How To Make Social Media Less Toxic

Our country is divided. This seems to be the only belief with bipartisan support today. Of course, none of us can agree on why we are divided. The mere question prompts battle lines, trenches, and online warfare. Make no mistake, our country IS entrenched in ideological battles and social media is the front line. The ability to curate and control our own public spheres of influence has turned millions of citizens into social activists; all of them railing against real or perceived oppression and injustice. Since I am a millennial, a denim child of the 90’s, I hope I speak for more than myself when I say, “America needs to take a chill pill”.

Let me be clear: my intention with this essay is not to discuss whether social media is inherently evil, nor is it to evaluate the effectiveness of social justice warriors. Frankly, I find those debates irrelevant. As long as social media is around (and let’s not kid ourselves, it’s going no where), there will be the need for people to express their socio-political views online. As long as people are expressing their views, there will be disagreements, debates, and arguments. So the real question to ask is: how do we do converse with one another in a healthy way? I believe the answer can be summed up in one word: civility.

I know: I just lost roughly twenty percent of my audience. Civility is a strange word and can sound like an archaic expression used to keep folks silent. The truth, of course, is that we benefit from civility every day. When I wait in the lunch line at Chipotle, civility keeps me from cutting ahead of everyone. It keeps the overworked employee from cursing me out when I ask for a little more rice (and by “a little” I mean a lot, cause I love that rice). Most people practice civil discourse in real life, but when they log on to social media, it is a different story. The nature of the Internet has given rise to terrible habits and practices that are unequivocally destroying our nation (coincidentally, hyperbole is one of those terrible habits). The mixture of anonymity, a lack of empathy, the removal of facial expressions, and cultural differences has created minefields throughout the netscape. We could delve further into how we got here, but I am much more interested in where we go from here.

In truth, I am somewhat of a connoisseur when it comes to online arguments. Like Socrates, throwing verbal rocks at these mediocrities (Hamilton reference!), I have engaged in online debates or “flame wars” since I was in High School. Since the nightmarish campaign season of 2016, I began to take notes on how people interacted with each other online, especially when it came to politics. I decided to lay out ground rules that I believe anyone interested in having civil discourse online should follow. I put them to use online and found some incredible results. I came to the conclusion that it is possible to have civil discourse on the Internet, though certainly not all the time and certainly not with everyone. However, these rules are a start and perhaps that’s all we need to get better.

Rule #1: Don’t forget you are talking to a human being.

It’s pretty simple really. Don’t forget you are talking to a human being. Also, don’t forget YOU are a human being (you are right?). Yes, even if that human has views you find monstrous, remember they are still human. Social media has accelerated and intensified our ability to form tribes and demonize each other. Truth is, demonizing the opposing side of anything is genuinely comforting. It allows you to strip away someone else’s humanity so you can say or do to them anything at all, free of guilt! It’s what white America did to the Native Americans and African Americans, it’s what Nazi Germany did to the Jewish people, and it’s what many people still do online, every day (me included). And before you claim false equivalency: yes, there’s an obvious difference between systemic, legislated demonization and individual demonization. But governments are made up of individuals and if you want to make the world a better place, you better look at yourself and then make that change (Michael Jackson. I’m on fire with these quotes). Please know this does not mean you shouldn’t call people out for having monstrous views. It’s simply the adjustment from saying, “You are a monster,” to “I believe your views are monstrous.” Speaking of insults…

Rule #2: Stop using insults.

This should go without saying, but I think it’s become so commonplace that people legit aren’t even aware they are doing it. If you begin your response to a status with “you’re a fucking idiot”, I can guarantee that even if what followed was Ta-Nehisi Coates novel Between the World and Me, no one is listening to you anymore. I know, sometimes it feels good to virtually curse out someone who says Affirmative Action is reverse racism (LAWD have mercy), but the reality is every time you use insults, you contribute to a toxic environment that hurts society. You are saying it’s ok to abuse people who hold an opposing (even harmful) view. Many insults can feel mild to you, but don’t feel mild to the person who is being insulted (e.g. “You’re ignorant”, “That’s stupid”, “You’re racist”). I know, I know. But they are ignorant and they are stupid and they definitely are racist. Also, you aren’t any of those things and never have been and never will be again because you are God and they are scum. When we insult someone we are saying that they have zero right to speak and we have every right to. Self-righteousness can feel really good (I’m getting a nice dose of it writing this article) but if we want any chance of having a meaningful conversation, we cannot insult each other. Now of course there are people on the Internet who have no interest in civil discourse in which case, we move to…

Rule #3 — Don’t feed the trolls.

