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Why is social media communication increasingly disrespectful, and how can we cope?

In 2022, the average daily social media usage of internet users worldwide amounted to 151 minutes per day, up from 147 minutes in 2021. More than half (50.64%) of the global population now uses social media. Of the 4.57 billion internet users, 83.36% are active users.

Let’s take a step back in history: in 1969, the internet was still a project of the US Department of Defence. At that time, there were no chats or emails, so it was unnecessary to think about how to treat other people respectfully on the internet.

In the 1980s, ‘netiquette’ came into being. This came about during the use of the first email systems. The first communication rule of netiquette was: ‘Never forget that there is a human being on the other side’.

What happened to this rule?

Besides the increasing amount of time spent on social media platforms, communication has become increasingly disrespectful.

We live in a time when companies emphasise business and communications ethics, and leaders and top managers preach ethics as well as any pastor.

Honesty, fairness, openness and transparency are the core principles to which respect, integrity, compassion, responsibility, loyalty, law-abiding behaviour and environmental concern belong.

For ethics to be implemented, these values must become the foundation of all the relationships the organisation has with its employees, vendors, stakeholders and customers.

But let’s face it: is this just a trend that everyone is hanging on to because it is expected of ‘companies with a future’, or is this ethical behaviour embodied in daily life? Companies are trying their best to perform, as it helps them attract investors, build customer loyalty, improve financial performance, make operations sustainable and gain a competitive edge…

But this is where a behavioural gap opens up: when we focus on individual (social media) communication, the performance of personal respectfulness and communication ethics is not very high, be it under a person’s real name or, even worse, with a fake account name.

This can often be seen in the comments on media articles or social media posts. They are neither factual nor objective in their criticism, but repeatedly insulting, defamatory and hurtful.

No netiquette anymore – what are the reasons?

Anger and frustration: Social media can become a source of anger and frustration for many users due to the spread of divisive content, misinformation and online harassment. This frustration can spill over into interactions and lead to disrespectful behaviour. It can happen that an employee, over an after-work beer, releases their pent-up anger or even hatred as a private person in the form of negative comments about their employer.

Anonymity: Many social media platforms allow users to remain anonymous or use pseudonyms. This anonymity can lead people to behave differently than in face-to-face interactions, as they feel less accountable for their words and actions.

Disinhibition effect: The online environment can lead to a disinhibition effect, where people feel more comfortable expressing extreme opinions, trolling or engaging in rude behaviour because they don’t have to face immediate consequences.

Social media algorithms often prioritise content that aligns with users’ opinions. This creates echo chambers where people are predominantly exposed to like-minded individuals. This can lead to more extreme and disrespectful behaviour.

The lack of face-to-face interaction: Online communication lacks the non-verbal cues and nuances of face-to-face conversations. Consequently, it facilitates misinterpretation of others’ intentions and disrespectful responses.

‘Research has shown that trolls tend to be unable to build healthy relationships offline,’ says behavioural psychologist Jo Hemmings. ‘They are not always the sad, bitter loner that we might expect – and not always men; female trolls are on the increase – but their relationships will certainly lack balance and they may feel that they are not respected enough by their families or partner,’ she adds.

This refers to private persons and companies: How to cope with it?

Critically evaluate information online, do fact-checking and recognise biases. Understanding the pitfalls of social media can help you navigate it more effectively.

Please be aware that not every online disagreement is worth engaging in. Therefore, being selective about your conversations and avoiding engaging with individuals who consistently exhibit disrespectful behaviour will help. Not every online controversy is worth engaging in.

If you get negative comments, deal with them. Don’t just ignore them.
Don’t leave mean comments unattended. Deal with them in one of two ways: if the post is vulgar, hide or delete it. Don’t engage. But if it’s just greedy, ill-informed or even ridiculous, respond to it – but avoid emotions in your response.

Promote online civility: Encourage respectful behaviour among your social media circles. Share articles and resources on digital etiquette and civility, and support initiatives that promote online civility.

Report abuse: Most social media platforms have mechanisms for reporting abusive or disrespectful behaviour. Use these tools when necessary to help maintain a safer online environment.

Set boundaries: If someone disrespects you online, setting boundaries is essential. You can choose to ignore, mute, block or report such individuals depending on the severity of their behaviour.

And, very importantly: If social media interactions affect your mental well-being, consider taking breaks from these platforms. Spending less time online can help reduce frustration, aggression and stress.