7 tips for managing online interactions for harm reduction advocates

Harm reduction is a contentious issue.  Despite the reams of evidence that support harm reduction initiatives there remains within our communities opposition to harm reduction, often founded on either a lack of knowledge, or a moral viewpoint.

Lack of knowledge can be easy to address.  The evidence base for many harm reduction interventions and strategies is extensive.

“It could be argued that one of the consequences of a continuing resistance to harm reduction strategies and programmes is that such strategies have come under far greater scrutiny than other forms of alcohol and other drug intervention.  Needle and syringe programs in Australia have undergone two major economic evaluations nationally in the past decade, testing their economic viability, methadone as an opiate substitution therapy is one of the most well researched and evidenced pharmacotherapies utilised in drug treatment and the medically supervised injecting centre in Sydney has operated under a trial status for over a decade.”

 (Stonetree blog 24th June 2011 https://stonetreeaus.wordpress.com/2011/06/24/a-case-against-the-argument-that-harm-reduction-strategies-are-costly-and-encourage-people-to-use-drugs/)

What is more problematic to address is the arguments made from a moralistic viewpoint.

mind made up

Advocates of harm reduction operating in online spaces will inevitably come across someone who will dispute the evidence supporting harm reduction, based not on any evidentiary base, but instead premised upon a belief that ‘harm reduction is bad’.   Trying to persuade someone to change a belief in this circumstance is often a fruitless task, however nobody ever said this gig was going to be easy!

Challenging moral perspectives regarding harm reduction may often be fruitless, however challenge them we must.  Not to do so, reduces our online advocacy efforts to an exercise in ‘preaching to the converted’.

Discussions with people who oppose harm reduction from a moral perspective can often be frustrating and can devolve into a counter-productive to and fro that achieves little.  Concerns regarding the potential for negative interaction with people who morally oppose harm reduction, or who hold negative and stigmatising views about people who use drugs has been a concern expressed by many organisations and individuals that I have spoken to about the use of social media as an advocacy tool.  The content and discussions that occur in these spaces is a reflection of social views held in the real world.  They are nothing new, but social media does provide a carriage by which these interactions can reach a wider audience.  This poses both an opportunity as well as a potential risk for harm reduction organisations. I would argue that the potential for risk can be managed. With this in mind I’ve developed a list of strategies for online interactions with people who oppose harm reduction.

1. Be polite

I am yet to hear of a mind that was changed due to someone being rude.  We need to (as much as is possible) roll with resistance and engage with our audience.  Engagement requires that we may need to ‘respectfully disagree’ with comments posed by our audience.

2. Don’t personalise

Many advocates of harm reduction operating in online spaces, do so because of their passion for harm reduction.  It can be at times difficult to not personalise attacks aimed at our passion.  Remember to breathe and if you need to draft several different responses to a comment before posting. If you are feeling angry or caught up in the discussion getting someone else who has not been involved in the discussion to read over your response before posting can be a good idea too.

3. Be transparent

Wherever possible I advocate that all interactions take place in public online spaces rather than moving back and forth between publicly viewable spaces and private interactions (e.g. email).  Remember your audience is not only the person/people you are having the discussion with but also ‘lurkers’, people who may be watching the interaction but not participating.  I will add the caveat that in a small number of instances it may be advisable to move the discussion to a private space (e.g. where the discussion has potential for serious implications for the organisation or an individual).

4. Look for common ground

Acknowledging common ground costs you nothing and can go some way towards supporting a productive discussion in preference to a counter-productive one.  It is quite rare to find a situation where there is absolutely no common ground at all.  The common ground might be as something as simple as a shared interest in alcohol and other drugs issues, (even though you may disagree on just about every other point)!

5. Use evidence

By all means use evidence, but don’t expect it to trump a fixed moral viewpoint.  People will often re-interpret evidence to fit their moral viewpoint, dispute the validity of evidence if it isn’t congruent with their moral viewpoint or just simply ignore it.  Given these previous point the inclusion of evidence to support your arguments remains important.  While the evidence presented is less likely to sway someone who holds fixed moral beliefs, there may well be lurkers in the audience who are open to well-reasoned and evidenced arguments.

6. Be creative

If evidence will not win the hearts and minds of people with a fixed belief regarding harm reduction, potentially creativity can.

According to Hernandez and Preston (2012):

“People hold onto their beliefs strongly. Changing beliefs takes time and effort, and it is often easier to disregard alternative perspectives rather than to adapt existing beliefs. This preference for existing beliefs underlies the confirmation bias (Wason, 1960), where people seek out and interpret information that is consistent with their expectations (Koriat, Lichtenstein, & Fischhoff, 1980; Nickerson, 1998).”

(Hernandez, I. and Preston, JL. “Disfluency disrupts the confirmation bias.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (2012).)

According to their research cognitive interpretation of new evidence is often done in a very shallow manner, with our brains interpreting new data according to our already held beliefs, seeking to fit new evidence to these beliefs.  In this way new data is either made to fit our beliefs or discarded as ‘wrong’.  By engaging different parts of the brain we apply a different set of analytical processes.  Perhaps by presenting arguments in a creative manner we can prompt a deeper more analytical sorting of the evidence presented.

 7. Know when to get out

There may come a point where the discussion becomes untenable.  As Mike Godwin pointed out online discussions can at times sink to the ridiculous.  Indicators to be aware of include personal attacks, wilful misquoting of your own contributions to the discussion or the use of inflated or hysterical analogies or examples.


Politely but firmly disengaging from a discussion can at times be the only viable course of action.  Statements supporting this disengagement may range from ‘we may need to agree to disagree’, through to more firmly worded statements naming the unacceptable behaviours (e.g. personal attacks) for what they are, along with a clear statement that due to these behaviours you will no longer be engaging in this particular discussion.

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  1. […] Harm reduction is a contentious issue. Despite the reams of evidence that support harm reduction initiatives there remains within our communities opposition to harm reduction, often founded on eit…  […]

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