Social media can suck the life out of you — if you let it.
The secret, of course, is to resist the life-sucking effect.
Over the last decade, apps like Twitter have allowed anyone to post their true feelings, to share ideas and viewpoints with a large audience. We’ve also had access to the inner thoughts and personal convictions of celebrities. We’ve seen politicians make grand announcements, and we’ve followed world figures like they are communicating directly to us.
How have we reacted?
In studying social media trends since the beginning and tracking sentiment on these platforms, it’s obvious we haven’t always reacted with empathy. One study found that, over the last five years, social media posts have turned consistently more negative. The algorithms have been tweaked to promote negative and outrageous content more and more.
I’ve used the term reverse empathy to describe the typical interactions I’ve seen, especially when it comes to Facebook comments and Twitter replies.
What I mean by reverse empathy is to react in a way that not only doesn’t consider how someone might feel when there is a hateful comment or an attack, but is actually trying to do the opposite of empathy. It’s meant to criticize in such a way that the person feels more ridiculed and more insulted, as opposed to feeling encouraged or understood.
Here’s a quick example.
I recently wrote about Greta Thunberg and how she posted about her new book, called The Climate Book. Those with empathy for Thunberg, who is only 20, would have reacted by supporting the effort, even if you disagree with her. It’s quite an accomplishment to write a book, taking many months or even years to complete. The research and writing can be grueling. It took me 18 months to write one!
Reverse empathy sets off a time bomb and makes sure the result causes as much damage as possible. One Twitter commenter asked Thunberg: “Did you write the book in crayon?” While that might be cheeky, it’s an obvious example of reverse empathy. If Thunberg reads the comment, she might feel hurt. (I doubt if she reads any of the comments on her Twitter feed; most of us try to avoid the trolls as much as possible.)
Reverse empathy has been the typical mode of operation on social media since the apps became popular, mostly because there is so much anonymity. The apps encourage reverse empathy because no one has to know who you are, and the trolls are often allowed to act aggressively and dismissively without any real repercussions.
The solution, of course, is to remove the illusion of anonymity.
There are real people behind the posts, and those who only want to criticize and ridicule should at least be held accountable in some way. The original concept was that the best ideas should be allowed to rise to the surface, but the reality is that the most critical among us get all of the attention.
It would be helpful if we at least had a way to know who the criticizer even is. Maybe that will lead to a bit more real empathy. Maybe.