Use Moral Courage to Navigate Today's Social Media Landscape
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
that have gone extinct1
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.
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
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
and taps into our inherent desire to be part of a group.
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
we encounter an opinion
we disagree with.
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
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.
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.
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.
there is a way to break the cycle. Consider the following techniques:
Recognize that your emotions and your ego brain have been
triggered–but it’s a false alarm.
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.
Assess risks and expand your options for reaction.
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.
If you engage, move it to real life.
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
Practice Moral Courage
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.
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.
H. (2021, April 15). Extinctions.
Our World in Data.
University. (2018, May 1). Dopamine,
Smartphones & You: A battle for your time.
Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School.
University in China. (2013, September 10). Anger
is More Influential Than Joy: Sentiment Correlation in Weibo.