For civil discourse on social media, make it start with you

Social media critics on the left and right tend to see platforms as overwhelmed by censorship, though not surprisingly they have opposite views of where the censorship comes from. A major theme on the Fox News Channel is that conservatives are censored on Facebook. Those on the left believe Elon Musk stifles them on Twitter. 

A more accurate view would be to see social media as predominantly a jungle or a free-for-all, characterized by pile-ons and “twitterstorms.” Facebook — which, given the demographic to which I belong, is the social media platform I by far know the best — suffers far less from censorship than from an astounding lack of civility that mirrors the lack of civility in our broader social and political debate. 

Given the importance of social media as a method of communication in our society, if we want to see more civility in society, bringing about more civility on social media is a good place to start.

Facebook itself has made something of an effort in this regard. I am pleased that the platform has “community standards” for posts there. These prohibit content promoting hate and violence, also sexual exploitation of children and suicide. Fox News, utterly wrongly in my view, has conflated prohibitions of promoting hate and violence with censorship.

My problem with Facebook’s community standards is that they do nothing to promote civility. These standards are designed to discourage war, not to promote peace.

Civility online can’t be forced on us by a Leviathan such as Facebook terrorizing us into being nice. It needs to be bootstrapped through self-government that individuals and groups on social media platforms who wish to see more civility establish for themselves. 

This means civility will never happen everywhere. But people who want it to happen more can engage in civility self-help — to work to make it happen in social media communities that they participate in or lead.

The main suggestion I would make is to serve as a model for civility by being civil oneself. When I am responding to a post, I typically begin my response by writing “Thank you for your post,” or, if this represents my genuine feeling, “Thank you for your thoughtful post.” This is not so complicated; I have never even once been put into what is referred to as “Facebook jail.” But I am surprised how many of my Facebook friends report that they have been temporarily thrown off Facebook, often multiple times. Something about engaging on these platforms seems to encourage disrespectful language. 

I also look for opportunities, where this is genuine, to state in a post that I have been persuaded by someone’s argument that differed from mine. And, not often but occasionally, I respond to a disrespectful post by writing something like, “Whoa, I really think you have gone too far here,” but nothing stronger.

This is not utopian. I am very active on Facebook, and there is a lot of discussion of politics on my Facebook page. Most of my Facebook friends are moderate liberals like me, but I also have a number of friends on my page who are committed conservatives and some who are well to my left. There are often disagreements on my page, including people disagreeing with me (in the last week, I got a fair bit of pushback for some sympathetic-to-Israel comments). 

But I really try hard to assure civility — every once in a while, somebody posts remarks to the effect of “Steve wants us to be civil on his page” — and I believe anyone looking at my Facebook feed would see that respectful language and tone, and listening to each other, characterize almost all posts. In all my years on Facebook, I have only one single time “unfriended” (which, in today’s language, would be “canceled”) someone for persistently impolite language.

Let’s apply here the words often attributed to Gandhi, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Steve Kelman is the Weatherhead professor of Public Management at Harvard Kennedy School and editor of the International Public Management Journal.

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