Being virtual is no excuse for being vicious

These days, it almost seems as if only two types of social media users exist.

Being virtual is no excuse for being vicious
Photo by Andre Hunter / Unsplash

(Note: A different version of this article was originally published on Reposted with permission.)

These days, it almost seems as if only two types of social media users exist. Those who go out of their way to offend, and those who go out of their way to be offended.

And yet, social media remains a popular and useful platform. It allows us to connect with family and friends, wherever they may be around the world.

Throughout the years, I have built meaningful relationships with many people online. In fact, I have yet to meet some of these individuals in real life. Social media is a powerful tool for sharing ideas, promoting causes, and mobilizing people.

The situation these days reminds me of a talk I gave on Dec. 10, 2011 in Ateneo at the first Social Media Summit organized by the Ateneo Association of Communication Majors.

I was then the Southeast Asia Head of Social and Community of Yahoo! Southeast Asia, and my fellow speakers included now Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa.

In my presentation, I stressed the need for the responsible use of social media. I told the students that readers are no longer passive consumers of news. Readers decide what is news to them.

The balance of power has shifted to individuals. With all the digital tools readily available to us, anyone can be a publisher and a broadcaster. You don't need to own a printing press and a TV station. You just need Facebook and YouTube.

Every day, whether we realize it or not, we are content creators. We write our own stories, post comments, curate news from different online sources, and distribute content by liking and sharing. Moreover, our potential audience is not just the people we know, but anyone around the world.

This kind of power once belonged to an elite few, and yet many of us take it for granted. Yet as Uncle Ben taught us, with great power comes great responsibility.

"Being virtual is no excuse for being vicious," I emphasized in my talk.

Oh, sweet summer child!

Back in 2011, I had no idea of course how much worse the social media environment would become. Nowadays, it seems that being vicious is the new normal, and Facebook is optimizing for outrage.

No wonder it's a toxic environment. The newsfeed highlights articles or social media posts that provoke outrage. And so they get the most shares and reactions. They will then appear more often in the newsfeeds, provoking even more outrage, resulting in a vicious cycle.

It's why you hear the advice: "Don’t feed the trolls."

If you share posts you disagree with and comment on them, the algorithm rewards these posts for engagement. Meaning paid trolls earn more money the more you argue with them.

Of course, while personal change is important, the other side of the coin is the responsibility of media. Media organizations still wield a lot of influence. They decide which stories will become news — the news that people will then share on social media. Media practitioners should publish the truth and not contribute to the spread of toxicity online.

This does not mean that we should not speak out against injustices or turn a blind eye to evil. But instead of just complaining on social media and wallowing in negativity, we should do something about it.

Social media can be a powerful tool for good. But we have to translate our virtual likes and shares into real-world actions. Find your purpose, and cooperate with others who believe in the same advocacy.

Together, we can change ourselves and change the world.