Social media has had a profound impact on society. Pro-life people are engaged on social media, and more should become so. However, engaging successfully on social media requires knowledge and skill. Being successful in engagement over Facebook or Twitter requires a completely different approach than the one needed to be successful in engaging with someone in person, and sometimes I worry that some people may not have thought through all the nuances of how the approaches differ. Here are some general principles to get you started.

Know your audience

A big mistake people make on social media is they think the metric of a successful, fruitful online engagement with someone on a topic like abortion is the same for in-person engagement. Specifically, they think they’re trying to move the position or change the mind of the person they’re talking to, even a small bit. That might be one of the things you’re trying to do, but actually, engaging in a conversation online is far more like engaging an opponent in a formal debating context. The goal of a debater is never to change the mind of or make an impression on their opponent. Your opponent’s job is to oppose you, no matter what great arguments you make. The goal of a debater is actually to convince everyone else in the room, namely the audience. While you direct your speech to your debating opponents, your real target is the people who take no part in the debate, but sit at the sidelines, listen to both sides, and come to their own conclusion.

When you engage online, your audience is not the person you’re tagging. Your audience is everyone else reading the thread, maybe adding a comment, maybe reacting to a reply, but most likely not engaging at all, just observing. These people are forming impressions of you and the person you’re talking to. If it feels like your opponent is being deeply frustrating, incredibly stupid or just plain rude, all those other people can see that too. They see how impossible your opponent is being, and they see how you’re responding. If you respond calmly and politely, always answering their questions and posing thoughtful ones of your own, the audience will think well of you and not of your opponent (especially if your opponent keeps firing questions back at you but never answers yours).

This article gives a really good illustration of what it looks like for someone observing but not engaging online to slowly change their minds on a lot of things over a long course of time. You will hardly ever get someone admitting on a thread that you’ve given them something to think about, or given them a new idea. Rarely, you might get a private message from someone telling you as much (those are the best PMs ever!). But if you’re patient, kind, and gentle, you will definitely get a lot of people thinking, and questioning their beliefs, and thinking a little less of those on their “side”, even if you never hear from them.

Don’t ever let frustration show

Following on from this point, it’s so important to never let your frustration show online. If you find you’re getting angry, it’s a good idea to stop engaging. That’s one of the few things social media has in its favour compared to engaging with someone in real life. It’s absolutely fine to walk away from an online engagement for a while, or even for good, in a way you just can’t when you’re talking to someone face to face. It’s ok to say “I have to go out for a bit but will come back to this later!” and do something else while you cool off, or have a think about how to respond. It’s also fine to just stop replying without even saying why. People get interrupted, they run out of coverage or battery, and you can circle back later if you want (or not).

Online engagement can be really, really toxic, and people who hold a pro-life view are quite often subjected to the worst of it. Everything you say is twisted, misinterpreted, and presented in the worst possible light. It can be so, so frustrating to sign up to more attacks and ridicule on a regular basis. But you just can’t let that frustration show. You could undo weeks of good work if you start to snap.

This is one of the most intriguing TED talks I’ve ever seen. Meghan Phelps-Roper grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church, who are known for being cruel, hostile, belligerent and completely closed to opposing viewpoints. Despite this, Meghan eventually left the church, along with her sister, following a sustained period of engagement with people on social media, specifically Twitter. Her story is one of the best examples of the power of reasonable online engagement, entered into with goodwill, to change minds and hearts. Specifically, Meghan recounts how it was gentle, patient engagement, over and over again, rather than snappy comebacks, angry outbursts or hot takes, that eventually made her open to seeing things differently. So if you’re angry or frustrated, hide it. You won’t get anywhere by letting your opponent know they’ve managed to wind you up.

In a future post, we’ll cover two more principles to keep in mind when engaging online: Engagement can backfire, and Trolling always makes things worse. Stay tuned!