5 min read
11 Dec

The communication that happens on social media right now has more in common with dogs barking than it does with actual political discourse.

Kevin D. Williamson 

You might consider how escape from a cage must surely require, foremost, awareness of the fact of the cage. 

David Foster Wallace 

He drew a circle that shut me out -Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.But love and I had the wit to win:We drew a circle that took him in! 

Edwin Markham  

The real and perceived dangers of social media participation are generally well-known and understood. Yet, most of us spend an inordinate amount of time on it, even though we feel the need to resort to online strategies such as blocking certain users, making our accounts limited and private, taking “social media holidays” and trying to stay in the safer waters where we can mainly have conversations with those who broadly see the world as we do. Social media benefits are real and cannot be ignored – staying in touch with friends and family, staying informed on topics of professional or personal interest, entertainment and several other advantages makes leaving social media quite an extreme decision for most people.  

The conflict experienced by nearly all participants on social media fall on a wide spectrum from self-harm, “cancel culture”, doing reputational professional and personal harm to yourself or your business, increased daily anxiety or anger concerns, social and political polarization, harm to existing relationships and a general decrease in our ability to be tolerant and to have discussions of nuance, complexity and value. Studies at the University of Pittsburgh found that young social media users who spent the most time on social media were almost twice as likely to be depressed than those who spent the least. So why do we do this, why do we stay, and how can we manage to bring a bit more sanity and peace to our seemingly inevitable online conflicts? Obviously, if you want to stay hooked to the dopamine rushes, if the destruction and harm that you may be wreaking or experiencing is a desired result then maybe this article is not for you. 

As prof. Arthur C. Brooks reminds us, we are (at least on social media) living in a culture of contempt. Social scientists define contempt as anger mixed with disgust. Social media sites are designed to give us our dopamine hits inherent in these conflicts, and it feeds into the toxic conflict cycle of attention, validation, conflict, contempt and a host of potentially harmful results, all generated by our presence and participation on social media platforms. As Irshad Manji explains, social media intensifies our tribal tendencies. 

In times of threat, unpredictability and uncertainty most people have an increased need for moral certainty, which then leads to the so-called consistency principle, where they divide the world into simple good and evil categories.  Peter T. Coleman calls this space created by social media a “normless vacuum” where we go to find, and seemingly create, that sense of moral certainty and support. Simply understanding this impulse already can assist us in not being drawn into harmful online conflict. Becoming comfortable with our own values and views will already lead to less need for validation and cyclical reassurance. 

A very simple place to start an active social media strategy is to categorize our online relationships in broad revisable divisions. You have absolutely no obligation to entertain or engage with the troll, the online bully, the morally illiterate or people who use their social media accounts as anonymous conduits for their personality disorders and social dysfunctions. Block and ignore to your heart’s content. Some of these accounts will be immediately obvious, some you can escalate gently from limited engagement to consequences once they start flying their little yellow troll flag. 

Once this simple peg has been placed in the ground we can remind ourselves that our own authenticity and integrity are valuable assets and that they are important in our ongoing mental health and self-esteem management. We can, and should, stick as far as possible to our own true selves, our values, our beliefs. Social media conflict and anxiety often arise from these efforts at being who we are not, at trying to keep balance between who we really are and who we pretend to be on social media, and the resultant cognitive dissonance and sheer effort at leading these double lives. Be yourself and create a space for yourself to prosper in and to achieve healthy social media goals (which are hardly ever more likes and more followers). 

Try to distinguish, before you get angry on social media, between constructive and destructive conflict, and learn to benefit from the former and to avoid the latter. Conduct an honest, calm assessment of your own online triggers and behaviours – what makes you react, how do you feel (and respond) to criticism, do you occasionally like to insult people, when do you believe they deserved such insults? Having even a basic understanding of some form of social media strategy (eg “I never insult people”) for yourself prior to the heat being turned up can help you during online unpleasantries. 

