic for a living might know more about it than the average person, a Wikipedia reference, or a Google search.

Regardless, you still shouldn’t use your doctorate or professorship as an argument or a put down. Not only are arguments from authority logical fallacies, but they look petty and weak.

If you’re tempted to pull out your credentials, you’re probably in a debate that isn’t worth having. If you’re still convinced that the debate is one worth having, then stick to the facts, sources, and research. Trolls have a harder time when you do and you leave with your professional dignity unscathed.

3) Tease, don’t mock.

It’s easy to make fun of people’s ignorance, especially when you study a topic and they don’t. The desire to dunk on someone becomes particularly strong if your interlocutor is being smug, obtuse, aggressive, or uses mockery themselves. Once you engage in mockery, though, you’re probably being a bit of a jerk, too.

So, instead of mocking, go for teasing, which is more playful and well-intentioned. It can also be disarming. This a subtle distinction and the line between the two is thin. But it can make a big difference. Aim to nudge someone away from their error with humour, rather than make fun of their person.

4) Know when to stop.

This is the toughest one. Lord knows how quickly one can get pulled into the rabbit hole of a Twitter debate. To guard against this time suck, be aware of how many times you’ve repeated yourself or made the same point. If you’re saying the same thing more than twice, walk away.

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