How to Make the Internet a More Decent Place and Not Be an Accidental Asshole Online

An easy-to-follow guide to navigating hard social media conversations about sexual assault, racism & other traumas

devon maloney
Feb 6, 2018 · 11 min read
Credit: leremy/iStock via Getty Images Plus

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Nothing in the history of time has ever made a person feel shitty quite like the experience of being on social media.

From simple FOMO and insecurity to callout culture and all the way up to being doxxed and threatened with death, this bleak reality of digital life may take a variety of forms across a wide spectrum of injury and affects us all differently, but it’s an internet law nevertheless:

The longer you are online, the more likely it is that being online will make you feel bad about yourself.

And the bad feelings we experience as a result of our online interactions are unusually gnarly, because they corner us in our own homes and leave us suffering mentally, silently, and usually alone.

Now imagine having these encounters in an online conversation about your sexual assault. Or about your fear that law enforcement might one day see your unarmed child as a threat. The physical, political, and very real injustices committed against your person and your family, because of your gender identity, or your sexual orientation, or your race — these tangible-world traumas are compounded online by what tech sociologist Sherry Turkle has described as “the efficiencies of mere connection,” or the mechanisms of internet conversation that allow us to connect instantly but easily skirt empathy in the process. Whether it’s intentional callousness or mere willful ignorance, our ability to say the wrong thing without much consequence is one of the most insidious ways the internet becomes a never-ending nuclear waste dump of bad feelings. The results of this can be seen everywhere in the digital world, from widespread victim-blaming of the #MeToo “backlash” to the fragility of white women refusing to believe their presence at the Women’s Marches was anything but revolutionary.

But these results are hardly inevitable. If you could make the internet slightly less unbearable by avoiding a few simple knee-jerk behaviors, would you? If there were simple ways you could change how you comment, tweet, and post that would make the experience of being online immeasurably more tolerable for the people around you, could you make the effort?

Over the past few years, I (like many self-styled progressive white women) have spent a significant amount of time screwing up online. I’ve been an active member of countless secret Facebook groups, most created by women writers and artists for networking among non-men. In these groups, being called out for racist, transphobic, or ableist language became a regular and productive part of the social contract (all too often at the expense of women and nonbinary POC). Most of the groups eventually imploded as a result of TERFs or white feminist defensiveness disrupting the group’s intersectional goals, but it was in these groups that dozens of women with privilege, including myself, learned how to make room for others, to decentralize our own experiences and listen to minority voices more productively. (Twitter is its own nightmare minefield; my personal mistakes there are far more public, though perhaps not as instructive.) The process of learning to be better online — learning how our simplest, most casual comments or tweets can represent a far deeper ignorance to those on the receiving end — is a brutal, uncomfortable, and never-ending battle, but in my experience, it is also one of life’s most rewarding.

Through those groups and as a result of these conversations, I’ve had the privilege of meeting countless women and nonbinary people who have invested in the gamut of social justice activism, from community organizing to abortion clinic volunteering. To build out this idea of how to engage better as an ally (that is, someone who does not share these experiences but uses their privilege to seek justice for the affected party) with people who discuss traumatic experiences like sexual assault, harassment, and oppression online, I reached out to several of these women with extensive experience in sexual assault and domestic violence hotline practices — to say nothing of their experience in having these tough online conversations about social justice — because if anyone has mastered the language of empathy, it’s those who regularly engage with people in crisis. Out of their expertise, on top of some more basic ideas, the following guide was born.

Be a Better Person Online in 5 Easy Steps

1. “I believe you.”

There are plenty of reasons survivors don’t talk about their sexual assault on the internet, much less report them to law enforcement, but one of the biggest barriers is the fear that the person they’re telling will think they’re lying. A quick dive into the comments on any news report of workplace sexual harassment accusations or replies to Facebook posts about assault proves that this fear is still very much a valid one: There’s always somebody ready to say a woman has accused a man of assault “for attention,” or that the assault is her fault because she didn’t do enough to prevent it. This is why one of the most radical actions you can take to support people talking about assault, and any injustice in general, is also the simplest: Believe what they’re saying.

