As news of the terrorist attacks in Paris spread through social media, responses followed a pattern I’ve come to know well.
First, shock and grief. Friends and followers share video and pictures that are almost pornographic in their deracinated intensity. The images appear with no context, and we see only running, screaming, guns, and blood.
After the shock, reactions start to split along lines that are ideological and temperamental. Some people are simply, understandably, angry. From them, I hear calls for vengeance. And, sometimes, they seem to be searching for scapegoats. On Twitter, in particular, I saw many calls to bar Syrian refugees because they might be carrying terrorists among their number. Arguments and threats spring up like dandelions.
There is another group, I find, that calls for caution, compassion, and understanding. Even the members of this network, however, start to turn on each other after a few days, often by targeting expressions of grief or solidarity.
Last week, for example, many people “French-flagged” their profile pictures, overlaying faces with the tricolor. These were roundly criticized in my network, sometimes as racist. Critics ask: Why don't you cover yourself in the colors of Iraqi or Lebanese flags, when terrorism strikes those places?
There are always commentaries from sites like the DailyKos or the Huffington Post that point out the imbalance of media coverage: Why Paris, and not Beirut? On social media, people become what journalist Jamiles Lartey calls "tragedy hipsters," as in, "Bro — I care about suffering and death that you've never even heard of." The status update becomes a status symbol, like a Prius.
It’s as if the terrorists injected a virus into our social networks that causes good people to turn on each other, like the rage-zombies in the movie 28 Days Later.
I’m using the Paris debates as an example, but I don’t think it’s controversial to say that in 2015, social media can be a vicious place, no matter what we’re debating. On platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and 4chan, users trigger anxiety, stress, doubt and even hatred in others, many of whom they call “friends.” Much of this activity takes the form of incessant policing of manners and language, which is why I sometimes call the Internet "the scolding machine."
I don't believe this is motivated by malice, necessarily, but rather by a need to exert some kind of power over a situation in which we feel otherwise powerless. Seeing violence over and over on social media triggers a subterranean fight-or-flight response—but since few of us are in a position to stop terrorists directly, we lash out at the closest targets.
It’s tempting to dismiss social media firestorms as a sideshow. The cable news leader, Fox, has about 1.7 million viewers during prime time. That sounds impressive. But a seventh of the world's population visits Facebook every day. At any given moment, up to two billion people around the world will be logged into a social media site or app, according to my back-of-the-envelope calculation.
Social media aren’t just a major source of news and opinion; they’ve also become a very significant place of community. There we spend time with far-flung family, friends, and colleagues. There we have some of the most meaningful discussions of our lives.
When the community becomes toxic, that hurts its members. Scientists have only just started to study the relationship between social media and well-being, but the evidence so far suggests that what we say, read, watch, and hear through social media shapes our mental health and even offline relationships like our marriages, according to a growing number of studies.
One paper from this year, for example, found a link between death by heart disease and angry language on Twitter. That’s consistent with everything else we know about the link between social connections and subjective well-being. The friendships and communities you have on social media are real, if unprecedented.
It's time to start acting like they matter. It's time for us to pause and ask ourselves: As individual humans, how can we support each other’s well-being on social media?
Few studies have dealt directly with this question. The companies themselves have given some thought to how to design interactions so as to increase well-being. In fact, my Greater Good Science Center colleagues Dacher Keltner and Emiliana Simon-Thomas worked directly with Facebook to create changes that many users now take for granted, like giving friends kinder, more specific feedback on photographs you don’t like.
But few users, it seems to me, take responsibility for the well-being of communities they create through their social media accounts—that includes people I know who in real life would never dream of saying an unkind word to a stranger’s face but can be quite nasty on Facebook. Few seem to think about how the contagion of anger or contempt might infect the larger network. This becomes more, not less, important when a tragedy like Paris strikes.
Here are five suggestions, by no means comprehensive, for fostering the well-being of others online, based on a combination of my reading of the research and my experience.
Because the research is so shallow — and my experience so narrow — I invite readers to discuss these recommendations, and to please make their own in the comments.
1. Bring your best self to social media
There is a research-tested exercise we promote on Greater Good in Action called “Best Possible Self for Relationships.” I’ve found that applying this exercise to social media can be quite thought-provoking. It asks you to imagine your relationships going as well as they possibly could, and then writing that vision down. It’s really about self-discovery: Who do I want to be and what do I want out of life?
Here are the steps, which I’ve adapted for thinking about your social media persona:
You might even consider posting your vision to social media. Don't be afraid: See what people have to say about your ideal social media space.
2. Cultivate a diverse social network
This to me is the foundation of a healthy life on social media.
Racial, cultural, and economic biases exist — within me, you, institutions, across nations, and within nations around the globe. And so, so, so often I see good people generalize from data they see in their incredibly biased Facebook or Twitter feeds. I learned about the shootings in Kenya, the earthquake in Nepal, the Syrian refugee crisis, and more, from Facebook. In the same feed, I also saw people write, “Why is no one paying attention to the shootings in Kenya/earthquake in Nepal/the Syrian refugee crisis?!” Seemingly unaware that this isn’t true of everyone or of everyone’s social network.
