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  • When a friend writes a controversial post, how should you respond?

When a friend writes a controversial post, how should you respond?


Misery loves company; so too, it seems, does misanthropy. For proof, just go online for three seconds. I should start by saying I have the pleasure of some genuine, deep and rich friendships as well as an extended network of acquaintances. Over social media, I am often both informed and moved by people’s posts and evocations. Some for the sheer joy my online community finds in being alive with true or tall tales of kindness, aching losses and reciprocated ardour. People post about the pets that have brought joy to families. Or celebrating new jobs, or new art, or new reflections that lift the spirit as they explore the human condition and ponder mysteries and scientific revelations. The stuff of life well-lived.

But of course, to venture online is to also wade in murky currents of the infinite digital sewer. Without looking for it, I find myself reading angry, bitter recriminations, thinly-veiled references to various past wrongs, allusions to antiquated points of view that if fully expressed would be accurately labelled ‘derogatory’ and ‘prejudiced’, and likely result in public opprobrium and legal action.

Over the last couple of decades, I’ve had my share of pointless online kerfuffles, danced with some fellow shufflers and scuffled with some trolls, for the most part in fairness and good humour. My faceless opponents in these type-as-type-can sorties have included Americans, Antipodeans, Asians, British, Scandinavians, etc. (While I once interviewed a man working on a national away team in the deep South, I can’t claim regular correspondence with any Antarcticans.) And despite my appallingly scant grasp of other languages and an at-times wobbly command of English, I observe the shifts in discursive discourse. Controversies ebb and flow, following the tidal pulls exerted by traditionalists and progressives, idealists and cynics, believers and nihilists.

While I am not across the encyclopedia of outrage you may find posted on Meta (Facebook) And X (Twitter), to name just two of the more manic platforms, (and aren’t they all a bit manic?), I don’t share the Doomsday concerns I often find there. Suffice it to say, I consider myself well-versed and perhaps a bit battle-hardened in dialogues expressed both in and outside of my tribe and subcultural bubble.

The sort of outrage I'm talking about — much more so than the language and confrontations on the streets, in shops, on public transport, or at the footy — often bemoans the rate of change in our era of social inclusion. Online, I see lamentations about sexuality or legal status of refugees, interpersonal conflicts or bullying, or the strains of sharing our suburbs, our workplaces, and our places of learning with people holding fundamental cultural and religious differences to ourselves, people are sublimating their capacity to engage directly and finding themselves motivated to go online and vent. And perhaps that is what I’m doing now. 

Annabel Crabbe recently wrote, tongue wedged firmly in cheek, that Australians ‘all love multiculturalism [but] we do reserve the right to lose our minds every now and again when something in particular riles us up.’ It seems there’s never been a greater abundance of things riling us up, and it also seems the dial is stuck there. 

The implications of confirmation bias theory — the idea that we tend to seek out, interpret and give preferential weight to information and views that supports our own beliefs and values — take on rather terrifying proportions in the online sphere. We’re all guilty of this, as are our tech giant overlords. The design and algorithmic biases of social media and news websites have the potential to powerfully steer our individually-tailored media ecosystems into political extremes.


'Perhaps it’s worth remembering that the only productive way to engage with someone is when you’re looking them in the eye instead of firing off a salvo from your keyboard.' 


While social media doesn’t directly cause extreme views, it acts as an echo chamber that amplifies them leading to a decreased willingness to consider opposing viewpoints and fueling polarisation. Platforms prioritise engagement, meaning content that evokes strong emotions like anger or outrage tends to get more visibility. And this can amplify extreme views and make them seem more prevalent than they actually are. Research by the University of Maryland’s START center found that social media played a role in the radicalisation of nearly 90 per cent of extremists studied. And we wonder why we observe such festering anger online.

