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Last week, I gave two pieces of advice on using social media for discussing subjects like abortion: Know your audience and Don’t ever let frustration show. This week, we continue with two more overarching pieces of advice to bear in mind when engaging on social media.

Engagement can backfire

Countering misinformation on the internet, and particularly on social media is completely different to countering misinformation in real life. If you meet a friend or family member spreading misinformation, sitting them down and explaining why they might want to rethink has no real costs associated with it. Hopefully you’ll change their mind, but if not, you’re no worse off. However, this is definitely not the case with social media. The reason why: algorithms.

Social media engines used to simply show you everything your friends posted/tweeted/linked, in the order in which they did so. You logged in and saw what your friends and groups wanted you to see. However, all that changed when social media companies started to use algorithms. This is where instead of showing you content that your friends specifically posted, they showed you something your friend might have clicked “Like” on, or followed, or replied to. So how do they decide which things to put on your timeline and which to leave off?

Social media companies earn money from people reading and clicking on links. This means they want to show you things you are most likely to read and click on. The way they decide what you’re most likely to read and click on is simple – they look at what other people are reading, engaging with and clicking on. This means that every time you read someone else’s link, or page, or reply to a comment, it is increasingly likely that that post will show up on someone else’s page.

Crucially, the social media company’s algorithm doesn’t care why you engaged with a particular post. It doesn’t care that you just totally schooled some stupid bro-choicer on how wrong he is about abortion. It doesn’t care that you wiped the floor with someone who claimed that only religious people are pro-life. It doesn’t care that you posted a fantastic, detailed explanation about everything a particular pro-choice film got horribly wrong. The only thing the algorithm sees is that this link is getting lots of clicks and replies, so they will show that link to more people, including all your friends and followers. All those people will see the original link. Will they see your awesome, intelligent comment? Maybe. Will they read it, and realise the original link is all wrong? Hopefully. But if you hadn’t commented in the first place, they’d never have seen the link in the first place.

Pro-life people have to learn this lesson. So often, we feel the need to flood a particular page that’s spouting “misinformation” in order to let people know the truth, when actually, we’d have been better off ignoring the page altogether, and perhaps sharing an alternative pro-life perspective or page instead. We are vastly outnumbered on social media. We need to box clever. So often, the best thing you can do with online misinformation is to ignore it entirely.

To be clear, there are things we can do in online situations to help when pro-choice people are throwing around misinformation! The flipside of all the above is that positive online engagement can also be easier than you think. There’s a lot to be said for a simple “Like” or a comment on a pro-life link saying “This is a great article, thanks for sharing”. Nothing mind-blowing, but something that means the article may show up in your friends’ profiles. Or, if you find yourself in an online forum or group where someone has shared a pro-choice article, instead of giving your hot take on everything that’s wrong with the article, just start commenting on any other posts and threads you see. This will cause those threads to be bumped up and the pro-choice article to get bumped down. Use the algorithm to your advantage.

Trolling always makes things worse

Trolling is the bane of a social media moderator’s life. Trolling has a pretty wide definition, but for my purposes I’m talking about when someone comments or engages online in a deliberate attempt to cause conflict. Sometimes someone accidentally causes conflict, and was genuinely was trying to engage, but was angry, or clumsy, or both, and comes across as a troll. This is unfortunate (and it’s one of the reasons for never letting your frustration show online). Quite often though, if someone online is being annoying, they’re doing so on purpose. Pro-life people are as guilty of this as anyone else, and it’s not helpful.

Because pro-life people are vastly outnumbered on social media, we simply cannot afford to troll. The vast majority of social media users are predisposed to think well of pro-choice people and to think ill of pro-life people. This means a pro-choice troll has safety in numbers, and can get away with being rude, abrasive and ignorant online. Pro-life people can’t. When we troll, we annoy everyone. Everyone stops listening, and we often get banned from online fora.

Every time you engage online on the issue of abortion, ask yourself if you would say this to the person’s face. If the answer is no, you definitely shouldn’t be saying it online. If getting the other person to feel anger or shame or even discomfort is motivating your comment in any way, don’t comment. Find another way of phrasing your point that doesn’t cause conflict.

If you simply can’t resist winding up a bunch of pro-choice people, then you need to find a way to help the pro-life movement that doesn’t involve online engagement at all. To be clear, there are lots of things you can do to help the pro-life movement! Talking to friends and family, writing letters to newspapers and politicians, donating time, resources or money to pro-life and pro-woman organisations or getting involved in good causes that are not directly related to abortion are all ways of helping the unborn that keep you away from social media.