Why don't people often try to earnestly persuade others of their political views on the internet?
"It is a truth universally acknowledge..." oh wait, wrong Austen novel
Scott Alexander has an article, entitled with Guided by the Beauty of our Weapons in which he makes two observations which have always stuck with me, even when I couldn’t remember the name of that article:
A) Startlingly few people online make a bona fide attempt at making a case for their political beliefs that is likely to persuade anyone who doesn’t already agree with them.
B) When you make such a case, in the right context, in the right way, people often react very positively. I can back this one up myself from personal experience.
But this creates a mystery- if persuasive material can work very well, but is rare then why are all these damn $50 bills lying on the sidewalk?
Some definitions. By persuasive material I mean something relatively simple:
Online material which is genuinely intended for an audience that does not already share your basic beliefs on a subject, meant to bring them closer to your beliefs. This simple definition implies some fairly obvious riders, for example, persuasive material shouldn’t be abrasive, let alone abusive, to people who don’t already share your beliefs.
There are only two types of adjacent material that I want to take pains to exclude.
Firstly, political education, that is material intended for people who already share your basic framework for viewing the world, elaborating on some aspect of that framework. Persuasive material must be intended for those across a reasonably big political divide, political education for other believers doesn’t count.
Secondly, “fact checking” and polemical “corrections”. These can be very useful, and, like political education, may sometimes incidentally persuade, but they are not what I have in mind.
Plainly, whether something is persuasive material, political education or polemical fact checking will often be a matter of degree, and many pieces will do more than one, but I nonetheless find these distinctions useful.
To be clear, I am not dismissing the importance of material which is, on this definition, unpersuasive. I am merely bemused as to why persuasive material isn’t a bigger portion of what is written- why is it not 20% instead of 3%?
Here’s a way of setting up the paradox. Consider the following premises:
The two most fundamental ways to achieve political goals are organizing and persuading.
A lot of people online are interested in politics and have political goals.
People aren’t stupid. They’re strategic actors when it comes to what they want, and it’s unusual for large groups of people to leave $50 dollar bills lying on the ground.
The vast majority of political content we see online isn’t primarily intended to persuade those not already convinced, nor would it be fit for that purpose.
There is, if not an outright contradiction, at least an apparent tension between these four premises. In particular, it’s hard to see how, if 1-3 are true, 4 can be true.
Or to put it in a personal way. I am not an especially charming person, perhaps I am a little more charismatic than the average person, but I am nothing special. Despite that, I have, simply by making a consistent effort, shifted the political beliefs of several score people quite substantially. That tally only includes people I’ve met personally. Who knows how many people I have influenced but never met. So why aren’t more people doing this sort of thing, especially online?
In this essay, I’m going to give some explanations. I believe every explanation here holds an element of truth, but I will grade them out of 10 on how much truth I think they contain.
Explanations that challenge the premises of the question
Persuasion doesn’t work theory
One very simple explanation for why people aren’t trying to be persuasive is that persuasion doesn’t work and people know this. I don’t put a lot of credence in this theory. I wasn’t born a socialist, nor was I raised one. Other people weren’t born conservatives. Nor did I spontaneously recreate socialism on my own, people explained it to me. Thus, at some point, there has to be some persuading going on. Still, there is some truth to this theory. Persuading people of things is difficult, and even more than difficult, it is frustrating (especially if you approach it the wrong way). I rate this theory 5/10. There’s a dollop of partial truth here.
As an aside, I will add that, perhaps because we’re out of practice, when people do attempt persuasion they often do it in a hackey way. It carries the tone of I am here to educate you in a whiny voice, I am probably wearing a lanyard and will probably say “well actually”. This could be leading to a feedback effect of persuasion continuing not to work so well because we don’t have many good models for it.
Persuasion doesn’t look like you think it does theory
A more sophisticated version of the previous theory is as follows- people are trying to be persuasive and persuasion does work. However, contrary to what you might expect, the best form of persuasion is bombastic statements that look, on the surface, like they are just preaching to the choir. Persuasion, then, is already all around us.
We might take a quasi-Calvinist view on this. Perhaps all the people who are going to become conservatives or socialists, or liberals or whatever already have it, deep in their blood. That is to say they are already the elect of these ideologies. Thus the right way to persuade is not so much to try and cajole liberalism, socialism or conservatism into someone, but to merely uncover what was already there. It just turns out that clear, eloquent, and above all forceful statements of opinion are the best way to do this.
I don’t dismiss this entirely. One of the things that dealing with Trotskyists at university impressed on me is the power that comes from having a very clear, explicit line. Yet at the same time I am dubious, because those same Trotskyists, who seemed to have a definite ceiling on their success, impressed on me that clarity and passion alone will only get you so far. Also, even if clear, fiery statements are generally the best way to pursue persuasion, surely there should still be some more room for trying other things? My own experience of a more measured approach suggests there are at least some out there who will receive this better. Yet the landscape seems to grow close to a monoculture of stark and fiery statements. I rate this theory 7/10- interesting, provocative, but at best partial.
