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5 Signs a Social Media Debate Has Gone Off the Rails

5 Signs a Social Media Debate Has Gone Off the Rails

Social media debates. Are they worth it? That’s a question for the ages, as most online debates quick devolve into swapping barbs which, while occasionally entertaining, aren’t necessarily all that productive.

For the most part, online debates are just places we go to cheer on our own team. But occasionally, every now and then, you might find yourself engaging in an online debate that’s actually challenging, interesting and — who knows! — maybe even persuasive. At this point, if you’ve never changed your mind on something because of new information someone else presented, it might be time to consider if you’re being a little too stubborn for your own good.

So how to know when a debate is worthwhile versus when it’s time to tap out and go touch grass? Well, there’s no easy solution — but here are a few big red flags.

Name Calling

“Typical lib.” “Brainless con.” “Wokeist.” This is the biggest red flag in an online debate. If someone is calling you names, then they’ve put you into a box and they’re no longer dealing with your actual argument but just the pre-arranged strawman they’ve been handed from meme accounts and cable news. Hit the eject button. This conversation is going nowhere good.

Bad Faith Questions

On the internet, this is known as “sealioning.” It’s when one person starts baiting the other into losing their cool by pestering them with endless bad faith questions designed to test their patience and, ultimately, trick them into flipping out. It’s a fairly common debate tactic in some corners and it’s easy to spot once you know what you’re looking for. If someone continuously asks you to source basic claims instead of actually engaging in what you’re saying, you’re being sealioned. No sense in hanging around.

Strawman Arguments 

Most of us learned to spot a strawman in high school debate or philosophy, but clearly it didn’t stick, because you see it happen all the time in online debates. One person will prop up a thin caricature of the other’s argument and, instead of calling out the strawman, the other person will start defending this false characterization of their own argument. You can be surprised how easily you can start arguing a position you don’t even hold just because someone else brings it up. Keep a cool head and be thoughtful about what your own beliefs are and what they aren’t.


This is maybe the most common internet debate faux pas and it truly knows no political party or social identity. One of the reasons it’s incredibly easy to deflect one person’s political attack with a completely unrelated accusation is because we’ve been conditioned to think in partisan boxes. I don’t have to think seriously about sexual abuse and misconduct in the Republican Party if I can remind Democrats of the sexual misconduct and abuse in theirs — even though that reminder does nothing at all to absolve Republicans of their own moral failings. It takes a lot of time and reflection to condition yourself out of reaching for a Whataboutism in an online debate, but it’s worth the effort.

You’re Getting Madder Than You Should

As a good rule of thumb, you should have a base understanding of how important an issue actually is to you and not get any more worked up about it online than you would under any normal circumstance. It is wild to see men and women going on ALLCAPS, redfaced, profanity-laden rants when defending Elon Musk or attacking Susan Sarandon — people who do not know you are alive and will not shed a tear when you pass. If you find yourself getting more worked up than is reasonable for an online debate (and you should really never be getting too worked up) than it’s a sign to log off and take a walk.

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