It’s happened to all of us. We were online, surfing through our favorite news websites, and found a story we just had to share. Or, we were posting an update on our Facebook, Twitter, or other social media web pages. Maybe we just passed along the link to a funny video, or maybe we weren’t even doing anything at all except breathing near an open internet connection.

But something came across as a bit political, religious, or socially-minded, and it hinted at (or openly shouted) conservatism. And then the fireworks begin when a liberal friend or spectator just has to chime in on how backward or obtuse you are for thinking such crazy things.

Unfortunately, not everyone is gifted with the ability to respond to harsh online attacks in an effective way. With the explosion of conservatism’s web presence in the past five years, a lot of people have come late to the internet party and are understandably overwhelmed. Even people in the younger, more tech-savvy generations can be impulsive and want to shoot back at what can often be blatant stupidity.

To help, I’ve compiled a list of five basic rules that conservatives (or anyone else) can consider to better conduct themselves online.

1) Think Before You Post

One of the worst possible things you can do is respond impulsively. Whatever you post online will exist on the internet in some way, shape, or form for a very long time. Good posts will be around as evidence of the strength of your opinions, but poorly thought-out posts will haunt your future online interactions.

Think carefully about what you want to say and how you want to say it. You can often do more damage to yourself than help your cause, like this recent controversy surrounding YouTube videos of girls making racist anti-black comments. The girls were perfectly right, for example, in pointing out how people often have poor priorities when it comes to spending money on a fixed or low income. But their poor choices of words, their horrible explanations, and their frequent use of racial slurs ended up doing a massive amount of damage to their public reputations. The girls were forced to leave their school, and will probably face difficulties getting into college and getting jobs later in life.

Don’t give a liberal the satisfaction of saying or doing something stupid. Count to ten before you decide to reply to outlandish comments.

2) Remember the G.I.F.T.

G.I.F.T., here, doesn’t mean the lovely wrapped box you may give or receive on special occasions. It’s an acronym for a theory first developed by Jerry Holkins of the web comic Penny Arcade.

The Greater Internet F***wad Theory (see the original comic, which contains some harsh language, here) was postulated as a response to the question of why so many people in online environments can transform from a generally decent human being into a complete jerk. The theory states that a normal person, given an audience and some basic sense of anonymity, can act in ways that are otherwise not socially acceptable. This has since been affirmed by psychologists as a real phenomenon technically referred to as Online Disinhibition Effect, and it is this same effect that leads to aggressive cases of cyber bullying or other forms of online victimization.

It goes without saying that conservatives have a high standard of conduct that we try to uphold. So uphold it by stopping yourself from saying things that are outlandish or extreme. When you see others giving the G.I.F.T., don’t be afraid to call them out on it. Remember that when you post online, you don’t check your humanity at the door.

3) Don’t Feed The Trolls

People post with different motives at different times, and it’s really important to figure out what kind of poster you are dealing with when you are considering a response. Here is a handful of common archetypes that you may encounter (or yourself be) on the internet:

TROLLS: Named for the bridge-dwelling monsters of fairy tale legend, “Trolls” (or “Griefers” in some internet contexts) are people who exist online solely for the purpose of causing problems. They will be the ones who make crass jokes, hurl insults for no reason, or simply derail an otherwise well-meaning conversation just for their own personal enjoyment. These are the people who presented the need to create the G.I.F.T. theory in the first place, and they can be sneaky. If you see a particular poster chime in only to wreck conversations, they are likely trolling. Ignore them as much as possible; responding to their antics (i.e. “feeding the troll”) will only make things worse.

KEYBOARD COWBOYS: The Lone Rangers of the internet, these people generally mean well but have not mastered the “think before you post” rule. Either because they are too young or too brash, they will ride into virtually any internet conversation and try to save the day. For the Keyboard Cowboy, little things like grammar, logic, or earlier parts of the conversation can become unimportant when someone else is wrong (by their standards) on the internet.  If you catch yourself being a keyboard cowboy, refer to Rule 1.

