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Posted on 02.28.2012

The Golden Rule Applies Online, Too: Social Media and Civility

A Washington D.C. reporter’s recent series on underage drinking resulted in an unexpected and disturbing backlash as teens and their parents reacted with outrage. To be clear, their outrage wasn’t directed at the minors caught in the act, the merchants who’ve sold to underage drinkers for years or the parents who leapt to the defense of their law-breaking children; this venomous backlash was directed at the reporter for doing the story. Upset teens flooded the TV station’s Facebook page and reporter Andrea McCarren received vulgar and threatening emails. In an interview with CBS news, she said: “It felt like an orchestrated Facebook and Twitter campaign of hate. People put my home address on the Internet. There were calls for revenge and retaliation against my family. I'm now in about my 27th year as a reporter and I have never seen anything like this.” After taking herself off the air for a week, McCarren is back on the job and WUSA’s Facebook page today reflects tremendous support for her determination to continue her reporting on an important issue. But this episode certainly does make one pause and wonder, “What is wrong with people?”  But more importantly, it should make us consider how we’d handle such a sudden and unexpected social media-driven attack against our own organizations.

The erosion of civility – both in our national public discourse and now increasingly reflected on social networking sites – is appalling. And recent studies by the Pew Internet & American Life Project on the social and emotional climate of social networking sites reveal how widespread the online problem has become. Pew found that 88 percent of social media-using teens have seen someone be mean or cruel on a social network site. And among American adults surveyed, while 85 percent said their social network site experiences have been mostly kind, 49 percent said they, too, have seen mean or cruel behavior displayed by others online. Some commendable grassroots civility efforts have been launched in recent years to combat the erosion of civility, like the Oshkosh (Wis.) Civility Project. These community-based campaigns urge people to observe nine principles of civility that are good advice for both interpersonal and online communications:
  • Pay attention
  • Listen
  • Be inclusive
  • No gossiping
  • Show respect
  • Be agreeable
  • Apologize
  • Give constructive criticism
  • Take responsibility
Another well-intentioned civility project failed spectacularly, however, when its founder called it quits after only three of 585 political leaders agreed to sign a pledge requiring them to promise:
  • I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior.
  • I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them.
  • I will stand against incivility when I see it.
For those for whom the nine principles of civility or the three planks of the civility pledge are too much to remember, of course, there is a single guidepost that can steer us all right in our public discourse in any venue; it’s called the Golden Rule. Has your organization been the subject of an attack via social media? If so, how did you respond? And if not, are you prepared to deal with the type of backlash WUSA and its reporter experienced? Share your thoughts on civil discourse with us. And remember, be nice!

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