Starting this post gave me a trip down memory lane as far as online Islamic discussions go. There were the late night chats on AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), back and forth debates on Islamic message boards like Islamicaweb (and multiple others), the private-not-so-private email listservs, PalTalk rooms, comments sections on blog posts, subreddits, and now - Facebook comments and WhatsApp groups.
Obviously, arguing about religion is nothing new. Discussions getting heated or devolving into personal attacks is nothing new. Unwillingness to compromise is nothing new. Neither is emotional investment in your own opinion or an inflated sense of self.
Social media is a magnifying lens that takes all these elements, and then adds volume, velocity, and permanence to these discussions.
We take part in these discussions with good intentions. If I see an injustice, I can speak up against it. If I see a falsehood, I can correct it. The hope is that the 3 minutes I spend finding a hadith to copy/paste along with my hastily written comment, will somehow change the hearts and minds of hundreds or thousands of others. I can blast something out on the internet and, voilà, I've left behind beneficial knowledge that will earn me good deeds for generations to come.
Does this actually happen though?
Take your own self as a case study. Think about opinions you've held strongly. What caused you to change them?
Was it ever from a WhatsApp debate?
It might be true for some issues. A spirited debate online may cause you to reassess opinions and research further. More often than not, however, the debates will actually further entrench you into the viewpoint you held whether it was correct or not.
Normally, what changes our mind is something a little less in your face. It's a class, seminar, book, or a deep discussion with someone you trust and know.
The Prophet (saw) said, "I guarantee a house in Paradise for one who gives up arguing, even if he is correct. And I guarantee a house in the middle of Paradise for one who abandons lying even when joking. And I guarantee a house in the highest part of Paradise for one who has good manners."
An easy way to implement all 3 aspects of this hadith is to literally stop commenting on things you disagree with.
But we won't do it.
Social media seduces our ego and makes us think that what we have to say is far too important to simply stay quiet.
This doesn't mean you never speak up. It does mean that you speak up in the appropriate settings. Facebook and WhatsApp are where people come to gain self-validation out of some sense of being proven right, instead of seeking what is actually right. There is no reasoning in that setting. And even if your message reaches thousands of people, most of them will not be swayed by anything you say in the least.
Developing a point of view, and articulating your thoughts in an appropriate medium - a blog post(¯\_(ツ)_/¯), a video, a class, or simply an in-person discussion with an actual friend have the potential to leave a much more meaningful impact.
Quarreling and disputing with regard to knowledge causes the light of knowledge to go away – Imam Malik