How To Argue And Debate On The Internet Without Becoming A Troll

How To Argue And Debate On The Internet Without Becoming A Troll

Trolling has been in the news a lot recently, often for questionable reasons. Campaigns aside, the problem isn’t about to evaporate. Freedom of speech means you’ll inevitably hear something you don’t like, and in practice you can’t get around online without being drawn into a shootout from time to time. When that happens, these tips will keep you in the discussion without losing your cool or becoming a troll.

Image remixed from Rene Jansa (Shutterstock).

Don’t Use Metaphors

If you find yourself typing out the words, “It’s kinda like if…” then stop immediately and delete what you’ve written. The silence of your non-response is going to carry much more weight than your argument. Metaphors — comparing the situation you’re debating to a different situation — are the cyanide of online arguments.

What’s wrong with metaphors?

Metaphors are a teaching method and work wonderfully when your audience is on your side. When someone is on your side, they mentally identify the comparison points and use them to enrich their understanding of what you’re saying. When they’re against you, they focus solely on the differences between your case and the example case. As soon as they do, you’re no longer debating about the original point. A second debate thread has been created, and now you’re debating whether or not your point is comparable to X. Getting back to your original argument is nearly impossible.

Additionally, metaphors can easily offend. Remember that on the internet, people are desperate to take anything personally. Once they do, the debate will be completely derailed and centered around whether or not you think they’re a dog, child, Hitler, or whatever other foolish thing you compared them to.

Look at these two statements and determine which one is stronger:

“What you’re doing is kinda like asking me to come pick you up when your car is out of gas, and then complaining about how long it took me to show up.”

“What you’re doing is selfish.”

Don’t Post Links

Only a few of the links you post in a regular, friendly conversation with all parties in agreement actually get clicked and read by your audience. If someone’s already opposed yo your opinion, imagine how much less they’re going to care about which blog posts have interested you.

People don’t involve themselves in online arguments because they want to click around and “read more internet”. They’ve been doing that already, and they’ve finally read enough to form an opinion. They’re ready to test it out by fighting over it, and that’s how you got involved. They’re not going to read the link.

Do Post An Occasional Quote

An occasional quote from an intelligent person is great for bringing in a bit of ammunition, especially when they say it better than you can. But keep it short. If your opponent sees a quote mark followed by a pile of sentences, they’re just going to skip it. Be careful about quoting people who are themselves debatable. If you’re quoting Ayn Rand or Karl Marx, be prepared to start a new debate about Ayn Rand or Karl Marx.

Deal With Petty Insults Effectively

Did they call you an idiot, or a child, or a Nazi? Good, that means you’ve almost won. At this point, you have two choices: Deliver the finishing blow or get upset about their insult. There are two typical responses to being insulted, both bad:

Flipping shit: Petty insults persist as a strategy because sometimes people get trolled by them, and when they do, the ensuing firestorm makes everyone look bad. The offender knows they have lost, so they take one last chance of bringing the winner down to a tie. Don’t fall for it.

Describing at length why you’re not what they said you were: Have you ever noticed that when you’re truly sick, and you call in to work, you just groan out “I’m really sick”. But when “sick” means your buddies want you to head to the beach, you find yourself on the phone describing the exact times you vomited last night and this morning, the consistency and make-up of your bowel movements, and how you’ve never felt quite like this before? That’s because truth often needs no explaining.

If you’re not an idiot, simply say you’re not. When you get insulted, start by destroying any real arguments they made in their comment, then briefly deny the insult and patronise them for it: “And I’m not an idiot, don’t talk to me like that.”

Don’t Ask Questions

You should never ask someone a question in a debate. When you do, you are ceding the podium to them and welcoming them onstage. Your question allows them to discuss their arguments from basically any angle they want as long as they loosely use your question as a point of departure.