Explanations grounded in the psychology of individuals
Or what about signaling theory? According to signaling theory, people aren’t trying to persuade others because they aren’t really interested in doing politics or achieving political goals. Rather they are only interested in signaling that they have the right politics. Persuasion is a bad way to do this, it requires an openness to dialogue. That creates a sense of ambiguity and complexity which is bad for signaling affiliation.
Now this is a very good theory, and I think it is a lot of the explanation, but there are a lot of people in the world who I truly think would, in a non-showy way, die for what they profess. There are others who I am confident would make smaller, but still meaningful sacrifices. Yet strangely, even these people often don’t seem to be making a concerted effort to persuade others. Overall I rate this theory 8/10.
Vicarious expression theory
Similar to the signaling theory we have the vicarious expression theory. People are doing politics online to vent frustration, not to achieve political goals. Persuasion is bad for venting, thus it doesn’t happen much. The reason they are not trying to attempt political goals is open to further debate- maybe they don’t really believe in their stated goals, and just want a rival sports team to yell at, or maybe they do believe in their goals, but view their internet time as “downtime” when they’re not really trying to accomplish anything except venting. I rate this theory about a 7/10.
According to incapability theory, people don’t attempt to persuade others very often because they lack the capacity. Exactly what this incapacity consists in is open to debate, maybe they lack the confidence to attempt it, the patience to keep trying or maybe they lack the knowhow of persuasion?
Now there’s probably some truth to this as an explanation, but we must remember that stuff we see on the internet is generally written by unusually erudite and confident people relative to the internet baseline. Thus even if a lot of people, or a majority, are incapable of being persuasive, there should still be more than enough who are capable that we should see their work everywhere, but we don’t. Also, since when has lacking skill or confidence been a major barrier to anything on the internet? I rate this theory 5/10.
Explanations grounded in information ecology
Priced out of the attention economy theory
One very simple explanation of why we don’t see a lot of content intended to persuade on the internet is that pieces that try to persuade take a lot of time and energy to process and so are too pricy to be widely bought and sold in a tight attention economy. I call this the priced-out of the attention economy theory. One plausible objection to this theory is that there has always been a niche market for long-form pieces on the internet-longish youtube videos, long-form articles, etc. If this theory is true, why aren’t more of these aimed at persuasion?
One line of reply is that quite a few of them are. Think of Natalie Wynn’s long-form video’s for example- these seem like they belong to the handful of cultural productions which make an earnest attempt (often a very good one!) to persuade. So the priced-out of the attention economy theory has two virtues- it can explain why there are few attempts at persuasion, and it can predict where those few attempts that do exist will be found- with the long-form content that somehow survives despite the internet’s preference against it.
A more fundamental objection to the priced out theory is that even on Twitter it is possible to say something that aims to be persuasive in 240 characters. It’s hard, it doesn’t come naturally to the medium, but it is possible. There is such a thing as persuasion in brief, thus a bias towards brief media can’t entirely explain the parlous state of persuasion.
I rate this theory 8/10. I think it holds a very substantial portion of the truth, but not all of it.
Persuasion doesn’t work online theory
What if there is some particular aspect of the online experience that makes it difficult to persuade people online, that doesn’t apply to other contexts? Perhaps, for example, the problem is that when people have a sense of tension or uncertainty that often arises in the context of persuasion, they have the option of clicking out immediately.
I’m not quite sure what to make of this one, it doesn’t seem to me to explain the few times people have tried persuasion and it has worked quite well. Still, I think it probably has an important component of truth.
I rate this theory 7/10.
Natural selection theory
Now we come to perhaps my preferred explanation for the lack of attempted persuasion- how stuff that gets circulated, is chosen, and the “natural selection” of content. The content that we see a lot of, content that gets shared, upvoted, and favorited, is chosen on the degree to which people strongly approve of it. But, by definition, material that is meant to be persuasive isn’t often strongly approved of, for one thing, it’s primarily targeted at people who are not already believers, and thus unless it is wildly and instantaneously successful, it is unlikely to leave its target readers enthusiastically agreeing with it. Thus we can say of its audience- even if they upvote it, they are unlikely to share it, and even if they share it, they are unlikely to share it multiple times. This means that we are unlikely to see much of the persuasive material which is created, and in response to this market signal, less of it is produced.
This is my personal favorite theory, I rate it 9/10.
Closing advice- swim against the current
My personal advice would be that if you really care about the ideas you believe in, you should try to swim against the current. Despite the odds, I’ve found it does work sometimes, and when it does, it’s a lot more meaningful than screaming into the void.
If you want my advice on persuasion, go to page 215 of my book- “Live More Lives Than One.”:
Using the oldest persuasive tactic in the book, let me remind you it is free.