3 Tips on Being a Decent Citizen of the Internet

The internet, and consequently, social media, is feeling very political these days (except for you, Pinterest–keep being you). This makes sense because even if the strangest election in our lifetimes wasn’t creeping slowly nearer, there are still huge social and political discussions going on. “Black lives matter!” “What about police lives?” “What about….” on and on it goes. Everyone has an opinion on something, and we all feel very inclined to share the pieces of wisdom we believe we have. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I think social media is a great way to share ideas and engage in these difficult conversations. It’s certainly more productive than binge-watching tv on Netflix, even if it’s not quite as relaxing. And while I don’t condemn stating your unfiltered opinion, I do have a few ideas for ways we can all do this whole thing better.

This is not an exhaustive list. Some things should be common sense (for example: don’t insult people on the internet; that’s just rude), and I’m sure there are things I’m forgetting and ways that I have violated these. I’m not an expert, guys. These are merely the things that have been resonating with me during the past few weeks.

  1. Be critical.

    This one is more on the common sense side, but it deserves to be said because people forget it a lot. You really shouldn’t just accept everything anyone says, even if you greatly respect that person. Try to fact check as much as possible, but only when those facts are an important part of what someone is saying. If the facts are not important, then you’re just being nit-picky and obnoxious. But it’s important to at least consult the facts, even though it’s not necessarily an easy thing to do.

    For example, I was going to write a blog post a month or so ago about why I’m a vegetarian (well, technically I’m a pescetarian, but that’s not crucial). I was going to talk about the environmental impacts of eating meat, and I wanted to give you all correct information. So I started reading up about it, but I became so overwhelmed by all the conflicting information that I just stopped. If I wanted to, I could have cited the articles that agreed with me, but I didn’t because I want to give the full picture instead of spreading my half-formed ideas. To this day I have not done enough research on that issue for me to comfortably cite that as a reason for my vegetarianism. I’ll get back to you when I’ve done more research.

    Another big part of this is checking your sources. I went through a phase where I would only accept articles written in the last five years as truth (I got into the habit because I had regular assignments at school that had us do this). And while I now think that’s a bit extreme, it still goes to show that the more recent something has been written, the more accurate it will be. And maybe Dr. Leslie’s article that cites her facts is more trustworthy than Billy’s tumblr post. Maybe. You get the point.

  1. Read articles you disagree with.
    This sort of goes along with the first tip, but I think it’s so important that it can stand on its own. Part of being critical lies in getting the unbiased facts, and since it’s difficult to get a truly unbiased article, it’s better to read completely biased articles but on both sides of the issue (plus the few random angles that people don’t talk about much but are important nonetheless). It’s just a really good practice, because it stretches your mind to think in ways you hadn’t before.

    Also, if you’re not willing to read an article you don’t agree with because it makes you nervous and defensive, it’s likely you’re standing on a castle of sand. If you’re right, then your belief will stand firm in the face of criticism, and if you’re not, then isn’t better that you’re now on the path to knowing the truth? There’s nothing to lose by doing this.

    Not only this, but I think a big missing link in these online discussions is empathy. From a debating perspective, getting inside your opponent’s head will help you know how to argue with them, so that’s something. But on a basic human level, empathy is hugely important. Maybe you can’t fathom why your neighbor supports Donald Trump, or the thought that your friend supports Hillary Clinton makes your head spin. But they are still people, and they believe those things for a reason. Maybe they don’t have good reasons, but they still have that opinion, and that opinion shouldn’t just be cast aside like a used sweater. When you discredit a person’s feelings and beliefs without at least attempting to understand where they are coming from, you are discrediting them as a feeling, reasoning human being, and no one deserves that. Like I said before, their reasons may be the worst in the world, but at least take the time to listen and then gently, but firmly state your case. It’s just human decency, folks.

  2. Recognize where you may be part of the problem. This part has a specific inspiration that my other tips didn’t have, but it distills down to something completely related to this post: for goodness’ sake, don’t act like you know everything. Because you don’t. So don’t delude yourself or act like an arrogant pig, making the internet lives of everyone around you worse. Chances are, you’re not an expert on the issue you’re talking about, and even if you are, you can never know the full truth.

    The specific inspiration for this post lies in the recent conversation on racial relations in our country. One of the most cogent arguments that I read was written by Karina B. Heart, a white woman who is the mother of bi-racial children. The most convicting, valuable piece of her eloquent words was when she basically said that we are all a little racist, that we all hold at least a small piece of this filthiness in our hearts. It’s not enough to blame your outwardly racist family or friends–we all have to seek it out, recognize it in our behaviors, and eradicate it as well as we can. Legislation might change some things, but we need cultural change to have true racial reconciliation, and that starts in each of us.

    And this isn’t just about racism. This is about all the problems of the world. We cannot be content merely to point the finger at other people when we haven’t examined our own hearts or done anything to change it. And that’s hard. I’m feeling convicted as I write this. But it needs to be said. None of us are good people, as much as we’d like to believe that we are. And man, I am not doing this point justice, but…if we can get it through our heads to be critical of ourselves first and foremost and encourage others to do the same, who knows what kind of change will ensue?

I suppose what this all boils down to is the fact that I get really frustrated when people on the internet and social media are arrogant and won’t listen to views that they disagree with. When they don’t have the human kindness to stop condemning and think of how someone else might be viewing their words. And like I said, I have made these mistakes as well. I have been arrogant and foolish on the Internet. And I am not proud of that at all. So I think we all have room to grow in this, right? So at least we can be comforted in that. We can use social media to create positive change in our world. We can use it to educate each other on important issues. Every day I find something on social media that I find informative or helpful. Let’s strive to use it in these ways and learn from each other.

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