Note: The blog post below was originally published in July 2013. Recent events have me pondering the same questions again. I hope to write more about this and realted topics in the coming weeks and months, so I thought it would be a good idea to start by revisiting the original post.
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Here's the question: How do I apply my personal ethical code in the realm of social media?
But first, a story....
When I was in seventh grade, I received a three-day out-of-school suspension for fighting. In gym class one morning, during a game of kickball, the class bully (a tough girl we'll call Veronica) began to berate and belittle a girl on our team who had mental and physical challenges (a sweet girl we'll call Sally). Sally had gotten the last out of the inning, and Veronica was pissed about it.
I hated gym class, but I hated cruelty and injustice more. So when Veronica started in on Sally and Sally looked like a deer in headlights, I spoke up without even thinking about it.
"Leave her alone, Veronica," I said.
"What the hell did you just say to me?"
What the hell, indeed? Here I was, a goody-two-shoes with pink glasses and a fluffy perm. And there was Veronica: wiry, scrappy, and probably twice as strong as me. I was booksmart. She was streetsmart. Even the boys were afraid of her, though most of them wouldn't admit it.
"I said leave her alone."
I think I started to walk away after that, but I must have turned around again because when she pushed me, I stumbled backward.
My father had taught me exactly one thing about fighting: Hit back. We had never gotten into the specifics of how to hit, but the message was clear: If someone else starts it, you defend yourself.
I pushed Veronica back.
I think she was as surprised as I was.
Then she shoved me so hard I flew into a wall.
In the second it took me to recover and start back at her, the gym teacher stepped between us. The fight was over before it really started, and I was secretly grateful. Veronica could have kicked my ass, no doubt. And no doubt, I would have gone down fighting.
Instead, we were dragged upstairs to the principal's office, and I spent the rest of the morning sitting there in my shorts and tee-shirt, waiting for him to decide on a punishment, and then waiting for my mom to come pick me up.
When the principal asked me privately if I understood why he had to suspend both of us -- even though I had been defending myself -- I said something like this: "I understand that you have to follow the rule of no fighting on school property. But I don't think it's right."
I haven't been in a physical fight since seventh grade, but I've had plenty of verbal spars. I've challenged relatives who made derogatory statements about people who are homosexual. I've chastised family friends for making sweeping statements about people who are homeless. I've had calm debates and shouting matches with some of the people closest to me when conversations about race and nationality have gone awry. I've tried to correct co-workers' misconceptions about certain religious groups. I've argued politics with friends. I'm the one who speaks up in a group when someone tells a misogynist, racist, homophobic, or otherwise degrading joke. I'll tell a perfect stranger, "That's not cool," if they say such hateful nonsense to or near me.
I'm not pretending that I'm a perfect paragon of tolerance, acceptance, and love. God knows I have my own private prejudices and small-minded moments, no matter how much I strive not to.
All I'm saying is this: I'm generally not shy about speaking up if you slander a person or a whole group of people.
In fact, I think silence can make you complicit with such slander.
So back to that question:
How do I apply my personal ethical code in the realm of social media?
The Internet is a vast and unruly beast of opinions. It's fantastic that anyone with a blog, Twitter, or Facebook account can share their thoughts. The power of being able to make your voice heard, and to find like-minded people, is great. The Internet is an amazing tool for learning new things and being exposed to different points of view, both of which are tremendously important to being a well-educated, broadminded, and kindhearted person. But the Internet, specifically social media, is also a minefield of ethical questions.
Last week, after the "not guilty" verdict in the case of George Zimmerman, I saw several Facebook posts that questioned why people and the media were making "such a big deal" about the jury's decision. The general feeling in these posts seemed to be that the media was "race baiting" and making a mountain out of a molehill. These Facebook posters couldn't understand why other people were upset enough to take to the streets in protest of the verdict. One person ranted against the "riots" taking place by "ANIMALS" across the country (this person's words and capitalization, not mine). When someone challenged this statement and pointed out that there were plenty of protests but no real riots happening, the original poster basically said, "Well, it's not over yet. We'll see." In that person's mind, the people protesting were "animals" who would no doubt resort to violence.
Okay. I need to take a deep breath.
I'm going to avoid getting into my specific opinions on the Trayvon Martin shooting and the Zimmerman verdict, because that's not really what this post is about. Suffice it to say that I disagree with the people who think that this case shouldn't be such a big deal, and I disagree with the implied statement that black people staging a protest makes them savages hell-bent on rioting. (Yes, non-black people protested too, and I suspect that the person who called the protestors "ANIMALS" would argue that this label applied to "rioters" of all races. But given this country's history of -- and current issues with -- non-white people being portrayed as less-than-human, the term "animals" is a loaded one, whether you mean it to be or not.)
But my question goes beyond these specific Facebook posts and beyond the Trayvon Martin case. My question is how do I stay true to my moral and ethical standards in the world of Twitter and Facebook?
If these statements had taken place during a face-to-face encounter, I would have spoken up and engaged in conversation about them. If someone had posted them to my blog, I would have dealt with them directly, either by responding in the comments or deleting anything I considered to be over the line. Conversations that happen in-person and those that take place on my own website are part of my immediate sphere of ethical responsibility.
On the other hand, conversations that take place on someone else's blog or another website are outside of that sphere. I usually walk away from those situations without commenting. After all, the Internet is a vast and unruly beast of opinions, and a bleeding-heart liberal like me can't spend all day sticking up for what she believes in. One could argue that my ethical responsibility extends to those other spheres, of course. But this is the general policy that I adhere to in order to keep me sane.
Social media sites are a strange, in-between space. What's my ethical responsibility to speak up when these situations show up on my Facebook feed? It's not as though those people were talking directly to me. And it's not as though they posted these things directly to just my Facebook page. But there they were, confronting me as I scrolled through the status updates.
So what were my choices here? 1) I could have chosen to unfriend them or hide their updates, but most of what they post isn't offensive to me. (In fact, I mostly believe that their offensive comments was born out of true ignorance and not malice.) 2) I could have chosen to engage in conversation with them via the comments. 3) I could have chosen to be silent.
In this case, I chose to be silent. I didn't think that I could have a meaningful conversation about the issue through the medium of Facebook, and they're not people that I would choose to email directly about such a thing. In these particular cases, I felt that saying nothing was a better option. I chose to let those situations fall outside of my sphere of ethical responsibility.
But I'm conflicted about this choice.
Right now, I'm thinking about the different spheres of responsibility as though they're social gatherings, parties, perhaps.
- On my blog: I'm the host; it's my party. I'm responsible for what happens here.
- In-person conversations: I'm an active participant, a party guest with a right (duty?) to speak up. I'm responsible for my actions and interactions if I've chosen to attend the party.
- Other websites: These are like parties in other people's houses, and I know that some of them won't be my scene. Sometimes it makes sense to avoid those parties altogether or to hightail it outta there if I happen upon the wrong kind of party.
- Social media: Facebook and Twitter are like huge warehouses where everyone has their own little party room, and we each have keys to the rooms of our "friends" and people we "follow." If I wander down a corridor to another room and pop in to see how that party's going -- or if a promo flyer for that party lands on my doorstep -- and it turns out to be ugly, what do I do? Leave? Kick that party out of my warehouse altogether? Tell them that their party sucks? Offer tips to help improve the party?
It's not a perfect analogy, I know. And I'm not trying to incite anger with these questions. But I think this is an important conversation for all of us who interact with others online.
What do you think? How do you handle these situations? How do you apply your own ethical and moral code of responsibility in the murky realm of social media?
I welcome your comments below, and I hope you'll join this conversation in a spirit of respect and thoughtfulness.