It’s a hard truth: Imbalance in your social media feeds doesn’t reflect media bias. It reflects your bias.
To correct for this, I often work to add friends (even ones I don’t know) who I think will add to the depth and richness of how I see the world. I also try to be aware that my efforts will always fall short. You can’t eliminate bias; you can only mitigate and manage it. Over the years, I’ve consciously built an online social network that includes family, friends from every stage of my life, writers of all kinds, journalists, psychologists, and more — plus, people of many different races, cultures, and economic backgrounds. This diversity is one of the gifts that life has given me, though sometimes it can feel like a curse—especially when these different and diverse people start bickering on my Facebook wall.
Yes, diversity can create conflict. It's tempting to block or unfriend troublesome people, especially when you yourself disagree with them.
Here's what I think: The difference between a well-rounded human and a one-dimensional fanatic is that the human remembers that he or she can be wrong. Of course, you should be skeptical of everything you read online.
But you should also try to be skeptical of yourself. When you feel that dopamine rush of righteousness coming on, STOP. Hit pause. Take a breath. Do your own research, especially when the facts and explanations seem to confirm your pre-existing beliefs. Sometimes you'll mess up. I do, all the time. Big deal. Admit you're wrong, forgive yourself, and try to do better next time. When someone else is wrong, try to forgive them.
Diversity doesn't really work without humility.
3. Highlight what your friends have in common
How do social media turn good people into nasty ones?
Part of the answer lies in the one-dimensionality of the interaction. If someone is not personally known to you, they are just a name on the screen, and all we know about them is one tweet or comment. It seems to me that one of the reasons why Twitter is so vicious is that followers are not bidirectional friends, the way they are on Facebook. This makes it more difficult for you to create and facilitate a community of different people.
I try, as much as possible, to show people I know what disparate friends might have in common, especially at points of conflict. "Peter and Sarah—you disagree about gun control, but did you know you both graduated from the University of Florida?" Or perhaps, "I still love you both!"
Sounds cheesy—let's face it, most of what I'm saying here sounds cheesy—but it works in defusing tense moments. You're making them both feel like they're part of the same in-group, and there are a stack of studies showing that this will increase the pro-social tendencies of all the parties involved.
The important thing to remember is that your social media connections are an in-group that you created. When they comment on something you've shared, they are guests in your home. A good host generates a convivial atmosphere by helping everyone to feel included in the conversation.
A word about racism, sexism, and other forms of identity-based discrimination: I don't tolerate the denigration of entire groups of people in my networks, and I don't think you should either. Does this contradict what I'm saying about having a diverse network? I agree there's some ambiguity, but I simply don't want, for example, women or folks of color to feel uncomfortable inside the community I create with my account. I brought them together; I try to keep them safe from abuse. You may disagree with me, of course. We all have different limits. But this too, in my opinion, is part of cultivating other people's well-being online.
4. Try some active listening
It's really hard to listen to people on social media.
In face-to-face conversation, active listening means expressing interest in what a person has to say. This can be as simple as making eye contact or lightly touching their hand as they speak, but it’s really a deeper exercise in trying to truly empathize with another person, especially during a difficult conversation. Here’s what that might look like online, again adapted from Greater Good in Action:
Of all the steps I'm proposing, this to me feels the most difficult. On social media, we take turns; there's no opportunity for non-verbal feedback as we speak. For active listening to work online, we need more patience, not less, than we do in real life.
5. Promote positive messages and images
After the Paris attacks, divisive poison and fear-inducing imagery flooded my feeds. Then one of my friends shared this video, of a blindfolded Muslim man hugging strangers on a Paris street.
I felt my heart lift. And then other friends shared this BBC video of a man whose wife had been shot to death in Paris.
This is imagery that induces "moral elevation," which psychologist Jonathan Haidt defines as "a warm, uplifting feeling that people experience when they see unexpected acts of human goodness, kindness, courage, or compassion. It makes a person want to help others and to become a better person himself or herself."
In a study published this year, 104 college students watched videos depicting heroic or compassionate acts while researchers measured their heart rates and brain activity. They found that witnessing suffering triggered a stress response, but that then seeing suffering alleviated through a caring, selfless act produced a sense of relief the students felt throughout their bodies. The researchers specifically saw activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with empathy and “theory of mind”—our ability to predict behavior in other people.
In short, witnessing acts of goodness helps us to feel connected to humanity, while witnessing violence cuts us off from others. Elevation helps turn the stress response from fight-or-flight into tend-and-befriend. That's why when friends share images that elevate me and help me to feel connected, I am grateful—and I share it on.
The bottom line? If we want to transform the culture of social media, we have to set an intention to be supportive of each other online. Kind, compassionate, honest, grateful, and forgiving. There's a place for anger or snark. But that shouldn't be our default setting, especially when we communicate with people whom we call friends.