7 ancient strategies for winning online arguments: Sun Tzu and the art of comment wars

7 ancient strategies for winning online arguments: Sun Tzu and the art of comment wars

If you write anything on the internet, from tweets and Facebook status update to the hundreds of words I publish every week, you’re going to encounter some very assertive/aggressive comments and – to put it mildly – some chuntering idiots.

An actual email I received this week.
An actual email I received this week.

I’ve developed lots of strategies to deal with the slurry of dumb negativity, while also trying to sieve out the genuine criticisms and valid arguments. Recently, I’ve gone old school and turned to Sun Tzu.

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The Chinese military strategist, philosopher and warrior died centuries before the Web came online, but the ideas outlined in his classic manual ‘The Art of War’ are surprisingly applicable to the online world.

The good tactician plays with his adversary as a cat plays with a mouse.

Cats. The internet likes cats, right?
Cats. The internet likes cats, right?

It’s easy to take a swing at a provocative comment in the same vein, but if you do, your enemy is winning. They’ve got the response they were craving to begin with. Respond with studied calmness and they’ll be skittering in their chair with frustration.

Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.

That man insulted the panda's mom on Facebook.
That man insulted the panda’s mom on Facebook.

Don’t be afraid to leave a hook in a trapdoor in a comment, a dangling clause just to befuddle the person you’re debating with. If they’re dumb, they’ll take your bait.

As circumstances change, one should modify one’s plans.

Pressing people's buttons online is rarely this fun…
Pressing people’s buttons online is rarely this fun…

Move with the debate. Don’t be intransigent. Accept good points and seize remorselessly on stupid ones.

Without constant practice, the general will be wavering and indecisive when the crisis is at hand.

Cyclops *really* had that coming…
Cyclops *really* had that coming…

The only way to get good at online debate is to get involved a lot. Reply to any reasonable comment and the odd unreasonable one. Spar often and your counterpunches will be more powerful.

What enables the wise to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge.

Vince McMahon needs to read some Sun Tzu
Vince McMahon needs to read some Sun Tzu

When you’re writing something that is likely to provoke comment – particularly aggressive or seemingly irrational comment – think about how readers and drive-by assholes will respond. Strengthen your positions before you publish. Argue with yourself before you have to argue with others.

Do not enter into alliance with neighboring princes until acquainted with their designs.

Ant Man hangs out with an ant. It's very on brand.
Ant Man hangs out with an ant. It’s very on brand.

Be cautious of people who are seemingly on your side. Online, as in war, allies can swiftly become adversaries. Look carefully at the previous comments and behaviour of individuals who suddenly seem on your team.

Concentrate your energy and hoard your strength.

Make your arguments, defend your points but don’t allow your energy to be sapped by people who only want to insult you. Wrestling in mud with the pigs is pointless – you get filthy and the hogs enjoy it. Kick out from the standing position and realize when you’re done.

Actually want to read ‘The Art of War’?  Project Gutenberg has it for free. And thanks to @ApplyArtofWar for existing and reminding me to write this. 

Feature image credit: The Churning

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