“The hardest part of disclosing sexual violence is finding someone who actually believes you,” says Lily Tsui, a sexual violence prevention counselor and consultant based in Edmonton, Alberta. Tsui has worked with hundreds of assault survivors and front-line workers since 2000, first through the University of Alberta’s sexual assault center and now as an independent consultant.

When we spoke, Tsui explained that navigating conversations online about racism and sexism if you’re not a member of the affected group is actually quite similar to the role a hotline volunteer might play for someone who calls a crisis center.

“Let’s be realistic: There is not a lot we can do for someone on a crisis line,” Tsui says. “But even if you have nothing else to offer the person, [saying] ‘I believe you, it’s not your fault’ can be huge.”

2. It’s probably not about you.

In 2013, psychologist Susan Silk coined the ring theory as a method of coping with major crises like illness and loss. The simple technique, Silk and her friend Barry Goldman wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “works for all kinds of crises: medical, legal, financial, romantic, even existential.” The idea is that people related to a crisis exist in concentric circles, with the direct sufferer in the center — say, a person who is diagnosed with cancer, in Silk’s case. The first ring consists of those closest to the sufferer (family, usually), the second ring constitutes close friends, the third extended family, the fourth co-workers and acquaintances, and so on. Wherever you fall within the model, you should only offer “comfort” to anyone in your circle or circles closer to the direct sufferer; at the same time, you’re only allowed to “dump” your feelings onto people in your circle or one farther out. This way, you’re supporting people who are struggling more directly with the crisis than you are, rather than creating undue burden on them, while venting your own feelings about the crisis with people who are more emotionally equipped to receive them.

Silk and Goldman probably didn’t include online conversations in their conceptualization of the ring theory, but its usefulness has indeed expanded in an era where most of society is in crisis. In our model, we’ll put the most vulnerable people at the center of our rings and people with increasingly more privilege in each outer ring. There’s no black-and-white ranking of privileges, so you’ll have to play it by ear and in good faith: If the person speaking (or typing) is in a less-privileged social bracket than yours, it is your job to offer comfort and a sympathetic ear (or eye), not to burden them with your own feelings about their experiences. Instead, vent your personal opinions and judgments with others in your ring.

“One thing to always ask yourself before responding is, ‘Am I centering myself in this conversation?’” says Rhea St. Julien, an LMFT who works primarily with women and nonbinary trauma survivors in San Francisco. “[As therapists] we never talk about ourselves at all, so if you think you might be about to make it about you, just save it.”

Example: Black Americans are disproportionately the direct victims of excessive law enforcement, so in a conversation on that topic, if you’re white, it’s your job to listen to and support black people venting about this online. Same goes for (most) men in a conversation about sexual assault and harassment and for cisgendered people in a conversation about transgender rights. (Pro tip: White, Christian, cisgender, heterosexual, straight men who have not been sexually assaulted are almost always in the outermost ring possible. Sorry, bros, but it’s listening time.)

3. Structural criticisms are not personal attacks — unless you’re part of the problem.

One of the first things you’ll learn in a Sociology 101 course is the difference between the personal and the structural—in other words, while each individual’s behavior is part of a larger society, there are individual problems that become major societal issues through the growth of institutions that govern everyone. That’s why, for example, while a white person may not be actively hateful against their nonwhite neighbors, they may, simply by the way American society has been built over time, naturally behave in a way that perpetuates the social structures that keep those neighbors at a disadvantage.

That means that when a woman or nonbinary person says “ban men,” or when a person of color bemoans white people, these are, for the most part, structural complaints that arise from the sheer frustration of having to exist as a woman or nonbinary person or person of color in a world still dominated by men and white people. If your first instinct is to take it personally, ask yourself: Why does this bother me so much? Is it because you have personally contributed to the problem they’re referring to? If so, consider the post a subtweet urging you to do better without calling you out. (How considerate!) If not, you can safely assume that the person is frustrated with structural oppression, not with the personal character of each and every individual in that group — though it’s probably still a good idea to assume it’s a subtle pointer on how not to be a jerk as a member of a privileged group.