Prof. Brooks, in his very practical book “Love Your Enemies” (Broadside Books, 2019) suggests five very practical rules in order to deal with the social media culture of contempt, and in order to protect ourselves while participating on social media. They can be summarized as follows: 

  •  Refuse to be used – online conflict often requires, and runs on, social groups and associations, and they often need your participation, your voice to achieve their goals, and these goals may not be in line with your own best interests even when you are a member of that group. This subtle form of manipulation can include your aggressive posts getting liked and other methods of pushing you in front of the tanks. Keep an eye on those “sides”. If you are brave enough, call out people on your “side” that participates in unacceptable behaviour.
  • Escape the bubble – be a fresh and original presence where possible, speak to (and listen) to the “other”. Learn to disagree without drama, and that it is ok to have different points of view. If you are stable and secure in your own worldview you should have no problem in at least occasionally listening to others.
  • Say no to contempt – here Brooks suggests that we treat others with love and respect, even when it is difficult. Remember the decision we made earlier on important and unimportant online relationships? The unimportant ones we need not engage with, we can avoid them without any harm, but for those social media relationships that we want to or must encourage, this is a great (if difficult to apply at all times) rule. As far as possible avoid mockery and insults. Here we need to emphasize an important point. This advice (and the article in general) is not advocating being “nice” for the sake of politeness or even because the other party somehow deserves it. This behaviour is in your best interests. A lot of empirical research show clearly that this approach makes you more persuasive, and it is actually more beneficial to your physical and mental health. That social media insult delivered to our “enemy” may feel good (and get lots of likes) at that moment, but it is harmful to you in the long run.
  •   Disagree better – run your social media accounts as a place where fresh ideas and points of view, within reason and your own comfort levels, can be exchanged. Allow and encourage healthy debate. We do not need less disagreement; we need better disagreement.
  • Tune out more – try to teach yourself to be better at assessing which online debates and arguments should be engaged in, and which you can really just scroll on by.


This discussion often leads to objections that amount to the other side being “wrong” or “immoral” or “stupid” or various such degrees of disapproval. That may very well be completely accurate, and if you really believe that you are the Chosen One out to rid the world of all social media wrongs then I suppose that is a worthwhile approach. A bit of humility will remind us that maybe not all our views are The One Correct Thing, and that the object of the exercise is to participate in the positives of social media in a healthy and sustainable manner. With that perspective our understandable insistence on being right would hopefully be seen as only one of the considerations relevant to our own social media strategies. Not every one of “them” need to be called out and publicly corrected. Make your point where and when you are comfortable and move on. 

Jonathan Haidt has done very valuable work in showing how important human values such as fairness and compassion are encoded into the moral compasses of most people, but how those on the respective political left and right of the political spectrum express those shared moral values differently. Amongst other consequences of this research is that others who disagree with us are often not immoral, as we so often believe, but that they express their morality different than we do. The research here again does not in any manner require of us to step away from our own values and beliefs, or even to be “nice” about those differences, but it does bring a much healthier perspective to those online conflicts, especially with some of the perceived moral divides brought to us by Covid. As I have pointed out elsewhere, a dispute about values requires very different tools and skills than a straightforward factual dispute, and failing to understand and apply the correct approach causes more harm than good, and simply entrenches people in their views. You may therefore, quite unintentionally, be causing your favourite cause more harm than good in the manner in which you conduct your social media battles. 

Another characteristic of social media conflict that we can benefit from once understood, is the fact that social media speeds conflict up. We end up in reactive mode, not having time to reflect or space to consider context, perspective and emotions. This tends to polarize us further, and it even seeps through into family relationships. Neutralize this dangerous effect by teaching yourself to delay responses to emotional events, even if it is by a few hours. Slow down these conversations and regain time for reflection. 

Social media has many advantages, and there is no need to see it as the next Big Evil. It does need a balanced and informed approach though, in order to not be harmed by the conflicts inherent in the system. Understanding the limitations of the form of communication, the prevalence of abuse and manipulation, the ways we are influenced and available knowledge such as we have briefly touched upon here should help you in surviving these interesting social media wastelands. If your social media interactions are making you anxious or unhappy there is more work to be done. 

(Detailed footnotes, references and resource list can be provided on request) 

(Andre Vlok can be contacted on andre@conflictresolutioncentre.co.za for any further information

(c) Andre Vlok 

December  2021

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