10 Tips to Survive Online with Strong Opinions

A notorious doctor yelled at my friend, another doctor, “Why don’t you step outside so we can settle this?!”

Two hundred and fifty doctors at the OMA council meeting had watched the angry doc march across the front of the auditorium. His red face, clenched fists and raised voice gave him the spotlight he craved.

My friend had said something at the microphone. The angry doc took offence. He demanded an apology or else.

I secretly hoped that the little man would attack my friend, so that I could jump to the rescue: like breaking up hockey fight.

But nothing beats the excitement of medical politics over the last five years in Ontario. In 2012, public affairs experts told doctors to go wild on social media. They said Twitter could beat government.

I followed orders, opened social media accounts and started shouting into space. In late 2013, I even started a blog. My tag line is, challenging accepted thinking | offering solutions.

Aside from digital eyestrain and social media addiction, the last 5 years have been fun. Along the way, I have tried to find ways to hold strong opinions and avoid trouble, if possible.

Survive Online

A mob loves people with strong opinions, as long as the mob agrees.  A mob hates anyone who disagrees with it.

It takes courage to stand against an angry crowd. And there is always an angry crowd, somewhere, on every topic.

The following tips can protect you from the hotheads who disagree with you, but they offer no protection from the hotheads who agree with you.

Hotheads reserve their strongest bile for those on their own side who lack appropriate passion.

Try these tips to track a course between compromise and catastrophe.

Stay quiet

This sounds like a stupid way to voice disagreement. If you do not speak up, who is going to hear what you think? But staying quiet works in two ways.

First, it keeps you alive when the angry mob whips itself into a blind rage. No one can speak sense to a mob. Mobs are raw power. They trample little people and out groups. To a mob, everyone is the other.

Do not engage a mob unless you wish martyrdom. Keep quiet to live another day to share your story.

But there is another reason to stay quiet. Once people learn that you aren’t afraid to say that the Emperor has no clothes, people will get uncomfortable with your silence.

Though they sneer and chortle when you speak, opponents will want to know what you think, even just to have the opportunity to say why you are wrong, stupid or socially inappropriate.

So stay quiet now and then. It makes people squirm.

Punch back with kindness

Late night comedians killed civility. They replaced debate with saucy one-liners that tell their obedient audience when to whoop and clap.

On social media, people attempt biting humour and come across as just plain mean. Let them own it.

Even if you think you know what they meant, ask for clarification. Always assume they meant something good or nice. Give them a way out from making a total fool of themselves.

Kindness removes the sting of dismissive, mocking humour.  And kindness stings more than sarcasm.

Agree with your opposition

Find something to like about your enemy. State it. Make it genuine, especially on social media, or it will come across as petulant and sardonic.

No one is 100% evil.  Find the tiny bit of goodness you can support and state your agreement.

Separate issues

Most people cannot argue 3 things at once. Those who think that they can ague 3 things at the same time end up confusing the rest of us as we try to follow along.

Many assailants attack with verbal punches, kicks and red herrings, all at the same time.

Separate the issues. Deal with them one at a time. Throw out the red herrings (with kindness).

Ignore trolls

Like angry mobs, trolls hate discussion. They shout slogans over and over, long after everyone has bored and gone for coffee.

Trolls cannot survive without someone responding to them. We enable their dysfunction by responding.

Most people think manners dictate that we respond to everything everyone says. That is not true for trolls.

Do not throw your pearls before trolls or they will turn and troll you forever.


Show that you want to learn. Change your mind when presented with better evidence.

You want to follow the evidence wherever it leads. Humility, when we have the courage to show it, wins arguments.

You might feel like you have lost a tussle with one person on one issue, but you win their respect and the respect of everyone else listening.

Speak to the average person

Most people in the crowd do not understand either side of a debate. They listen to learn, or to be entertained.

Most of your audience only learns what the CBC chooses to play, or the Toronto Star chooses to print.

Never mind editorial bias, the CBC and Toronto Star could never present all the news and opinions on an issue. If they tried, audiences would feel confused, not informed.

If you choose to challenge accepted thinking or ask why the Emperor has no clothes, then you need to spend much more time explaining than expected.

If you read a few books and work for a few decades, you know more than you realize. Your topic feels easy, but not to your audience.

Think like your audience. Give people time to catch up.

Pique their curiosity

Speak in such a way that people want to hear more. Use language that makes sense, given cultural experience. Entice readers with ideas unfamiliar to them.

Try to sneak around their defences and get people to think, not just react.

Be consistent

Friends do not want topical consistency; they want us to talk about everything.

My friends groan when I try to inject politics into every conversation. The opposite holds true for social media.

If you want to build a voice, a platform, you need to ignore some of the other exciting topics you might want to talk about.

If you try to challenge accepted thinking on more than one big topic, prepare to spend hours in debate. It’s fun, but it confuses your audience.

Show courage

Courage comes last. Nothing happens without courage, but we need the other 9 tips to avoid sounding brash, mean and unattractive.

Courage with grace and humility is irresistible. This does not come naturally for me, so I try to copy what I see in others.

Done right, nothing zings more sweetly than an unpopular opinion courageously stated in a kind, pithy way.

