A common lamentation online, one that spans the political divide and is forwarded by politicians and editorial boards alike, is that civility in American politics has died. It’s such a pressing concern that 80 percent of respondents to a recent NPR survey fear that uncivil speech will lead to physical violence. If only people would lower their voices, stop posting rude memes, and quit with the name-calling, we could start having meaningful conversations. We could unite around our shared experiences. We could come together as a nation.In the current media environment, in which Twitter and Instagram are inundated with harassment, journalists are routinely threatened, and YouTube algorithms prop up reactionary extremists, we find it difficult to argue with that sentiment.As idyllic as it might sound, however, the call to restore civility isn’t as straightforward as it appears. Civility alone isn’t enough to fix what’s broken. It might actually make the underlying problems worse. We need, instead, to consider the full range of behaviors that facilitate harm online. Yes this includes extreme, explicitly damaging cases. But it also includes the kinds of behaviors that many of us do without thinking, in fact, that many of us have already done today. These things might seem small. When we use them to connect with others, build communities, and express support, they might seem downright civil. But the little things we do every day, even when we have no intention of causing harm, quickly accumulate. Not only do these everyday actions normalize an ever-present toxicity online, they pave the way for the worst kinds of abuses to flourish.
Ethics do not mean keeping your voice down. Ethics do not mean keeping feathers unruffled. Ethics mean taking full and unqualified responsibility for the things you choose to do and say.
This bottom strata includes posting snarky jokes about an unfolding news story, tragedy, or controversy; retweeting hoaxes and other misleading narratives ironically, to condemn them, make fun of the people involved, or otherwise assert superiority over those who take the narratives seriously; making ambivalent inside jokes because your friends will know what you mean (and for white people in particular, that your friends will know you’re not a real racist); @mentioning the butts of jokes, critiques, or collective mocking, thus looping the target of the conversation into the discussion; and easiest of all, jumping into conversations mid-thread without knowing what the issues are. Regarding visual media, impactive everyday behaviors include responding to a thread with a GIF or reaction image featuring random everyday strangers, or posting (and/or remixing) the latest meme to comment on the news of the day.
Even when a person’s motives are perfectly innocent, low-level behaviors can still be harmful. They can still flatten others into abstract avatars.