Is antisocial media making people meaner?

Imagine you’re standing in a local store with a friend. You show them a protective mask with a sports team logo and say you think your child would like it to wear to school. Suddenly, a voice from a stranger in the same aisle is heard. They scold you for being a sheep and say you’re a bad parent for teaching your children to be afraid of nothing. You reply that you believe in science and want to help keep everyone healthy. The person scoffs and goes on to call you ignorant, before stomping away annoyed. Most people could never imagine something like this happening in the physical world, but it’s exactly what is happening on a daily basis in our digital world.

The Merriam-Webster definition of “social” includes an entry of “tending to form cooperative and interdependent relationships with others”. The understood intent of social media is bring together people who might not otherwise cross paths in the physical world. Digital platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are supposed to help us find and connect with people who share our social concerns, recreational hobbies, and general interests. Unfortunately, this increasingly doesn’t seem to be the experience for many digital citizens.

Facebook Groups provide the perfect example. There are several local community groups dedicated to providing general information, asking for local product and service references, and discussing local issues and concerns. One of the most prolific ones in my area – which will remain unnamed – has more than 11,000 members. Having been a member for more than two years, I have seen a lot of useful information shared. Over the past year, though, I have also noticed a sharp increase in negative posting and commenting. At first, I thought it was just me, but after discussing it with family, friends, and coworkers, I’ve found it to be a common theme. One recent example:

Example #1 – A member starts a post about speed limits on local roads with “YOU PEOPLE”. At first glance, one expects the post to talk about speeding. In an odd twist, the person goes on to admonish people whose kids go less than the posted speed limit. Among the 100+ responses were ones like “Calm down Karen” and “This is pretty stupid”.

There should be a few red flags that go up for civil people. The first is to question who “YOU PEOPLE” are. The second is to wonder why someone would be upset that some young people are driving cautiously. Of course, the comments also raise the flag of concern as to why some respond to an insulting post with additional insults.

Example #2 – A member posts questioning when it became okay to do housing construction after 8:00 pm on a weekday. One person clarifies that the local noise ordinance is enforceable after 10:00 pm. This the most constructive comment among the many. Others take the opportunity to comment about overcrowding. Another asks why the person is “complaining about stupid stuff”. Yet another eloquently calls the original poster “buttercup” and advises them to “suck it up”.

In the second example, someone poses what appears to be a serious question. It is apparent that they are frustrated, but nonetheless, they post in a generally polite manner. The person who provided clarification seemed to do so with the genuine intent of helping – or dare I say it, educating someone else. The less than positive comments, though, serve no constructive purpose. These two examples are fairly benign, compared to many others I’ve seen over the past months. It isn’t uncommon to see rabid comments, laced with expletives, direct insults, and “encouragement” to relocate to another community. In fairness, these types of posts and exchanges are not unique to our community or, for that matter, social media groups in general. 

In many instances, platforms like Facebook have become an avenue for antisocial media. The word antisocial is commonly misused to refer to people who don’t like to socialize with others. Merriam-Webster again helps us understand, though, by defining it as “hostile or harmful to organized society”. The behavior increasingly seen on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and others is the very definition of antisocial. As an Information Technology and Cybersecurity professional, I attribute this to a false sense of anonymity that I observe some computer and internet users to feel when they communicate from a keyboard. They are more likely to write something on social media to a stranger – or even worse, a family member or longtime friend – that they would never dream of saying aloud, in person.

The truth is that there is no anonymity on the internet, and one’s constitutional right to free speech does not equate to a “get out of jail free” card because the outlet is digital in nature. The question is why is it happening, and what can be done to curb the spread of digital nastiness? The answer is easy. Call it an oversimplification, but if the problem is that people are being nastier, the course can be reversed by being less nasty or, for that matter, just plain nice. If you wouldn’t walk up to your neighbor’s house, knock on their door, and yell that their Christmas decorations are gaudy, why do it online? If someone comes up to you in the grocery store and asks where the toilet paper is, would you sarcastically respond, “How do I know? I don’t work here, stupid?” If you wouldn’t, why do it in a similar situation on Facebook? At a bare minimum, if we see something we don’t agree with or like on social media, we can simply keep on scrolling. As my (and many others’) Grandmas said: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” It really is that simple.

Whether in the physical or digital world, our community and our society, as a whole, needs civility. For those with children, how we act digitally now will shape how they digitally act in the future. It will undoubtedly reduce potential cyber bullying and the increasing suicide rate as a result of it. Ultimately, our courtesy and politeness are a direct reflection of who we are as individuals and a collective people. For many, it reflects how well we were raised. So the next time you get the urge to post a sarcastic comment or an insulting post for the digital world to see, ask yourself, “Would my (mom, dad, spouse, or child) be proud of my written words?” When you see something that sparks sarcasm in your heart, enjoy it privately and just let the thought sit there until it dissipates. Self-control in this scenario or any other one is not a sign of weakness. It’s one way we sustain and encourage civility, and our community should strive to be the poster child of it.