be nice or leave

Social Media Etiquette for Our Hyper-Partisan Era

5 minute read
Stephen Fishman avatar

It’s been a rough few years online. 

We hit a new low in 2016 with displays of partisanship between friends, acquaintances and strangers. 2017 isn’t shaping up to be any better. 

Between the abundance of mindless content, online hostility, fake news and endless diatribes between supporters and detractors of a myriad of political causes, it seems we have no refuge from the vitriol other than to retreat into our own private echo chambers. 

What can we do to help ease the tension and bring back respectful dialog?

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

While there is no modern day Miss Manners for social media, a few best practices have emerged that might help bring back civility to the landscape (note: these are meant to be more reasonable rules of thumb, not absolute):

1. Slow your roll. Nurture the relationship first

When a friend or connection you have not had any recent online or personal interaction with posts something you don’t agree with, take a moment. 

Rather than jumping straight into the fray and vitriol with your connection, consider how it will be received. Imagine how you would respond if the first time you heard from someone in years was them essentially calling you out to brawl in a public forum. 

If you can’t fight the urge to respond, at least inject some friendly words into the response as well to demonstrate you care about the person on the other end as much as you do about the issue at hand.

2. Stay on topic

When a friend or connection starts a conversation on a particular subject and you have chosen to respond (and you have recently engaged with them positively at some point), do your best to stay on topic. 

Don’t shift to what you think is the bigger or more relevant issue. Demonstrate you respect their concern first. 

Imagine if you posted something on government inefficiency and your friend responded with their concerns about the Supreme Court. If you can’t fight the urge to respond about the (in your mind) more critical topic, start a new thread with a new post about your topic. 

If, after starting the new thread, you still feel the need to respond in line to your friend’s post, take a moment to write something more than a flippant response and demonstrate why the two issues are intertwined from your perspective.

3. Agree when you can 

If your connection across the partisan divide has posted about a topic where you have at least some form of specific agreement, take the opportunity to point out the common ground. 

Rather than spending energy denying any validity or honor in their perspective or concern, demonstrate you see commonality and virtue within them. 

Learning Opportunities

Imagine if you posted something about your concerns related to newly discovered cheating in the education system and your friend chose to ignore something everyone agrees with (i.e., cheating is bad) and instead jumped straight to party line disagreements on educational policy.

If you can keep your fighting instincts in check, at least start or end your response by agreeing in the places where you share perspective. Highlighting specific agreement rather than generic disagreement is one of the only tools we have to bringing people of different opinions closer together.

4. Fight your urges, not your connections

LinkedIn demands its own set of guidelines, in part because of its perception as a "professional network." Partisan posts on LinkedIn tend to be silenced by admonitions of "political posts are not appropriate here."

Whether that's true or false, the social internet is inherently a domain of self expression — whether it's Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter. So before you call for torches, pitchforks and censorship, think twice. If the post crosses the line — be it expressing hatred or sharing blatantly false news — by all means speak up. But if it hasn't crossed that line, ask yourself what your response will do for everyone involved.

Shaming friends and contacts doesn't work to bring unity. Remember, if you're truly tired of someone's postings, the filter or "mute" button is your friend. 

Finally: Be your best self online

Before posting a response to anything, reflect for a moment and think before you type. What kind of person do you want to be — both on and offline? What standards of conduct do you believe you are responsible to demonstrate? What world are you interested in creating?

Most importantly, what are your real motives? Does your response align with your motives and ideals? Does it build toward the world you are trying to create, not just along political lines, but also in terms of civility and respect?

Beyond You and I Lies the Land of We

Everyone knows that there is no “I” in team, but so many people forget that there is no unity without “You.”

Changing the tone of our society starts with each one of us. And it will take all of us to practice the restraint, forbearance and respect we demonstrate in the real world outside of our bubbles to get the dialogue moving in the right direction. 

About the author

Stephen Fishman

Stephen holds a M.S. in Management from The Georgia Institute of Technology and a B.S. in Electrical Engineering also from Georgia Tech. Stephen has worked as a practitioner and leader across business, design and technology domains for enterprises and brands like PepsiCo, AutoTrader, Cummins, Chick-fil-A, the American Cancer Society, the CDC, Macy's, GM, Home Depot, Lowe's and others.

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