Venting on Social Media
The right to free speech is guaranteed in our Constitution. However, social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and others can limit, control, and censor speech. Federal law does not offer much recourse for social media users who object to whether and how these companies present a user’s content. It can be widely or narrowly restricted as the organization decides and they can set whatever guidelines make sense to them.
For example, Twitter prohibits statements that promote violence against others or threaten them based on race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc. They also don’t allow accounts whose primary purpose is to incite harm to others. Facebook has recently announced it will look at postings and may take them down if they make false claims or otherwise are offensive.
When one reads the comments on YouTube or Instagram, or the trending topics on Twitter, a great percentage of them are critical, harsh, and hurtful. The people writing the comments may feel like they are simply tapping buttons on a keyboard, but to the one on the receiving end of the comment, it is different. This may be intuitive, but I feel that it will be instructive to spell it out.
The feelings are as varied as are the comments. Given that the goal of harsh comments can be to embarrass someone or make them feel bad about themselves, it will, most likely, make the recipient angry. They may want to lash out on social media in revenge. Before you know it the tone of the conversation goes from insulting to abusive. I always say we need to learn how to disagree with each other without being disagreeable. The anonymity of the internet makes it easy to make harsh comments, the kind that might be more difficult to make in person.
Today, we also should be aware of the “cancel culture.” In the cancel culture, those offended by the comments of another party become denounced online by those who object to the behavior. It’s a form of social and cultural boycott driven by “groupthink” meaning the intolerance of others with a point of view that diverges from group norms.
I’ve thought about whether a verbal attack online feels worse or less than a verbal argument in ‘real life.’ It is hard to say. Given that many people live their lives on social media, being the recipient of verbal attacks online can be crushing because so many people will read it and it can be out there forever. It can do real harm to one’s self-esteem. Harsh comments in-person take a different toll. They may be hurtful but others don’t know about it. Our feelings will be hurt but the hurt goes away, in most cases, in a day or two. My dad used to say: “this too shall pass.”
Has the cancel culture changed all that? Yes, it has. Being called-out online today is like being shamed and, taken to an extreme, excommunicated from one’s community. Those who call out are looking for supporters to band together and verbally attack someone with whom they disagree. It can do real harm to one’s psyche.
Shaming may transform into cyberbullying, especially of young adults, when the words said take the form of intimidations or threats. Cyberbullying can lead to depression and even thoughts of suicide. The recipient of the online attack may be humiliated by the shaming and fearful that others will see the comments and treat them differently, ratcheting up the disgrace.
- Posting comments online may not feel real because they are made to a faceless person. They cannot see how their comments can cause embarrassment and hurt feelings. There is no one-on-one interaction.
- There should be basic etiquette when posting online but there isn’t so mean comments are made. What’s missing is to be respectful of others, don’t intimidate with your words, and avoid overly-harsh comments. Few people ever think about this before they say something online.
- The world of social media can be an uncivil place. Some people take their cue from what they already see on Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, etc. There are few, if any, role models online to emulate. There are no rules of the road.
- In society, we tend to think about ethics in the sense of The Golden Rule: Treat others the way you wish they would treat you. Most people try to live up to this standard in their personal relationships. Yet, few think about it in their online world. We need more discussion about basic kindness and to develop a code of conduct for online activities just as we do in the workplace.
I’ve always been drawn to the quote “Just because you have the right to do something, doesn’t make it the right thing to do.” It’s been attributed to author D.A. Bale. I use this expression as a moral guide. Lots of times in our lives we are legally permitted to do something but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing — the ethical thing — to do.
For example, we can legally disclose private information about a friend or family member but it’s not right to do so unless they approve. This is a lesson in responsible behavior that has guided my decisions in life. I like it because it focuses my attention on the consequences of acts before taken not afterwards when the damage may have already been done.
The lesson to be learned is we need to better monitor our behavior online and put ourselves in the place of the person we want to criticize or call out. Ask, how would you feel if your wife or husband; son or daughter; c-worker; or a valued friend found out about what you are about to do. Would you be proud of it? What if it was a potential employer? Do you really think they would want to hire you?
Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on August 11, 2020. You can sign up for our newsletter and learn more about Dr. Mintz’s activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter .