By Jenn Watt
Published Aug. 8, 2017
You don’t have to spend much time online to find out the internet is an increasingly hostile place. If you use Twitter and Facebook even in a casual way, you’re sure to bump into a shaming campaign against a business, politician or individual within a few days.
It happens at an international and national level and it happens at a local level, too.
When people see each other doing careless – even dangerous – things, they often feel the need to post online about them, centring out an individual using their name or posting a photo for everyone to share and condemn.
At the newspaper, we regularly see such campaigns, which take on a life of their own in the comments section under stories or on others’ pages. (Sometimes we are tagged on posts in hopes that the paper will take on the cause.)
Often the person being shamed did something stupid, careless, thoughtless or mean. Traffic complaints are a big one, but there’s also speculation about people who may have committed a more serious infraction or behaved in a way not everyone agrees with. Online responses are often fast and furious.
People are willing to say shockingly cruel things about each other when they feel someone has wronged another or broken the law. Profanities fly and the value of forgiveness and empathy discarded.
I read somewhere that when you’re feeling road rage, a good thing to do is imagine the person in the car ahead of you is your grandmother. I often practice that technique and find that it changes my entire view of the situation.
Richard Smith, director of the Digital Media Centre in Vancouver, has a similar piece of advice, which he shared with CBC and was paraphrased this way: “before you post, imagine the person you’re posting about right in front of you and then imagine a policeman or somebody in authority there.”
Because, of course, online posts can also be defamatory.
The same should be applied before we post online about one another. Yes, someone cutting you off in traffic, parking in the middle of the road, littering or even vandalizing something is angering. Yes, those people should be told that their behaviour isn’t welcome, is offensive, breaks the law, etc. If necessary, call the police. But imagine that person was your sister or your child. Do you think they deserve to be called terrible names? Have their photo posted on Facebook for everyone to share and post hateful things about?
The internet makes it too easy to be brash and too hard to be thoughtful. Even though it’s impersonal, the effects of our comments to one another can ruin days, weeks, months - even lives. (Jon Ronson has a heartbreaking book on this topic called So, You’ve Been Publicly Shamed - it’s worth the read.)
The power of words and actions online can be more forceful than in person, despite how impersonal the medium seems.
We could all take a few moments to slow down and think through our actions before we post.
Maybe think of our grandmothers instead.