This is by far the HARDEST rule for me personally. I love feeding trolls. I actually have a garden of trolls in my backyard (just kidding, I live in New York, I don’t know what a garden is)! Now in reality, most of us have engaged in some form of trolling, intentionally or not. Being a comedian, I sometimes can’t help writing sarcastic comments like, “Oh thank god, here I was thinking ONLY black lives matter”, on someone’s “all lives matter” post. For the sake of this rule, I define trolls as people who have zero intention of having a meaningful conversation (oh shoot, but did you just realize you were the troll this entire time? Skip down to rule #5). How can you tell someone does not want a meaningful conversation? Here’s a scenario: you post a status you strongly believe in and someone posts an insulting comment like “Snowflake” or a snarky response like “right, cause you’re the real expert on this subject”. This is what I call a “first offense”. We should begin the practice of forgiving first offenses. The best way to call out or defuse a troll-like comment is to ask that person a question. “What do you mean by that?” “Did something I say upset you?” “Are you interested in talking about why I feel this way or did you just want to hurt me?” I have found that questions like these usually remove the sting from someone’s instant, knee-jerk response. Contrary to popular belief, the best way to fight fire is with water…not fire. If the person continues to insult or belittle you, you can simply say, “I don’t feel like you actually want to talk so I’m going to disengage”. And then…disengage. No need to have a discourse with people who refuse to be civil. When they go low, we say bye Felicia!

Rule #4 — Instead of assuming, ask questions.

We are all familiar with the phrase, “when you assume you make an ass out of u and me”, and yet people make assumptions on the Internet all the time (and consequently, everyone on the internet is an ass). I suspect this is because, instead of having a conversation with another person, we begin to have an argument with an ideology that we assume this person represents. We see one person post “Bernie would’ve beat Trump” and we get mad, but stay silent. Then we see someone else make the same post. Then another. And another. Finally, we see a friend say “I wonder what would have happened if Bernie won the primary” and we SET IT OFF, hotter than Jada, Vivica, Kimberly and Queen Latifah (for my white folk who didn’t get that reference, please google it)! . The problem is…this person did not post those fifteen other statuses you saw. They posted one status. If you choose to engage, you should be engaging with their status and not the litany of other posts you saw! Instead of going on a tirade about sexism, Bernie Bros, and why third party candidates are ruining our country, you can ask questions to figure out where this person stands and why they feel that way. You can also state how their post made you feel without directly accusing them of anything (i.e. “I’m not sure if you meant anything by this status, but I have been seeing a lot of Hillary hate recently and it makes me upset because it feels like sexism.” Asking questions first and leaving assumptions and prejudice at the virtual door, goes a long way in a healthy conversation.

Rule #5 — Evaluate your intentions when you post.

Social media amplifies your voice, thoughts, and feelings in a way no other technology has even come close to. Though we all might know this, I think few of us truly take in just how POWERFUL the tool of social media is. Social media can Ruin. People’s. Lives. It can get people fired, tarnish reputations, cause devastating emotional distress and even push people to commit suicide. Sadly, most people don’t think twice before posting a status on Facebook or engaging in a verbal spat on Twitter. When you post something, you should ask yourself, “why am I doing this”? Perhaps it is to spread awareness about a cause you care about (I myself have shared countless CNN articles about global warming and it is NOT WORKING). It could be that you are looking for like-minded people to give moral support. You could also be attempting to inform someone, correct them, or stop them from spreading false information. Whatever the reason, you should identify it and ask yourself if what you are saying (or rather how you are saying it) is the best way forward. I can say from personal experience, self-evaluations have changed my tone and word choices when responding to others’ posts. You may find that when you stop to think, you’d rather not post that comment after all.

Civility on the Internet does, at times, feel like a utopian dream. Maybe it is. Still, I believe strongly that more people should be willing to take the lead and practice civility online for the health of our global society. For too long, we have justified awful, horrible, and shameful behavior online as some sort of unstoppable “boys will be boys”-like excuse that is neither true nor acceptable. What we say and do online matters. If it didn’t matter, we would not be addicted to it (like truly, truly addicted to it). We would not be posting on our handles constantly, checking for likes and religiously scrolling through our mini-feeds multiple times a day. Once we accept that the Internet is here to stay, we can then agree that the human decency we afford our fellow humans in real life should be equally afforded in the virtual space.