4. Learning is about listening—not asking questions.

This is a major one, because at first glance, it appears counterintuitive: Hasn’t asking questions always been a big part of education? Still, if you’re doing more than 20 percent of the talking in a conversation about someone else’s experiences of injustice, even if it’s you asking questions—surprise! You’re being an asshole online.

Asking questions only feels like it’s essential to learning because, throughout most of our educational careers, appearing engaged was just as important as actually absorbing and retaining information. But there is no participation grade in the real world — especially not online, where nobody cares if you participate. How much you learn really only depends on how much you absorb (and—see number one—believe) others’ lived experiences.

“You know how people say ‘there are no stupid questions’? There actually are a lot of stupid questions!” says Tsui, who, in addition to her professional work, also happens to be a woman of color. “People often ask questions because they want to show they’re trying to learn. In actuality, if you want to understand [someone else’s struggle], shutting the fuck up is how you learn.”

“The no-questions thing is key,” agrees St. Julien. “And don’t offer advice, either. You’re not their therapist—leave the mental health support to the professionals.”

Bonus: Have you ever gotten angry or defensive when someone online rudely rejected a question you asked? Tsui says it’s likely you were engaging in “ally theater” or “cookie-requesting” — that is, valuing your performance of what an ally should look like rather than simply listening and going away to do more research on your own. Out here, engaged, question-free listening makes the most meaningful impact for the person sharing, but also for your own understanding.

5. Show gratitude—then Google it.

Most of the difficult conversations you see on Twitter and Facebook require a gargantuan amount of emotional labor, especially for the people most likely to be hurt by the topic. Surprising to no one: It’s draining to have to defend what is essentially your own humanity! Thanking the people who willingly take on that burden—as well as doing your own research to fill in your own knowledge gaps and minimize that burden—is literally the least you can do to acknowledge the difficulty and injustice of the fact that we still have to have these kinds of conversations at all.

“Survivors’ stories are best told in therapeutic environments, so when they share their experiences publicly online, it’s not for attention,” explains St. Julien. “There is very little for them to gain— in fact, it’s usually very painful. Everyone should keep this in mind when engaging in such conversations: People are educating you at their own expense to raise awareness.”

But again, beware to not make it too much about you. “Thanking someone too profusely could easily be taken as patronizing or performative,” St. Julien adds. “A simple acknowledgement— ‘I’m hearing you. I learned X from you sharing your story,’ or even just, ‘I needed to read this today’—is better.”

Extra Credit: Pay up.

To combat the emotional toll this kind of conversation takes on its victims, many women activists of color have taken to posting PayPal, Ko-Fi, Venmo, and Patreon links in their online profiles as a way for their followers to compensate their labor. Several women even founded a company on the idea, Safety Pin Box, with the intention of helping white people support black women financially and participate in the fight for social justice. (It’s rooted in the concept of reparations.) If you really want to be a good person online, especially if you’ve already screwed up, you could always just tip the people doing most of the work — and make someone feel good online for a change.

Internet Law and Ethics 101
Internet Law and Ethics 101
Internet Law and Ethics 101

About this Collection

Internet Law and Ethics 101

The Internet today is not the same as the Internet just a decade ago, let alone the ARPANET of 1969. It is a wonderful, yet tangled web of commerce, information, social connections, and anarchistic hijinks. As we set course into an even more connected future, it is time to lay out the ethical principles we must consider to keep our digital home a better, healthier place for everyone — except, of course, for Nazis.

The Internet today is not the same as the Internet just a decade ago, let alone the ARPANET of 1969. It is a wonderful, yet tangled web of commerce, information, social connections, and anarchistic hijinks. As we set course into an even more connected future, it is time to lay out the ethical principles we must consider to keep our digital home a better, healthier place for everyone — except, of course, for Nazis.

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