Most Important Survival Tip

This list could go on. But if I had to choose one tip to capture all the rest, it would be:

Put relationships before issues. 

Mobs do not form relationships and trolls avoid relationship. Find people who can form relationships and let them influence you as you influence them. Leadership is influence through relationship.

We need doctors to form strong opinions. Then, we need those same doctors to figure out how to share strong opinions in an attractive way that influences change.

We need doctors to survive online without getting into a virtual fistfight. Maybe, one day, our medical associations will hold strong opinions too.

“You have enemies? Good. That means that you stood for something, sometime in your life.”

  • – Winston Churchill

Photo credit: Steve Carell publicity photos TV.com


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21 Replies to “10 Tips to Survive Online with Strong Opinions”

  1. “My friends groan when I try to inject politics into every conversation”– Good to know that I am not the only one.

    I must correct this: “No one is 100% evil ” EXCEPT in politics. 😉

    1. 🙂

      Ah ha! Well now, that is a strong opinion, and probably true, too.

      Thanks for reading and posting a comment!

  2. Love this!!! Such good advice and not just for doctors. So much can be applied to just about any group discussion/debate, especially if most people subscribe to and follow the concept.

    1. Thanks Valerie!

      I hoped others would find it useful. Sure appreciate you commenting and Tweeting it!



    1. Doh! I am so stupid…I’ve made this mistake a few times before, too!

      I sure appreciate you mentioning it. Changed.

      (Very funny, too!)

  3. Hi Shawn!

    A great blog, as usual. I will try to emulate these goals in my online (and real life) political navigations as I start my OMA council life next month!


    1. Thanks for reading and sharing a comment, Don!

      I’m really looking forward to having your voice at Council. You are a Twitter champion!

      Thanks again,


  4. Boy Shawn this advice couldn’t have come at a better time! It has been a rough couple of days for me on social media. Lots to think about and apply. I think another peice of advice is to keep your integrity. A strong moral compass will always lead you in the right direction. 😉

    1. Thanks Christine!

      Your comment about integrity should probably go at the top of the list. Excellent. I worry that people will find it easier to shut up than enter discussions about difficult issues.

      Thanks for reading and sharing a comment!


      1. Another Great Article. Christine Suess, along with the others,had a wonderful comment re. integrity. I love the comment of silence. Sometimes not responding speaks volumes.
        People who step in and provide opinions, good, bad and the ugly is a celebration of the freedom for dialogue. Sometimes the greatest lessons I’ve learned is from comments you would never expect.
        That’s what makes Canada such a great Country. But integrity and speaking up with wisdom is a cultivated skill.
        Keep up the great work Shawn!

        1. Thanks Lalit!

          PS Looking forward to your book coming out soon! Let us all know the details when you get them….

  5. Thank you! New to social media and so hard to get advice from the same without broadcasting it to the world. Encouraged by patients to provide a service and mostly positive but got broadsided by the antivax mob twice when I naively meandered down one of their frenzied threads. Trolls don’t just live under the bridge they gather there in groups! I’ve learned that you cannot argue/reason with someone who thinks they are right; science and facts irritate them. So I simply state what’s factual in 2 words or less (ie. vaccines work), be as polite as that message allows me and repeat the same. Non engaging diplomacy bores them, aggressive retorts fuel them, civility confuses then sedates them. Am I right? My Social media savvy kids roll their eyes in disbelief that I even care but if I don’t I worry who will.

    1. Rick – What a brilliant comment!

      I especially like this: “So I simply state what’s factual in 2 words or less (ie. vaccines work), be as polite as that message allows me and repeat the same. Non engaging diplomacy bores them, aggressive retorts fuel them, civility confuses then sedates them.” So true!

      I’d love to hear how it goes when you step beyond the “2 words or less” and enter a dialogue. Nothing beats an attack of the trolls for forcing us to learn survival skills as quickly as possible.

      Thanks so much for taking time to post this!


  6. I’ve violated these “rules” too many times and it causes nothing but heartache. Well done.

  7. Well thought out and reassuring to hear. I needed this lesson at the beginning of social media! In the ’90s, The Hamilton Spectator agreed to have me as their medical consultant on their web site and I soon quit. I deleted someone’s enormous post; a diatribe of hate against HIV patients using Trump style alt facts. I was slapped on the wrist by the paper for censorship, but in those days of dial in, you couldn’t post anything until you read through each post in entirety in the chain. The size of the post prevented anyone from expressing their opinion, which was the true censorship. Glad things have changed but the crazies haven’t! My desire to write never left me, but the bad taste in my mouth facing lunatics never has. Your article is a great step by step way to handle one’s response. Carl Sagan had a wonderful similar approach when he had to debate science with the unbelievers.

    1. Wow. Very cool, Nick. Every time I hear from you, I learn something new about you….I had no idea.

      I can only imagine the pain of trying to manage the system you described. I used to hate those lists.

      Thanks again for taking time to read and share a comment! Readers love comments the best.

      Talk soon


  8. You have walked the walk so I respect your talking the talk!
    Lessons from the trenches.
    I particularly love the silence point. There is often more communicated by what is not said than what is…

    1. Thanks Darren! Your history of speaking with 100s of people gives you much to share too! 😉

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