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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Vail

Unmuting the Consequences for Anti-Social Behavior

Updated: Aug 1, 2021

Social media users frequently experience people who engage in anti-social behaviors, and some of us may have tried it on for size ourselves at some point. I admit that more than once, I've been upset about a news headline or social injustice, and I've popped-off online in a regrettable tone that violated my own values. "Othering" language, vitriolic rhetoric, blatant attempts to mock/name-call/harass a group one doesn't belong to, reposting sarcastic and mean-spirited memes - essentially, it's just schoolyard bully behavior, ironically mixed in with pictures of smiling children, vacations, bars, and virtue signaling. Folks engaging in anti-social behavior may attempt to dodge their responsibility for its impact, saying they were "just being funny," they sincerely desired to spark constructive conversation, others are too sensitive, and more from the permission-to-be-inhumane playbook.

Lamentably, Facebook has removed the natural consequences of anti-social behavior in their quest to engender users' positive feelings towards the app. Facebook makes a big deal about positive feedback: likes, hearts, laughing emojis, friend requests. Positive feedback prompts a chipper notification, triggers our brain's reward system to release dopamine (feel good neurotransmitters), and promotes our attachment to the app. However, Facebook has muted and silenced the natural consequences of anti-social behavior - negative feedback. People "mute" their anti-social friends, unfriending doesn't prompt a notification, and a bully can carry on with minimal or no feedback that their behavior is harmful. If someone stood up in the middle of a workplace, church, or restaurant and spewed the same bullying language they casually use online, there would be natural consequences for such behavior from disappointed and hurt facial expressions, verbal interventions, boundaries set, and even expulsion from the premises.

These silent consequences on Facebook allow everyone involved to save face, but at what cost? I hypothesize that the profound cost has been to enflame and normalize anti-social behavior both online and in real life. If we truly desire to communicate, influence, join with, share, make others laugh, and cultivate nuanced perspectives in others, it is well-established wisdom that bullying behavior is antithetical to those aims. Facebook, and other social media platforms, foster increasing comfort and validation in anti-social behavior, as the only feedback people may get for such behavior is positive, such as likes from like-minded bullies!

I'm a small town counselor and have no influence over social media monoliths, but I ache to see less online bullying. If you have witnessed this change in behavior, either in yourself or others, and want to do something about it - the wise advice comes to mind: "Be the change you wish to see in the world." Here are a few suggestions for how:

  • Consider letting someone know when and how they have hurt you, and that you need to set an online boundary with them. Don't silently mute, instead let someone know you are muting them, why, and what your boundary is. They may call you a snowflake, or dodge responsibility saying "it wasn't aimed at any one person," but take that as confirmation that a boundary is needed. Someone who can't take responsibility for their impact is probably not a safe or worthwhile connection anyway. If you went out to dinner with them and they shouted the same content in a restaurant, would you feel compelled to set a boundary then? If so, why should your behavior be any different online?

  • Stop tolerating bullying behavior and catering to "saving face." This doesn't mean we need to publicly shame anyone for being a bully, as that can quickly become bullying too. But it does mean we should check our motives for this desire to save face (both our own and others') and resist the inauthenticity promoted by this online culture. Negative feedback is rarely easy to give or receive, but in the absence of it, we are doing everyone a disservice.

  • Have these tough conversations in-person whenever possible. The anonymity afforded to us by social media allows people to "strike and run away." So if you speak to someone face-to-face, you run less risk of the conversation devolving into the typical anti-social online behavior. Its much more difficult for people to be blatantly rude and dismissive in-person.

  • Use good old I-statements when you give feedback. It might look like this: "I feel hurt when I read your memes mocking my values/beliefs/etc. because it feels painful and rejecting to be mocked by a friend. Please stop that, or I will mute/unfriend you."

  • If you feel irked by a social ill or behavior, consider taking constructive action in your community, rather than acting out online. Activate your activism - as one of my wise local politicians advises. Share memes and posts that inform and encourage practical real life action. People may feel a momentary soothing of their big feelings when they share or like a bullying meme or post, but real satisfaction can only be found in constructive, empowering action. Don't let social media lull you into peanut-gallery complacency. Online bullying is a poor facsimile for responsible activism.

Now, of course this can be challenging advice to implement, I recommend exercising prudence, and there are circumstances confrontation may be ill-advised. Consider beforehand common negative and punitive reactions bullies may dish out in response to your feedback. However, in the case of people you enjoy some measure of safety and intimacy with, seize the opportunity for constructive feedback and invite the same into your relationships. I want you to give me this feedback if you notice me bullying and I encourage you to practice using pro-social and humane skills when you do. If you have online bullies in your life, consider talking them over in therapy. Counselors can help cultivate a plan of boundaries, healthy feedback, and humane behavior in response to it.

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