“Scroll On” and Disagreeing Well Online

Social media has been more active than usual lately with heavy news and controversial ideas, righteous anger and growing consciousness. That’s largely fantastic, but it comes with pushback and reactions, and a few of them really trouble me.

One thing I’ve seen many times over the past few years, and seems more inappropriate than ever, is “just scroll by.” Someone will react to an offensive post, and others will jump on their reaction with “you don’t have to respond to everything you disagree with, you can just scroll by.” I sometimes respond and ask them to drill down: what do they really mean? Most often they think that they’re offering advice that will enrich our lives. Just ignore the things that bother you, and you’ll be happier. Often they’ll point out that it’s just another person’s opinion, we all have one, and nobody’s is special. It is better to ignore a post than be upset by one.

There’s a nugget of good advice in there. There’s only so much bad news and outrage that we can absorb! I often suggest that people take a social media break for that reason. We need to care for ourselves or we’ll burn out. And sometimes the outrage of others is draining, especially if we don’t share it.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

But “scroll by” is hugely problematic advice, and here’s why:

  1. It’s a privileged position. This is more obvious when the topic is systemic injustice. Being able to scroll by racism in your community is a privilege. Telling someone to ignore something that deeply bothers them is like saying “the only thing that affects me about this is your outrage in my feed – so please stop being upset.” It’s the same as being more upset by a protest than by the injustice that caused the protest. It’s the reason for the slogan “no justice, no peace”: change won’t happen until the privileged majority stops turning a blind eye to injustice because it makes them uncomfortable. Protests are a way of spreading the discomfort of oppression around a little bit, so that the privileged can get a glimpse of it too. That’s just as true online.
  2. It devalues ideas. Often it comes with this idea that anything posted to social media is just an opinion. I’ve had people defend posts that were blatantly “fake news”, or just weird memes attacking a politician or group, by saying “I just agree with it.” They imply that I don’t have to – it’s just their opinion. Truth doesn’t matter. Coherence or sense aren’t important. It’s more about emoting than communicating, so its content doesn’t matter.

    Except that ideas do matter, and they impact the people around us. Every repost of a fake news article spreads lies, and adds authority to them. When we scroll past a post that is bigoted or misleading, we normalize it. When we turn a blind eye to dangerous ideas, we let them fester. Every mass shooter has a social media timeline full of bigoted fake news that nobody challenged. Ideas change people. Ideas can change the world. They’re powerful, for good or evil.

  3. It ignores our responsibility to our community. We have a responsibility to support each other. Sometimes that means calling out something that’s hurtful to others, or standing in solidarity with those who do. Sometimes it means patiently and kindly challenging someone who’s made an ignorant statement, and doing the work of showing how it’s false and harmful. It is possible to learn and grow, and I’m so grateful for the people who’ve helped me grow and continue to be patient with me.

Diversity of Opinions vs. Self-Care

Wise people have pointed out for years that social media creates “echo chambers” in which everyone we interact with shares our opinions and beliefs. That’s true, and it’s very important that we interact with different perspectives. But when this combines with the idea that all posts are just opinions and we can ignore the ones we don’t like, the results are weird.

First, not all opinions are equal. Just as Fox News justifies broadcasting conspiracy theorists and quacks under the rubric of being “fair and balanced”, some people on social media make the argument that they deserve an audience for their posts just because they have a different opinion. If you have some true information to add that improves the conversation – that’s great! If you’re only there to be a contrarian, that’s not helpful.

Sure, you’re free to be contrarian. Is that a freedom worth celebrating? Photo by Andrej LiĊĦakov on Unsplash

Second, you can’t force an open mind. I’ve seen people shame others for unfollowing them after a particularly hurtful conversation. “No, you’re the bigot/closed mind if you unfollow me, because it’s important to listen to diverse perspectives.” Again, the principle of exposing yourself to diverse perspectives is to improve the conversation, not to judge people who don’t feel comfortable in a conversation. Nobody has to listen to you, particularly if you don’t have anything kind to say.

So while it’s important to hear and understand different perspectives and ideas, we need to recognize that it takes a toll. It’s hard work, and there’s only so much of it we can do. So we need to choose our conversation partners carefully: is this person safe? Are they adding information, or just emoting? If someone unfollows or unfriends you, consider that you may have just exhausted them. Think about why that might be.

Tips for a Good Conversation

Good conversations can happen online! Here are a few tips that I find helpful:

  1. Be curious. Rather than negating someone comment, go deeper. Instead of saying “you’re wrong”, say “can you explain some more? I want to understand what you mean.” You may find out that their comment was just as shallow as it appeared, but maybe not. Maybe there’s some nugget of shared understanding there to build on. Maybe there’s information you’ve missed.
  2. Be kind. It’s very easy to assume the worst of those we disagree with. Challenge yourself to see the best in them. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Assume ignorance or error instead of hatred or bigotry. We can change the outcome of the conversation by changing its tone.
  3. Be clear and informative. We all post things sometimes just to emote, to get our feelings out; be prepared to clarify your thoughts and apologize for any insensitivity or miscommunication that may cause. If someone misunderstands you, recognize that and correct it. If you’re the one making a statement, it’s on you to back it up. Don’t make a statement if you can’t back it up. Share resources and links to quality information.

That’s it. Simple, straightforward, and harder than it ought to be. Remember that real enemies are rare, most of the people you interact with are your neighbours, and we’re all human beings prone to miscommunication. Empathy is harder online, so be gentle with each other–and yourself.

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