SELF-STYLED EXPERTS: Sometimes, a person posting on the internet is actually a scientist or a scholar. Sometimes, that same person only read a high school textbook. Self-styled experts are not the easiest people to talk to because they believe they know everything on a given subject and will not tolerate when someone disagrees with them. They are usually more logical than Keyboard Cowboys, but they are just as stubborn.

BIBLE BOMBERS: This one is a tough one to deal with. Some topics, especially social issues, touch on matters of faith. And some people want to respond by turning to the ultimate answer: Scripture. These people always have answers by citing one or two Bible verses – and their answer is the very last word on the subject because the Bible said so. Or, conversely, they cite one verse from another holy text as proof of how crazy that other belief system is.

Don’t misunderstand me: as a Christian, I believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God and is the finest theological document we have for understanding His will in the world. But not everyone else does, and some people will reject everything else you have to say if you start citing scripture in this way. Further, doing sloppy critiques of other religions in the way I describe can be incomplete at best and deeply offensive at worst.

You can still make strong religious arguments in a conversation online, but remember that the arguments must ultimately be yours. There’s a difference between citing scripture as evidence for a theological position and using scripture as a weapon to force people to agree with you. The latter becomes a stumbling block for others (Romans 14) and countermands Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 16:14 to do everything with love. (See what I did there?) When you see others doing it, explain the problem to them privately where possible – or, if they don’t get the message, publicly when necessary.

(Note: This isn’t just restricted to Christians, but to any person of faith that quotes their holy text in a discussion online. I’m just approaching it from my own theological context.)

4) Cite Your Sources

The internet is a great place to discuss things because of the wealth of information available and the speed at which it can be transmitted. And yet sometimes, people in discussions still get sloppy and make wide-reaching claims without backing anything up. Sometimes in a like-minded discussion crowd that is appropriate, but in a mixed forum it’s often not. Especially when liberals chime in, there will be demands for evidence to support your claims, and you should be ready to back up what you are saying – or to preempt them by providing the evidence up front.

Remember that the quality of the source you are citing is of huge importance. In a climate change discussion, for example, “Mary Jo’s Climate Blog” will not be a serious source, but coverage in a newspaper or on a news website will be taken more seriously. Original sources or scholarly works, like data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association or a paper by a major climatologist, can be the best sources.

Whenever possible, provide links to that information so that other debaters can see you aren’t making things up. Also, call others out when they don’t post evidence or only post bad evidence, because that weakens the overall conversation – and it catches lazy posters who have nothing hard to back up their claims.

And finally…

5) Play Nice

Political discussions online can be great ways to test your own knowledge and learn from others, so it’s important to remember that you shouldn’t be adversarial in your approach. Sometimes, people aren’t intentionally being aggressive online. Remember that the internet is inherently an anti-social form of communication – everything we read online is text-only, with no emotional context. This phenomenon is expressed by Poe’s Law, which states that without clear indicators of intent, it can be impossible for readers to discern real extremes in online content from sarcastic or parodied extremes.

To make your own posts better, read up on internet etiquette and use those rules to guide your own online contributions wherever possible. Another big help is to check your spelling and grammar. With the invention of software that can fix your spelling and grammar for you (though these programs can still go wrong), there are very few excuses for posting poor writing on the internet. Clarity of language will always help you convey your thoughts better, avoid misunderstandings, and it will help turn any liberals you might debate with away from the “stupid conservative” stereotype.

Finally, remember that if others aren’t playing nice, you don’t have to play at all. Walking away from those discussions may be hard at first, but it will ultimately save you from unneeded stress and leave not-so-courteous others with one less target to pick on.

With the passing of Andrew Breitbart, it has been observed by many in the conservative movement that we all have big shoes to fill online. More and more conservatives will continue to take to the world wide web to defend the principles that we all hold dear, and we should all be equipped to have that conversation in a useful and effective manner. So take these rules, go forth, and have fun online.

And please – don’t feed the trolls.

David Giffin :: Emory University :: Atlanta, Georgia :: @D_Giffin