Expert Viewpoint

Use Moral Courage to Navigate Today's Social Media Landscape

Human beings have an innate drive to sort ourselves into groups based on various affinities. Our ability to band together, share resources and protect each other is one reason why our species isn’t one of the 900 that have gone extinct1 since the year 1500. Another factor that has historically worked in our favor is our ability to communicate. But, there’s one problem — we seem to have become afraid of communicating.

For the most part, technology has greatly advanced our ability to communicate. The telegraph, then the telephone enabled us to communicate across vast distances, yet still in a one-to-one, back and forth exchange. Radio and television made one-to-many communication possible, but being one-way without the possibility of response or exchange made it an unequal producer-to-consumer model. While that meant that the content was controlled by an elite group, it also enabled society to impose accepted values and norms, like prohibiting cuss words or restricting mature content for after children’s bedtimes.

Today, smart phones, the internet and social media have certainly continued the rapid change in how and when we communicate. Anyone with a device and connection can become a producer — broadcasting almost anything to massive numbers of consumers, who can respond to and spread the content just as quickly. It has become a never-ending bid for attention that stimulates our brains2 and taps into our inherent desire to be part of a group.

When a human is in danger or encounters a similar source of stress, the fight-or-flight response kicks in. This response goes back to our species’ survival, and is helpful when a bear attacks–but not so much when we encounter an opinion we disagree with.

That’s what happens with social media, or any media, really. You’re sitting on a bench waiting for a bus scrolling through TikTok, Instagram or the latest platform-du-jour when you see a post or a comment that really upsets you, or perhaps is even directed at you. You are not in any physical danger, and not even in any proximity to whomever posted the offensive content. Yet this is undeniably an “us” versus “them” situation, and “their” post is a threat to your group.

Fight or flight kicks in — the primitive response to either run away or attack! How fast can an average person enter a comment on their phone, hurling blame, shame, or labels at the “other” while simultaneously alerting more “us” to fight more of “them?” In many ways, social media pushes allegiance to a whole new level– in turn feeding a never-ending cycle.

If we are all players in this game, shouldn't we know what the game is? The whole goal of social media, no matter the platform, is to get and keep your attention — the best way to do that is triggering emotions.

Kittens and puppies may give you a happy boost, but triggering fear or anger3 is much more likely to get reactions, comments and lots of shares. Social media is intentionally designed to hijack our emotions.

But, there is a way to break the cycle. Consider the following techniques:

#1 Recognize that your emotions and your ego brain have been triggered–but it’s a false alarm.

The key is to put the phone down long enough to get past that primitive fight-or-flight response. It starts with recognizing that while the rush of adrenaline and corresponding sensations are real, the threat is not. There’s no live person yelling in your face, ready to throw a punch. You are not in any physical danger, so an immediate response is not necessary. This isn’t a battlefield where the color of your uniform marks you as an ally or foe. This conscious realization along with a deep breath or two will begin to tamp down your ego brain’s visceral emotions so you can think more clearly.

#2 Assess risks and expand your options for reaction.

Once you’re using your intellect and reason, fight or flight aren’t your only options. You can choose to react or to ignore. It may be tempting to throw out a label and attack someone you don’t even know, or think you know based on a single statement or viewpoint, but there will be consequences. If you have a personal relationship with the “Other,” you may not be able to avoid addressing the situation–but may want to handle it with more than a comment or emoji. On the other hand, do you want to be pulled into a heated debate with someone whose screen name is “tickedoff278”? Are you prepared to be labeled, shamed, or blamed? Consider possible repercussions and how you want to be perceived. You may decide it’s not worth the potential trouble and elect to continue scrolling.

#3 If you engage, move it to real life.

Understanding others is crucial to being understood, and text on a screen risks misinterpretation. The complete lack of nonverbal cues in social media makes it very probable that there will be at least some misunderstanding. You can’t hear the person speak, so you won’t hear inflection, tone, volume that may signal joking or sarcasm as opposed to outrage. Facial expressions, body language, and gestures are also crucial to effective communication, and play a huge part in the triggering of the ego brain. Rather than posting a comment, try to connect through a video call or meet in person, so nonverbal cues aren’t lost. Putting away your phone and any other distractions is important, too.

#4 Practice Moral Courage

The Moral Courage Method starts with considering what we share before diving in to how we’re different, since shared ground builds trust. Dissolving the “us” against “them” paradigm, instead replacing it with the practice of curiosity and caring could help accelerate social progress. You don’t want someone to assume that one comment or viewpoint represents the whole of who you are. Treat other individuals in a similar way–as dynamic and ever-evolving human beings, not as static categories or commodities to be labeled. Ask authentic questions (not “gotcha’s”)–really listen to a person’s answers, and you’ll be on your way to real communication–even if you never agree.

Technology has made communication faster, but not necessarily more effective. Social media leads us to believe that communication is happening, and everyone is involved, but it’s an illusion designed to provoke reactions and keep us clicking and scrolling. Education can help students recognize the trap, and at least some of the time, disengage for the greater good.


1 Ritchie, H. (2021, April 15). Extinctions. Our World in Data.

2 Harvard University. (2018, May 1). Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A battle for your time. Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School.

3 Beihang University in China. (2013, September 10). Anger is More Influential Than Joy: Sentiment Correlation in Weibo. ArXiv.Org.