Five basic rules for commenting online (if you're not a troll)

Refraction
By Katie Neustaeter
April 14, 2019 - 7:00am Updated: April 14, 2019 - 12:45pm
Image Credit: Tero Vesalainen / Dreamstime.com

WHEN BOUNCING THE CONCEPT of this column off of my husband I asked, “What would you say is the most important rule for interacting on social media?”

His answer?

“Don’t.”

Wise man I married.

But for those of us who are invested in communication in the virtual world, want to encourage healthy public dialogue around difficult issues or just plain can’t resist the interaction, some basic boundaries for online discussion can improve the quality of our conversations — especially when we disagree.

Bear in mind that there will always be internet trolls who will not play by these rules because they do not share the same objectives as people who legitimately want to participate in thoughtful interactions. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines an internet troll as someone who “antagonizes others online by deliberately posting inflammatory, irrelevant or offensive comments or other disruptive content”.

There’s not a lot we can do about those people except hope that they one day learn to overcome their personal insecurities, hurt and anger while choosing not to be sucked into their vortex of sadness.

But for those of us who are brave enough to engage in public dialogue for the purpose of building better understanding without hiding behind false personas, here are some guidelines that I try to use on social media when attempting to have successful interactions:

*disclaimer: at some point, I have violated most, if not all, of these rules. This does not make me a hypocrite; it makes me an evolving human.

I have spent a fairly significant amount of time over the last decade debating theology, politics, social issues, cereal brands, current events and TV shows on social media.

I guarantee that if you go digging into the entirety of my social media history like I’m a potential Oscars host or Chamber ED candidate, you will find things that you don’t agree with, things I no longer agree with, things I could have said more diplomatically and even things I might regret. If you’re being honest, that’s probably true of your internet history, too.

While I can say that I’ve never been a troll or even a straight-up jerk on purpose, I also have not always followed these rules to perfection when emotions got the better of me. But I am trying.

Without further ado, here are five rules for commenting on the internet.

1. No name-calling

The moment we reduce ourselves to name-calling we shut down dialogue, change the trajectory of the conversation, and lose credibility in the conversation. Name-calling deliberately hurts people’s feelings, which is counterproductive and, as we should have learned pre-kindergarten, not okay. This rule applies to the internet as much as to any other social interaction. If you aren’t capable of following this simple guideline then interacting with other humans just might not be for you. Also, if you are the recipient of name-calling, just remember that you’re probably winning the debate.

2. Everyone’s viewpoint is valid (Again, this does not apply to trolls)

Our intention when interacting online should not be alienation. The moment we unilaterally dismiss the worldview of another person, we close ourselves off from growing in understanding and reduce the likelihood that we will also be heard. We don’t have to agree, but we do have to be compassionate and attempt empathy if our goal is to truly further dialogue. We might not think that the opposite opinion is correct, but everyone is entitled to their own opinion even if they are not entitled to their own truth — which brings me to #3.

3. Ask yourself, “Is it true?” before commenting

During the 2016 USA Presidential election, a friend shared an article that I suspected was untrue. I did some quick research and confirmed that it was completely fabricated (if nothing else, Snopes.com can serve you well in identifying a false story). I commented on the thread and gave a link to verify that it wasn’t factual, assuming that it was an honest mistake and my friend would want to know and remove it. Unfortunately, his response was, “Well, it sounded true and could have been, so I’m leaving it up.” Needless to say, it has been difficult to trust anything he has said since.

We have all made errors and been tricked by “fake news” before, but doubling down and being content with the knowledge that you are engaging others in lies compromises a person’s integrity. Before you promote a conversation or become invested in debating an issue, verify that it is true; this requires critical thinking, commitment to honesty and sometimes a bit of humility, but I think we could use more of those qualities in 2019 anyway.

4. Read before commenting

Although I have held this policy for quite some time, it seems to be the lesson I have to learn the most often. Not long ago, I came across an article titled something like, “What To Know Before Your Child Begins French Immersion”. I was in a hurry and didn’t read the article, but thought, “This could be helpful for my friend who just decided to enroll her kids!” I tagged her and went about my day.

A few hours later I got a message from my friend that said, “Why on earth would you tag me in that?” It turned out the article I had referred her to was negative, controversial, bombastic and not at all helpful. Not only had I fallen into a classic internet faux pas, but I had hurt a friend in the process.

The “read before commenting” policy is twice as true when you are offering pushback or criticism of something that is shared online. Unless you have educated yourself by reading the piece and are knowledgeable about its content, it isn’t worthwhile or beneficial to offer your opinion. (I have a great meme for when people fail to do this. I’ll drop it in the comments section for your future use.)

5. Remember that you're engaging with a real person

There's a real, live person on the other side of that keyboard. I have strong opinions, I’m not afraid to express them and I don’t think you should be either. But publicly voicing our opinions or responding to others can and should be done as respectfully and receptively as possible.

It’s okay — even good! — to disagree, but we need to remember that it should be done as carefully online as it would be in person. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is a huge lie. Words are powerful and can leave wounds as deep as any physical injury. We can use our words to tear down, belittle, condescend, overpower and dismiss others or we can use them to build up, validate, learn from and lean into each other.

It’s important for people to voice their points of view and engage in healthy debate; it can unify us, promote understanding, improve communication and teach us to love our neighbours if it’s done right. Don’t be scared to talk about real things in good faith on the internet, because we can’t just have the voices of trolls speaking; we need yours too.

Finally, while it isn’t really a rule, I would also add that people are allowed to reserve the right to change their minds.
If in 20 years I am narcissistic enough to re-read my own columns and think, “I still agree with every single thing that I said and thought when I was 36 years old” then I will not have done my job in life.
We are supposed to grow, evolve, be transformed, become more empathetic, increase in knowledge and understanding and be better tomorrow than we were today - so you’d better believe that I will be eating some of my words.

But no matter how my ideas may evolve or if this internet fad is still a thing in the future, I hope that I’ll still be committed to the core of my rules for commenting on the internet: kindness (Rule #1), inclusiveness (Rule #2), truthfulness (Rule #3), knowledgeability (Rule #4) and compassion (Rule #5), even if I don’t always practice them perfectly.

***Here's a neat comic by The Oatmeal that helps illustrate this column. (Warning: nasty words)

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Editor's Note: This opinion piece reflects the views of its author, and does not necessarily represent the views of CFJC Today or the Jim Pattison Broadcast Group.