And you expect festering anger from a random internet troll. But the question is, what if the one expressing such sentiments online is not some faceless opponent from a strange land with whom you contemplate a battle of opinions, but a familiar face from your own circle of friends? It can be more disturbing when people you know to be rational, well-balanced, kind people choose to express tropes grounded in tainted online waters, even when couched in the desire for simpler and less confronting times. In expressing my desire for a time when this wasn’t the case, again, maybe that’s what I’m doing now.

But really, how do you respond, when members of your own tribe share their distaste, or even genteel hatred, towards those who rub them up the wrong way? How do you respond when friends vent against those who don’t agree with how they see the world, or those who have the temerity to choose to live their lives by their own lights? Do you ‘unfollow’? Do you engage? And if I’m now venting against those who I find offensive for their own dearth of tolerance, am I now guilty of the same? Will the intolerant be tolerant of me? Will Karl Popper tolerate any of us?

It doesn’t help that no matter where you sit on the political spectrum, it seems everyone has a persecution complex. A popular one my online connections like to air is society’s lack of tolerance for Christians, focusing on figures whose woes demonstrate to some that Christians are less welcome in this country; people like Israel Folau and Andrew Thorburn. And like any point of controversy, there’s certainly a discussion to be had there, but there’s almost zero possibility of a fruitful interaction happening over social media where the flavour of posts is so needlessly aggressive.

Sometimes I quixotically comment on these aggressive posts either to seek clarification, in the hope that doing so may cause them to reflect on words they use and the spirit of their post. Or sometimes I message privately, to try to reason with them or to clarify their concerns. Other times I just groan and scroll on, knowing that any engagement may well be seen as itself persecution and therefore, justification. Each choice is about as productive as the other, which is to say, not very.

As to the real problem, I’d speculate that it comes down every grumpy keyboard warrior lacking intimate knowledge of the lives and experiences of ‘the other’ they’re so busy lambasting. The adage of walking in someone else’s shoes is valid, and when it comes to social media, the late rapper Tupac Shakur may be on the money: ‘If you could walk a mile in my shoes, you’d be crazy too.’ Perhaps social media makes trolls of us all.

There’s a sense our problem might be a technological one. Social media shows us these grotesque projections of strangers and friends looking at distortions everyone else as though in a funhouse mirror. 

I try to remember that what we read drives our fears of what we do not know (and we certainly do not know these warped reflections we see before us online). Anger fuels our response, and social media gives us the perfect vehicle to whip up fear, uncertainty and anger into stormy heights, only to engender more fear and anger.   

Perhaps it’s worth remembering that the only productive way to engage with someone is when you’re looking them in the eye instead of firing off a salvo from your keyboard. Now I just need to blast this out to my social networks.




Barry Gittins is a Melbourne writer.

Main image: (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Social media, Discourse, Judge, Comment, Post, Trolling



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Existing comments

Social media networks can be a sort of refuge. I don’t have to look at the pain in your eyes when I subtly (or not so subtly) berate you. Even so, real life can be tricky as well. Otherwise social media engagement would not have the power it does. I can be as imperfect as I like on social media as long as I am a reasonably skilled communicator. That stance doesn’t wash in eye to eye contact. I must reread Tim Winton’s “That Eye, The Sky”. I haven’t met Tim but I trust.

Pam | 10 July 2024  

Thanks Barry! You've reminded me of prayers proposed for a couple of the Myers-Briggs types - I've forgotten which two - that go 'Lord, keep me open to the ideas of others WRONG though they may be' and 'God, help me to consider the feelings of other people, even if most of them are hypersensitive'. Unfortunately, the negative engagements of which you speak are not limited to the 'new' media but can be seen on mainstream media and even albeit infrequently on ES. Go well, my friend.

Ginger Meggs | 11 July 2024  

A reasonably vocalised argument for banning social media as we know it or, if you prefer, that it has become!

John Frawley | 12 July 2024  

Or, better John, regulate the algorithms. We don’t tolerate somebody calling ‘fire’ in an overcrowded theatre; why do we tolerate algorithms that provoke equally dangerous actions?

Ginger Meggs | 17 July 2024  

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