I’ve spent a lot of time on social media since the 2016 election results came in, and one thing that’s become crystal clear is that there’s more to this divide in our country than people holding different political positions. As it turns out, people see the world in completely different ways. I can’t tell you how many times over the last couple of days that I felt like I had crawled down the rabbit hole after reading someone else’s interpretation of an event or issue and wondering if we were even inhabiting the same sphere of existence.
So it seemed like this would be a good time to tackle another touchy topic: Publishing content about controversial topics. Should you or shouldn’t you?
Being controversial can be a great tactic. While taking a stand on controversial issues could definitely alienate some of your customer base, it could also draw the rest of them closer to you. It can garner you a lot of attention, which translates into traffic (and, hopefully, conversions). But whether or not it’s a good idea depends entirely on your business, your audience, and what you’re trying to accomplish.
If you do decide to take a stand, be deliberate about it. Know what you’re doing and why.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
Don’t assume (or pretend) it’s not controversial
Many of us interact primarily with people who think the same way we do. The algorithms behind our social media feeds reinforce that. So it becomes really easy to assume that everyone we like — or even interact with regularly — thinks the same way. But unless your business is cause- or issue-specific, there’s a high probability that a good part of your audience holds views that you think are nuts.
But it’s not the fact that you think they’re nuts that makes those folks mad; it’s your assumption that they see the world the same way you do. If you think about it, it really is kind of arrogant. Or, to use one of today’s buzzwords, invalidating.
So the golden rule of controversial content is to state right up front that you’re being controversial. Acknowledge that some audience members may be offended. Don’t just throw something out there like you take it for granted that everyone agrees.
Don’t be a wimp
If you’re going to take a stand, take a dang stand. If you’re really that worried about offending people, keep quiet. Don’t try to straddle the line.
Show some respect
One of the things that really made an impression on me in the election aftermath is how many people conclude that anyone who disagrees with them must be stupid, uneducated, etc. Far too many people just can’t comprehend that intelligent, educated, well-meaning people can disagree on big issues.
So give people who disagree with you the benefit of the doubt rather than assuming the worst. Don’t assume they don’t think; assume they think differently. And don’t assume they don’t want to do the right thing; assume that they may disagree on what the right thing is.
Stay away from logical fallacies
Logical fallacies are flaws in your argument that undermine your position, because they imply that either you don’t know what you’re talking about or you think your readers aren’t smart enough to catch on. Neither goes over very well. Here are a few examples:
- Ad hominem: Attacking the person making the argument instead of the argument itself.
- Appeal to tradition: Arguing that, because something has always been done a certain way, it must be the right way. Similarly, arguing that, because a lot of people believe something is true, then it must be true.
- Adverse consequences: Arguing that a position or fact is false because you don’t like the implications or results of its being true. (I can’t be overweight, because then I’d have to go on a diet. And I don’t want to go on a diet, so I’m not overweight.)
- Appeal to an improper authority: Arguing that a fact or position must be true or correct because a prominent person says it is — even if the person has no relevant expertise in that particular topic. (Celebrities giving political advice comes to mind.) For example, as much as I admired Steve Jobs when it came to technology, I wouldn’t have let him talk me out of using the Oxford comma.
- Misleading statistics: We all know the old joke, right? Lies, damn lies, and statistics. But even accurate statistics can be presented in a way to nudge people toward a desired conclusion. Just think of the difference between, “A full 40% of Americans think they need to lose weight,” and “Only 40% of Americans think they need to lose weight.” The first suggests that there’s an epidemic of obesity; the other suggests that there’s an epidemic of denial.
- Correlation without causation: This is the argument that, because two things occur together or are otherwise related, one caused the other. For example, there’s a 95% correlation between per capita cheese consumption and the number of people who die by getting tangled in their bed sheets. But arguing that cheese is responsible for bed sheet deaths would be a logical fallacy that leaves your audience wondering whether you’re dumb or just deceptive.
Making arguments that don’t hold up under 5 seconds of critical thinking isn’t the best idea.
Posting about controversial topics is risky. In all honesty, I hesitated in posting this, simply because it was inspired by a very controversial election.
Taking a stand can also, however, illustrate authenticity, engage your audience, and stimulate interest. The risks are obvious as well: alienating customers, advertisers, etc.
If you do decide to post content on controversial issues, don’t do it impulsively. If you’re all riled up about something, don’t post about it until you’ve calmed down (and preferably slept on it overnight). Make sure it fits in with your overall content strategy. Know your audience. And, most of all, do it correctly by remembering these tips. If you’re going to take a risk, make it count.