Rethinking the Rhetoric | 3 Ways to Navigate the Unsafe Spaces of Social Media

I am a pretty confident person. I have always been opinionated, and it doesn’t really bother me. I have always been vocal about things I am passionate about, and it is not something that I am ashamed of. I don’t embarrass all that easily (unless, of course, social awkwardness is involved, in which case I turn redder than a red-head on beach day), and I don’t shy away from public discourse. While I retain my profound inability to navigate social media with any kind of technical know-how, I enjoy the platform for sharing thoughts and open dialogue.

Recently, though, I have found myself more and more easily rattled by pushback on social media. I don’t know when my public confidence started to shrink, but it surfaced one day about a month ago. I came home from work in a tizzy of to-do list items and a desperate need to put on sweat pants. I followed my daily liturgy of dropping my bag at the door, kissing my man, and kicking off my heels with the freedom of Maria spinning on the grassy green hill in the Sound of Music. Stepping into the bedroom to change, I hollered my standard end-of-the-day questions at Austin: How was your day? What’d you work on today at the shop? What should we do for dinner? Though his responses were sufficient, they had an unusual brevity followed by a pregnant pause.

“So …” he started delicately. “Your post got quite the response on Facebook.”

I froze mid-slipper-pulling-on. My body was fixedly still, but my mind was darting in a thousand directions. I had posted an article on Facebeook that morning, but worked through lunch and hadn’t checked my account all day. Austin’s tone told me that it garnered some attention, and not the good kind. Moving from zero to sixty in .03 seconds, I grappled for my phone and pulled up my account. My heart dropped – 16 notification, most of which were comments. I scrolled through the comments searching for key words, trying to garner a sense of the overall response to my article. It was clear: not only did people disagree with me, but they did so in vehemently long comments (made even more daunting by the slender column allowed in the comments section, making their words span farther and farther down the screen).

I was a bit shaken by the response, I’ll be honest. My post was not controversial, at least I didn’t think it was, but the responses were so ardent, so final, so publicly shaming and left no room for discussion or further dialogue. They presented a closed case with a verdict that I was out of line.  And in that moment, my usually confident self was rattled. I felt as if everyone was talking about me all while I was unaware over the last nine hours. Their words carried a potent power, and it was a power they used to shame me.

Over the last several months this experience has become more and more the norm on social media. This week, I was finally able to put words to this increasingly common experience: social media doesn’t feel safe anymore. Maybe it never was, and it is just catching up to me now. Maybe things have changed or maybe I’m just more aware. Either way, I am faced with the need to relearn how to navigate the unsafe spaces of social media.

Maybe you have experienced this too. Maybe, like me, you’re wondering what has changed, and what needs to be done. Maybe you’re wondering if these public spaces can be redeemed, and what can we do to work toward that end.

Recognize the need.

Sometimes my confidence veils me from my true need for safety. That is definitely the case in this situation. Because I enjoy some back-and-forth, it took me a while to realize when dialogue on social media crossed the line from helpful to hurtful, from productive to shaming. If you’re feeling the twinge of a similar pain, watch your feeds for a few days with a critical eye to see if those in your circles and contacts are using their accounts in a beneficial way. Watch for aggressive language, finalized comments that limit ongoing conversation, and especially for any hate-speech that pops up in your feed.

Speak up.

One of the hardest things to do when you feel publically shamed or shut down is to speak up, but sometimes that is just what it takes. I have seen this handled by two of my friends recently in a very productive way. The first friend wrote a post of sympathy to the family of one of the recent police shootings. It was well said, well-articulated, and had the primary intention of offering condolences. Almost immediately, she received two comments by a woman that I did not know, defending the officer’s actions, insisting that the individual who was shot was acting of turn. Her words were not only out of place on a post of this kind, but they carried a hateful tone that was almost tangible in her excessive use of caps lock and exclamation points. Though I didn’t know this woman, my reactive personality had the incitement I needed to give her a piece of my mind! But scrolling down I saw that my friend had already responded. Of course, she was not only more gracious but more apt in her response than I would ever have been: “[woman’s name], I have a lot to say in response to your comments, but I find that social media is not the most productive venue for conversations like this.” With that, the string of comments stopped. My friend cut off the unkind words with a simple and respectful response.

The second friend that exemplified speaking up on social media got out in front of it. I imagine that she has felt the increasingly unsafe environment fostered on social media, so she closed the door to that kind of dialogue at the very onset of her post. She wrote a post about a social justice issue that I know is dear to her heart (and mine). She expressed her grief over current events, and shared her sympathies for families who recently lost loved ones. At the end of her post she wrote this: “Please note: hateful or disrespectful comments will be deleted on this post. This is a space for lament, not debate.” Just like that, she curated her own safe space on the internet. By getting out in front of it, she navigated the tricky waters of debate and dialogue and made it clear that this was not a place for push back.

