The great paradox of social media is that it has both brought us closer together and driven us further apart. We can stay in contact with old friends, cheer each other on from afar, and help strangers in real time. Yet, we’re also flooded with viral videos, sensationalized headlines, and uninformed “hot takes” that sweep us into daily tidal waves of online outrage. Practicing good social media ethics can seem impossible in this environment, but it is within reach.
Let’s start with a Zen koan: A monk was once asked by his student, “What is the single teaching of your entire lifetime?” The monk answered, “An appropriate response.”
In many respects, living an ethical life means responding appropriately to the things that happen to (and around) us. Social media turns out to be a great arena for practicing ethics, because 90% of what we’re doing is responding. All those likes, shares, follows, upvotes, and comments are fertile ground for ethics practice.
There are certainly a lot of ways to approach this, but in honor of my favorite The Good Place character, Chidi Anagonye, I’m going to let Immanuel Kant provide me with some scaffolding.
Social Media Ethics and What We Owe to Each Other
Kant famously argued that there are four duties all humans owe to ourselves and to each other:
1: You have an ethical duty to treat yourself as an end.
You have inherent value and worth simply because you are human. It’s not just Kant who thought so, either. Most faith traditions do as well. What’s more, your value is absolute. You are an end in and of yourself. This means you have an ethical duty to act in ways that support your overall health and well being. This can include exercise, eating well, and pursuing an education.
It also means you have a duty to avoid being “used” by others. This is really important for social media ethics. It is unethical to allow yourself to be used merely as a means to someone else’s end. And social media is a hotbed for people who see you as a means to their own personal, business, or political ends.
There are two things you can do to avoid this ethical pitfall. First, commit to some basic level of media literacy. Media literacy helps strengthen your “Spidey sense” when it comes to identifying the people who want to manipulate you. Resources like Crash Course: Media Literacy and the National Association for Media Literacy Education are great places to start.
Second, identify the people or websites that “push your buttons” without offering much in the way of friendship or thoughtfulness. It may be worth unfollowing or muting them for a while. They won’t know you’ve hidden their messages, and you can always pick them back up after a cooling off period.
2: You have a duty to treat others as ends, never merely as means
As much as you deserve to be treated fairly and respectfully because of your inherent worth as a human being, so too does everyone else. This sounds great in principle, doesn’t it? In practice, it can be difficult to honor the inherent value of a person who believes things so wildly different from you. Equally hard is respecting the person who just insulted you because of how you voted in the last election. It can be tempting to lash out in kind, to treat your accuser the same way they treated you.
This is the real work of social media ethics. Just because someone treated you as a means to an end – in this case, the end may be a feeling of superiority – doesn’t ethically free you to do the same.
So, before you post or respond on social media, take a moment to check in with your intentions. Are you looking to stir things up just to prove you’re right? Is your response to that meme or article motivated by hostility? Do you want to attack the person or push them away? If so, take a deep breath, step away from the screen for a while, and think about how you can respond in a way that doesn’t make the situation worse.
3: You must be proactive in your support of yourself and others as ends.
It is not enough to simply refrain from actions that treat people as means. You must proactively champion humans as ends. As an example, you don’t get an ethical pass just by not owning slaves yourself. You must actively oppose and fight against slavery.
Where social media ethics are concerned, this means that we all have a duty to make the internet a more humane place. We owe this to each other even knowing that we may fail. So, check the source of the news you’re getting to make sure you’re not getting duped by fake news. And commit to being nicer to each other on the internet.
4: You have a duty to treat humanity as an end
Feeling outraged is perfectly all right. In fact, it’s vitally important that we feel outrage when injustices occur. Outrage is often the fuel we need to change the world. Without it, we would never have ended slavery, instituted civil rights, or given women the right to vote.
But that outrage can also be a kind of dangerous pleasure. Strong feelings can sometimes lead us to believe we must be right. Then, when faced with facts that contradict our conclusions, we may not believe the facts. Our righteous outrage might also lead us into an “us vs. them” belief system that further distances us from the rest of humanity.
If we are to treat humanity as an end in itself, we need to be able to honor our outrage and remain people of good will. We are all in this together, after all. We need each other. Finding this balance can be tough. It’s okay to experiment a little to find the right solution for you. Perhaps it’s a meditation practice, volunteering at a local charity, joining a group sports team, or traveling to places that are vastly different from your norm.
Just remember that this is a process, and you aren’t in it alone.