top of page

Is persuasion persuasive in the age of memes and social media rants?

In a world of social media “echo chambers,” partisan attacks, and conspiracy theorists, it’s easy to write off writing. What is the point when everyone gets their opinions from social media?

But research shows us that humans haven’t fundamentally changed with technology. Writing opinion pieces can and does persuade people if done well and in good faith. A 2018 study by Coppock, Ekins, and Kirby out of Yale University showed that, regardless of previously held beliefs, people were similarly persuaded on issues after reading opinion pieces. They found that op-eds could influence readers' opinions by approximately .5 points on a 7-point scale regardless of their education, political inclinations, or prior beliefs. Subsequent surveys showed that the effects often lasted longer than one month.

In today's world, we are constantly reminded that people won’t listen to reason or engage in civilized discussion, so why does opinion writing still have this effect?

Publication curates for quality.

While there are plenty of highly partisan publications on the internet, in general, getting published requires that the writer’s opinion is screened for clarity, quality and facts. Unlike the unfiltered shouting of social media, writing for publication requires the writer to fully explore their arguments, understand the opposing viewpoint and clarify the finer details. Unlike blogs (such as this one), getting published means that at least one other person thought your point was worth reading.

Writing and publication are screening mechanisms.

While writing gets easier and can be fun. It will always be more work than ranting to a friend or reposting a meme. With every additional step, people opt out of the process. Even the most combative, partisan, or misinformed writers are, at a minimum, invested. They want to be heard and understood. They write with the intention of effectively communicating their opinion to someone else.

Reading cools communication.

The reader is often alone and can’t argue with the writer, who isn't present. They can, of course, stop reading (covered below), but reading is not a social act; it’s personal and reflective. A well-written piece does not need to feel like an attack. In addition, starting and continuing to read is a decision made by the reader. By reading, they are investing in your work and have made the conscious decision to hear you out.

But all this comes with a catch… the writer must convince the reader to read on.

You may remember from this post that opinion writing is writing for people that don’t have to listen to you. They can stop at any time and go about their day. It is the writer’s responsibility to be clear, compelling, and interesting.

This is why opinion writing must start with the audience. The identity of your audience doesn’t change the argument that you are making, but it changes the way you present it. Paragraphs of data may bore a general audience but be highly compelling for experts. Emotional appeals will activate people that agree with you, but good faith logical appeals will better convince people on the other side of the issue.

Opinion writing is not only persuasive but also one of the few arenas left for compelling debate and discourse. That separates writing for publication from social media rants. It is an accessible form of professional discourse that has the power to sway people’s opinions if you convince them to listen to you.


bottom of page