Thursday, 23 August 2018

We need to be kinder to each other on social media

On the last day of last month, I published a post about incivility and intolerance on social media. The post was part of a series of posts looking at the way people form communities online with their words. Then, on the eighth of this month I published a post about intemperate language and how people who use it on social media tend to attract trolls.

But last week ‘The Drum’ program from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which airs on weeknights in the dinner timeslot, aired a segment about the way that people who appear on their program are targeted with abuse on Twitter. And journalists have also said the same thing in tweets: it doesn’t matter what you say, you are given treatment that most people would never subject someone to who they meet in the normal course of daily events.

But the thing is that Twitter privileges the most extreme viewpoints. The more extreme the expression is, the more ‘likes’ and retweets it gets. The platform is based on popularity, and nuance and subtlety are not valued there. Instead, you get people saying things that they would never say in daily conversation just because they can get away with it. It’s not just anonymous accounts, either. Even people who put their name and location and their picture in their profile behave terribly on occasion.

For their part, journalists are often unkind as well. They routinely ignore you if they think you are just some random without a brain, or else if they believe for some reason that you might turn out to be a troll. That’s if they don’t block you. Which happens frequently in this world of glass jaws where a mere disagreement can quickly escalate into abuse, seemingly effortlessly.

When you walk down the street in the city you pass by hundreds of people. You might see a young man hurrying to cross the road before the signal changes. A woman might be walking beside you and appear in the periphery of your vision as a set of unconnected movements that you rationalise into the figure of a person in motion. Or you might see a shadow on the steps in front of you as someone passes between you and the sun reflecting off the glass windows of a building by the street.

Each one of the people that you pass in the course of your daily life has a life of their own. One person might be still recovering from the suicide of a beloved sister. Another might have an appointment booked to see the oncologist later in the week following an important pathology test. Another person might have just found out that his mother has been diagnosed with dementia. One man might be living with PTSD due to his work as a paramedic, and be unable to sleep for half the night each night due to bad dreams. Another woman might have been living with a diagnosed mental illness for decades, and be otherwise normal for all intents and purposes. A man you see in the street might be married to a woman who keeps on experiencing stillbirth though is otherwise healthy.

In her speculative novel, ‘Dyschronia’, Australian author Jennifer Mills creates a young heroine named Samantha Warren who is able to see the future. Her gift makes the townspeople in her small community treat her either like a rare creature or else denigrate her. There is no middle ground in the way they behave toward her. This is how people who are prominent in the public sphere get treated: either feted or abused. They are often put up on a pedestal in order that they can then be torn down. And those who achieve notoriety independently of their vocation are given the same treatment. But it’s time we stopped doing this to each other.

Of course the mirror image of trolling is virtue signalling, where we post things that are designed to create community with like-minded people, so that we can increase the number of followers we have. Virtue signalling might take the form of retweeting the tweet of someone with a high profile in our community online, or else posting a comment that we have formulated ourselves that shows that we subscribe to a recognisable set of values. I’ve written before here about how we outsource our opinions to political parties. People who post things that are not immediately classifiable as belonging to the platform of a political party are usually ignored, even if most of their comments are orthodox. We don’t like to be made to think. We are lazy. But we are also human.

The success of RUOK Day shows that people care about the mental health of others around them, but the way they routinely behave on social media is often anything but conducive to good mental health. People are acerbic, abusive, and mocking. They belittle you, or ignore you studiedly, both in order to cause hurt. It’s like a playground. When school children are found out to be bullying another student, the teachers in the school will normally give the miscreants a good talking-to.

That’s what a lot of people online need: a good, thorough talking-to by someone who understands how language can cause as much harm as good. But it never happens. It’s a free-for-all online. We are all responsible for the tenor of the conversations we participate in.

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