Just as with metaphors, both the allure and the problem of questioning is that we are trying to be our opponent’s teacher. We feel they are ignorant (and they are, dammit!) and we want to educate them. But if you’ve ever been in an high school biology class with a substitute teacher, you know that a defiant and uninterested student cannot be taught. Any question the teacher asks them will be flipped into something sarcastic or off-topic. Questions don’t work, but they can be outsmarted and defeated by superior wit and skilful retorts.

Never say “Don’t you think you’re being a little hypocritical after what you did last week?” They won’t say yes. Instead, turn your question into a statement: “After what you did last week, this is completely hypocritical.”

Don’t Be Led By Questions

Any question someone asks you in a debate is a trap: They want to position themselves as the teacher (authoritative and wise) and you as the student (subservient and inexperienced). Often, they want you to state their point for them, or at least introduce it. At the very least, they are using you to help finish their sentences. If you allow this to happen, you unwittingly become an accomplice to their point, making it much more difficult to argue against.

Just say: “I’m listening if you want to make a point: there’s no need to frame it as a question.”

Don’t Use Annoying Buzz Phrases

Telling someone to “stop drinking the kool-aid,” or calling people “sheeple” doesn’t do anything to increase your legitimacy. It just makes it sound like you’ve copied your arguments from a radical pundit.

Any buzz phrase can easily be stated in a much more convincing fashion. Instead of telling someone to “stop drinking the kool-aid,” say something like “You’re just repeating the stumping points of [political party]. They haven’t been able to back them with convincing evidence, and neither have you.”

Do A Quick Structure Check

Since an online post is usually just a quick statement, rather than being a researched, outlined and revised research article, it’s often the case that someone will start writing hesitantly and gradually work their way up into a strong point. Before you post, look and see if your first few sentences were just a warm up. Can they be cut? Also check to see if you started with a conclusion, then figured out a good way to explain it. In that case, your first few sentences might work best at the end. Check for dangling arguments that are off point (and could start a second debate thread) along with removing metaphors and questions.

Jesse Nivens is a designer, game developer, writer and self-proclaimed expert on internet argumentation living in Springfield, Missouri. Follow @jessenivens on Twitter.


  • As soon as I see the word ‘sheeple’ my eyes glaze over. ‘Fanboy’ is rapidly heading in the same direction. Both come across as lazy shorthand for ‘people who don’t see things the way I see them’ without having to do any actual arguing of your own point.

  • “Deal With Petty Insults Effectively” – I’d go so far as to say don’t respond to them at all, just use the opportunity to attack their argument again. Any response to an insult justifies the insult.

    • I recommend insults are responded to professionally, rather than ignored. “Please keep the tone civil” or similar response is effective.
      I also think that posting links is fine – particularly when you’re trying to backup an argument with evidence. Ever heard of the catch cry “citation needed” – that’s the reason why…

      • It’s kinda like a pokemon battle. When the other guy uses a petty insult I think of it as a missed attack or a ‘not very effective’ Its then a free shot for me to attack their argument or build on my defenses…
        Gamification people! It’s a thing!

  • Considering the article is entitled how to NOT be a troll, I don’t think that ‘dont ask questions’ is necessarily good advice. Indeed that is of assistance when dealing with someone else who clearly IS a troll, however if you are actually wanting to debate something properly, rather than just spruik your own point of view and refuse to change your mind, then questions are essential.

    • Absolutely. Online debates don’t have to be there to be won, the best ones are coming to an understanding of the point of view of all involved in a process of establishing what the truth of the matter is.

      Questions are an excellent tool when given and received earnestly.

  • This seems to describe the victim of a trolling or just a boring arguer rather than how to avoid becoming a troll.
    I’ve always thought being a troll was about posting stuff in order to provoke some sort of reaction (for your own entertainment), hopefully tricking people into behaving exactly the way you want them to.

  • You missed, “Don’t correct peoples spelling and/or grammar”. This is a sign of a losing argument with no salient points to counter an idea. I know, I’ve done it… And if you DO correct someones grammar and/or spelling, you better be 1000% sure your own comment is devoid of any mistakes.

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