We have all been there before: scrolling through our timelines, swiping through stories, when something appears on our screens that we absolutely cannot resist commenting on. Oftentimes this will lead to five hours of “study” time spent trying to convince the poster that their opinion is wrong.
Other times, this comment thread devolves into a social media fight to the death, where, in just a few minutes, both you and the original poster have written three doctoral theses on whether a New York or Montreal bagel is superior (obviously New York, but I digress).
More seriously, the primary issue affecting these virtual interactions is the inability to agree to disagree. More often than not, the social media battle will end in name calling, borderline cyber bullying, and the dissolution of a cyber friendship.
The most famous description of this type of interaction is Godwin’s law, coined by attorney Mike Godwin. Godwin argued that if any comment-section argument goes on for long enough, one of the combatants will inevitably invoke Hitler, Nazis or the Holocaust as an ad hominem means of discrediting their opponent.
More seriously, the primary issue affecting these virtual interactions is the inability to agree to disagree
A study on online harassment conducted by the Pew Research Center found that most Americans agreed that harassment occurs when direct personal threats are made. In another study, the Pew Research Center asked, “In the next decade, will public discourse online become more or less shaped by bad actors, harassment, trolls, and an overall tone of griping, distrust, and disgust?” Forty-two percent responded that they believed public discourse would not change; thirty-nine percent said they anticipated social media to be increasingly shaped by “negative activities”.
While the complexity of social media’s role and influence in our society continues to be explored, increasingly respectful discourse has been left at the wayside. Research studying online harassment shows that approximately forty-one percent of American adults have experienced online harassment. Of that forty-one percent, nearly fifty-eight percent of American adults said that the main conduit for this harassment was social media. The same study listed political views, physical appearance, gender and race as the top reasons for harassment, with political views coming in first.
Social media users continue to debate how best to tackle this issue. Sharp lines have been drawn between those who believe in the unconstrained speech afforded by the internet and those who believe that it is more important to ensure people feel safe and welcome online. Many who support the latter believe it is the responsibility of social media companies to step in and address harassment when it occurs.
However, platforms like Facebook and Twitter have proven to be incompetent in challenging harassment on their platforms
However, platforms like Facebook and Twitter have proven to be incompetent in challenging harassment on their platforms. It has fallen into the hands of us, the users, to address the problem head on and establish order in the age of social media.
We ought to hold ourselves to a standard which assures that harassment on social media does not continue. We should seek to protect the internet as a space to exchange opinions as well as debate. People should not have to fear expressing their opinions on social media, even if other users disagree with them. Likewise, social media companies need to ensure an environment which allows for the sharing of ideas and opinions — even controversial ones — that does not come at the expense of individual users safety and well-being.
Although this might be difficult, it is my hope and conviction that a safer, more respectful social media experience is achievable.