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Is it possible to be civil on social media?

            Jerry Springer, the confrontational talk show host and politician, died recently. His show, The Jerry Springer Show ran for almost 30 years ending in 2018 with more than 3,000 episodes. Springer, according to his New York Times obituary, set a “new standard for tawdriness on American television, turning the talk-show format into an arena for shocking confessions, adultery-fueled screaming matches and not infrequent fistfights.”

            Springer’s legacy may be that he gave us the freedom to do what mothers have cautioned their children NOT to do for eons: Talk badly about others and air our dirty laundry publicly.

            The Jerry Springer Show started out as an issue-oriented program but just a couple of years in, Springer started turning up the shock value. What started with Springer has now filtered down to the masses via social media and our posts. Give us a platform like Springer had and just look what we can do. We say things just for the shock value. Between Twitter feuds and Facebook rants, rudeness is the lingo of the day.

            Social media has mainstreamed a culture of nastiness where common decency and civility are brushed aside. Disrespect in the form of comments or likes and dislikes invite more disrespect and the cycle just keeps on amping up.

            People used to get their gossip over the garden fence or at the corner convenience store. Now, of course, we have social media.

            The internet acts like a digital-fuelled intoxicant, freeing us to say things to strangers that we would never dare to say to someone face-to-face.

            Social media has normalized casual cruelty. And what a shame. People feel they have to share their opinions on everything, everywhere, at all times, even if backed up by scant knowledge. They think their opinions are important and are, for inexplicable reasons, compelled to pontificate endlessly — just like a never-ending Jerry Springer Show.

            Cruelty to others is nothing new. But online, technologically-enhanced shaming is amplified, uncontained and  accessible all the time. We used to suffer embarrassment from a bad choice here or there only as far as our family, school or community knew. But now, it’s the online community too. One ill-chosen comment or action and hundreds, thousands, and even millions of people can stab us with their words.

            And they do.

            Scanning Facebook in particular, it’s almost like people love seeing others publicly shamed or outed. Gossip websites, paparazzi, reality programming, politics, and news outlets all traffic in shame —  trolling and cyberbullying are relatively new words but known to all. 

            We’re in a dangerous cycle. The more we click/like on this kind of gossip, the more numb we get to the human lives behind it — the phrase doom-scrolling is another term that come into the times. 

            With every click or comment, we make a choice. The more we saturate our culture with public shaming, the more accepted it is, the more we will see behavior like cyberbullying and online harassment.

            We need a cultural revolution where public shaming –  like we used to see on Springer but now see on Facebook daily – has to stop. It’s time for an intervention on the internet and in our culture.

            Researcher Brené Brown said, “Shame can’t survive empathy.” 

            Let’s all make a point to be more empathetic to others. In our daily lives, and, our online ones. And remember, empathy from just one person can make a difference. Compassionate comments help abate the negativity. Or maybe if you see something you might say to yourself, “well [someone you know or even a public figure] made a mistake” and then just move on, don’t share it, comment on it or click a thumbs up or down — just go on with your life, maybe even think about something pleasant.

            We talk a lot about our right to freedom of expression. But we need to talk more about our responsibility to freedom of expression. We all want to be heard, but let’s acknowledge the difference between speaking up with intention and speaking up for attention. Showing empathy to others – both in person and online – benefits us all and helps create a safer and better world.

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