Social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, are great for catching up with family and friends, interacting with groups of like-minded people, sharing useful information, and finding out about the latest funny dog cartoon. If you’re on social media, however, I can guarantee you’ve also seen some negative content.
What is Negativity?
Some negativity is in the eye of the beholder, because we have different likes, dislikes, values, opinions, hot-button issues and triggers. However, some posts are just plain nasty and suck the air from the room (virtual or real). If it’s outright hate speech, or the deliberate sharing of false information, the major social platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, will take it down or flag it. However, should we rely on ‘bots’ or gatekeepers to do something about harmful posts, or do we also have a role to play?
How Negativity Spreads on Social Media
I’ve been reading Ed Coper’s book Facts and Other Lies: Welcome to the Disinformation Age. It primarily looks at how to combat fake news and disinformation, but some of the tricks and tools it discusses could also relate to other kinds of negative online behaviour such as spreading unsubstantiated gossip, tearing down or mocking people who don’t agree with us, and generally contributing to a social climate that makes us feel worse after engaging in it. (Click here to see my review of the book on Goodreads.)
If you use a platform like Facebook, you know that your posts don’t automatically reach all of your friends or followers. They’re subject to an algorithm, that is basically a set of rules that computer programs use to work out what happens to your post.
However, I didn’t realise that the Facebook algorithm had specifically been changed in 2017 so that they would ‘prioritise posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people … These are posts that inspire back-and-forth discussion in the comments that you might want to share and react to’ (Coper, p. 69).
This sounds great in theory, but it also means that controversial posts tend to get more traction. Post something about COVID vaccinations or Donald Trump, and watch the sparks fly as people get more and more heated in their discussions. The more people who comment or hit happy-face or angry-face emoticons, the higher up the rankings it goes and the more people see it. They add their comments or share it on their feeds, their friends see it, and it literally goes viral.
A similar thing can happen on Twitter when topics start to trend. In essence, you’ll see a list of trending topics, which are presumably the most popular topics of the day. Some are fairly innocuous, such as ‘Celebrity Name’ (fill in the blank) or ‘Be Kind Day’.
But there are also topics that you know are going to be bad before you even click on them (e.g., Bob the Traitor, Sally is a Cow, KKKelly). Those types of topics have been in my feed a lot lately (with different names). But every time you click on the trending topic and make a comment, like it, or retweet it, you’re helping it to trend further. And you’re also telling Twitter that those are the types of posts you like to see, so they’ll send you more of them.
It’s like those clickbait sites that have headlines such as, ‘You won’t believe what these child stars look like now!’ I remember clicking on one of those because I did want to know what the celebrity in the accompanying photo looked like now. But I found myself in the middle of an endless slide show where you had to keep clicking ‘next’ to get to the next celebrity pic. About 10 minutes in and I still hadn’t gotten to the person I wanted. At that point, I belatedly realised that life was too short, I could live without seeing that picture, and that by continuing to click, I was just making the site’s owner rich from all those clickbait advertising dollars.
So how can we help to change the atmosphere and make our little corner of social media more positive? After reading Coper’s book, here are some things that I’m going to try.
How to Reduce Negativity on Social Media
1. Don’t help negative Twitter topics to trend
If I know from the get-go that a trending topic is likely to be negative (e.g., Down with Sally; Bob the Traitor), I won’t click on it. Otherwise, I’m just helping it to trend further, and once I start reading comments associated with those trends, I’ll get upset, angry or some other reaction that is not good for my well-being and those around me.
Sometimes this is difficult, because you can have a seemingly innocuous topic, such as a person’s name, and you’re not sure why it’s trending. However, I will try to avoid the ones that are obviously derogatory, spreading lies, or generally gossip-mongering. If I do click on something out of curiosity and then find myself in the midst of a negative storm, I’ll jump out of there quickly.
2. Resist the siren call of clickbait
This is hard for me because I really do want to know what the latest reality star ate for breakfast … not! But I’ll remind myself that I’m just making the site’s owner rich with every click, and that if the article or slide show I find myself in is derogatory, I’m helping a negative article to get more airtime. Plus, if I’ve come to that article through a link on social media, then that platform will think I like those posts and will send me more of them. There are times when it really is better to see more cute dog cartoons in your feed than to add fuel to the gossip mill.
3. Think before commenting
The old ‘counting to 10’ trick is not such a bad idea. If I see a post that I strongly disagree with, I will stop and think before commenting. Will my comment be helpful, or will I inadvertently be causing more harm? If I comment on a derogatory or deceptive post, I’m helping it to go higher up the rankings so that more people will end up seeing it. Even if I feel I’ve made a constructive comment, more people are still going to see the original negative post, and my comments could backfire and actually cause more antagonism among those who disagree with me.
4. Go private
If you know the person who has made the original comment, it’s probably better to take the conversation out of the public eye, through a private message, email, phone call or (shock, horror) a face-to-face chat if you’re within cooee of each other. If done well, you are more likely to find some common ground and have a constructive conversation than if you try to debate it on a public platform.
5. Start a new narrative
If you want to say something positive that addresses the same issue, it’s often better to start your own conversation rather than comment on an existing thread. For example, if someone posts something to say that refugees from Country X should go back to where they came from because they’re taking our jobs; we could put up our own post, such as ‘Hey everyone, here’s a great article about a group of refugees from Country X who are volunteering their time to help struggling Aussie farmers’ (assuming that’s true of course). That might not get as many likes or comments as a controversial post, but if you add a question, it helps (e.g., Do you know of any other programs like that in your community?).
By doing our bit to reduce the amount of negativity on social media, I’m not implying that we should all be little Pollyannas and that everything on those platforms needs to be sweetness and light. Our world has faced a lot of significant issues in recent years, and sometimes we need to talk about difficult topics. However, we can strive to be kind and constructive on social media, even when other people don’t always show us the same courtesy.
I mainly use Twitter and Facebook, so if you have any comments about other social media platforms, I’d be interested in your insights.
How do you deal with negativity on social media? I’d love to hear your examples.