Opt out.

I had a coach once that told me that quitting was for losers. At an impressionable 9 years old, I thought he couldn’t be more right. But the older I get the more I realize that walking away can be as much a sign of strength as perseverance can be. Social media has a lot of uses – I love that I can watch my college friend’s baby grow up and learn to walk, I can watch videos of him learning to say “mama”, and I am generously reminded of my friend’s birthday so I can give her ring. But for all the virtues of social media platforms, there are some vices; while social media can be good for a lot of things, there are some things that it is simply not good for.

Sometimes, the best things we can do is to opt out altogether. Now, before you suffer a heart-attack at the thought of losing your bottomless feed of free entertainment, consider for a minute if your social media accounts are a pipeline of beneficial and positive things in your life, or of negativity. Do you get anxious about what someone might comment on your Instagram? Do you fear a negative reaction to your status update? Does your confidence fluctuate by how many likes your post has – or doesn’t have? Perhaps it is time to step away, even if only for a while.

If you do decide to keep your accounts active, consider how you can opt out of online conversations that only have fruitless aims. If you’re like me, you like words. I like to write, to speak, to teach, to text, you name it – if it has words, I like it. I used to think that using my words was a sign of maturity and strength. This can absolutely be true, especially when we speak out against injustice, speak the truth in dishonest situations, or use our words to bring encouragement. But sometimes, a deeper sign of maturity, is noticing all the things that do not require your comment. Use your words when they are helpful and necessary, but also learn to recognize comment threads that are laced with land mines rather than love, and practice the discipline of opting out.

What about you? How have you learned to navigate the unsafe spaces of social media?

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  1. Thanks for sharing this Amy. 🙂 I hope my words speak life and encouragement to others. I’ve realized over the years it’s truly Gods words that does the transforming in my life. It can be hard at times because there are things said to us that are out of our control, out of line and there are times I want to defend my Jesus depending on what’s being said. All in all this article made me think of this verse in Galations 1:10 ” Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or an I trying to please people? if I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” God knows your heart and I pray you know today the great Love of your Farher! Be encouraged by him. He’s got is no matter what social media may sat. May He be the lifter of your head. Enjoy the rest of your week in Him. 🙂

  2. Great article, very aware.

    Yes I must say that I have noticed a similar shift in the last couple of months. I would go on to say that in all arena’s not just social media, there seems to be a polarising on any subject. People seem trapped in a pattern of vehemently supporting or opposing a topic, and doing so with angry passion that allows no room for discussion but rather an escalating level of anger. Even to give opinion that is neutral does not satisfy these days. Recently in NZ there was a case in the defence force that went to court. I supporter of the defendant wrote a public article of what he thought. My friend wrote a fair and opposing comment and was faced with a lot of opposition which she told me about a she was quite intimidated. So being my friend, I piped in to the replies stating that I had no opinion on the subject but ‘good on her for piping up in an arena that mostly disagreed with her, that takes courage’. To which I was then the next target. Even my neutral standpoint was not good enough……

    There is also the increase in passive aggressive comments, people who attempt to appear reserved and reasonable but who are actually antagonising and throwing barbs all the same, this obviously incites more anger at which they ‘reasonably’ (yet intentionally) highlight to further stir the pot of hatred.

    I am wondering if we have lost our ability to disagree and discuss with respect.

  3. Very good article. What has happened to the give and take of rhetoric? Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Or just good old give and take, loyal opposition, common courtesy. Growing up as a preacher’s kid I had to learn at a very young age that freedom of speech did not include PK’s. We were held to some other standard or assumed to be the bad non-confomest (the rebel) PK’S. So watching speach on social media is kind of second nature. Especially because my life’s work has been as a non profit Fundraiser, even working at two Seminaries. Yet I have found that you can learn from those who disagree with you.
    But when you represent organizations you often have to hold your personal feelings in check. You can’t be ingenious with people, they will know. So you have to learn to be the loyal opposition. Holding to your ideas, understandings, and feelings. Of course your moral center is not up for change and if a question in that area comes up you have to follow you conscience. I walked away from a big job because I had to. Yet from many of these faithfilled people I have learned much. Some have changed my opinions as I get older others I still disagree with. But it is important to not just build a cocoon where you only see and hear mirrors of yourself. And don’t see all sides in an issue. Well this was my 25 cents worth. I enjoy your writhing.

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