Lizzie Marvelly: Let's teach young online etiquette

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It's time to make a stand against social media barbarians.
Death threats to Paula Bennett are the public face of an insidious malaise infecting social media. Photo / Alex Speirs
Death threats to Paula Bennett are the public face of an insidious malaise infecting social media. Photo / Alex Speirs

Sometimes it's difficult to know whether we're going forwards or backwards. In the social media age, when we can watch both a choir singing about Steven Joyce's flying dildo, and shaky amateur footage of broken and bleeding people fleeing terrorist attacks on our phone screens, there's a distinct air of the surreal. Somewhere between dildogate, selfies with plane hijackers and the laser-eyed kiwi, the unexpected has rather lost its sheen.

As outlandish as it sounds, the news that Paula Bennett has received death threats on social media seems almost mundane in comparison. When a citizen encouraging the shooting of a Government minister elicits a mere shrug, however, surely something's gone wrong.

How on earth have we come to the point where disagreeing with a politician can morph into, "I dare anyone to shoot the bitch dead at her next public appearance"? In the time it takes to think an utterly inappropriate thought, type it and press "post", human decency has bellyflopped right out the window.

I'm a big fan of social media. I spend about as much time talking to people behind a screen as I do face to face. The digital world has enabled us to be connected in ways we'd never dreamt. It has broken down the hierarchies of the media landscape, given a voice to groups who have traditionally been voiceless and made it possible for everyday people to communicate with the most powerful people in the world.

It has also created a macabre paradox: seemingly, the more digitally connected we become, the greater the disconnect from our sense of humanity.

Where arguments over issues, politics and society historically took place around the dinner table, with people we knew and cared enough about to want to avoid reducing them to tears, they now occur over Facebook and Twitter, among groups of friends and strangers alike, flinging rage at the screen without the reality check of a hurt look to pull us back when we've gone too far.

Where differences of opinion may have created distance between acquaintances who nevertheless politely tolerated each other, disagreements and resentments can now flare up over and over again, flooding notification feeds with snark and bitterness as angry opponents refuse to agree to disagree.

Where bullies targeted their prey in the classroom or the playground under the variably watchful eyes of teachers, they can now travel invisibly inside their victims' pockets and wage their campaigns on a 24-hour schedule.

How on earth have we come to the point where disagreeing with a politician can morph into, 'I dare anyone to shoot the bitch dead at her next public appearance'?

There were bullies before the social media age, of course, and conflict between human beings is almost as old as time itself, but never before have we been able to torture each other in such pervasive and persistent ways. Somewhere along the line, social media became decidedly less than social.

A Government minister receiving death threats is the public face of a private hell that affects countless. The reports of children and teenagers committing suicide as a result of online bullying provide a devastating example of just how serious social media abuse can be. And the issue is hardly confined to young people. The tragic death of Charlotte Dawson bleakly illustrates that no one is immune.

The psychological effect of negative social media interactions is sobering. As someone who has battled depression and anxiety in the past, I'm fairly attuned to my emotional responses these days. When I am the target of fractious online exchanges I notice that my fight or flight response kicks in. My heartbeat races, my stomach churns, adrenalin and cortisol rush through my body as though there were a sabre-toothed tiger in the corner of the room poised to tear my head off. My brain, tied as it is to my cave people ancestors, cannot distinguish between a real or digital threat.

The experience has made me analyse my own behaviour online. I'm ashamed to admit that I've been part of angry Twitter mobs before. While brands and companies should be held to high standards of corporate conduct, individuals who make mistakes are human beings. My outrage has clouded my sense of humanity in the past and I can only hope that I'll pause to think about the human being behind the screen the next time my moral rage threatens to get the better of me.

Sometimes I imagine what it would be like if some of these negative social media interactions took place in the real world. A Twitter pile-on (when a number of users bombard a single user with a high volume of public messages) would be akin to an angry horde camping outside the house of someone who'd offended them.

In the best-case scenario, the offended would knock on the door to have a polite conversation with the alleged offender; in the worst, they'd yell insults through the windows. Regardless of the tone, having a steady stream of people knocking at your door day and night, sometimes repeatedly, to ask the same questions, call you names or accuse you of various crimes, would likely result in a call to the police.

What is to be done about it? We're taught at kindergarten to treat others as we'd like to be treated, yet the message somehow seems to be lost the moment we're behind a screen. While many of these actions constitute criminal offences that should be prosecuted under the Harmful Digital Communications Act, as of February only eight people had been charged under the act since it came into force in July 2015.

While prosecution provides a deterrent, I believe some of the answers lie in education. Our schools theoretically equip our rangatahi with all of the skills they'll need for adult life. Co-existing with others in the digital space, a skill that will become increasingly vital in coming decades, must become a stronger focus.

It's a lesson many adults could also benefit from. When it comes to our conduct online, we need to take a long, hard look at ourselves. People on the internet are people nonetheless.

- NZ Herald

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