Rules for Social Media

When I first started blogging and reading social media. I was shocked by much of what I saw. I originally wrote this post at that time, but then I shelved it, sensing that maybe my experience was not widely shared. Since that time, things have gotten worse, and I have ample evidence from friends and acquaintances that many feel the same way.  Here is what I wrote:

There is a meme with a long pedigree, going back to at least 1835, that cites the three questions, or three gates, or the rule of three.  Sometimes it is attributed to Socrates, sometimes Buddha or a Sufi mystic, the Quakers or a nineteenth century poet named Beth Day.

Three things to consider before spreading gossip, exchanging info, or even speaking:

  1. Is what you are going to say true, to the best of your ability?
  2. Is what you are going to say good, either good news or something good about another?
  3. Is what you are about to say essential to those who will hear it, and if not essential, at least useful?

A post which fails the first test is a lie or propaganda. One which passes the first and fails the second test is just an unwelcome, inconvenient truth; something which passes the first two but not the third is simply information, if irrelevant. One can see how any post which failed all three tests is malicious gossip, and therefore should not be shared. There is wisdom in applying these rules, especially with respect to information about other people.

I’d like to propose an adaptation of these rules for social media:

  1. Have you verified what you want to post is true? This is a subtle change, but it removes the passive nature of the original with an active requirement. Just because you like it, or saw it in the Times or on a website is NOT good enough.  Newspapers print retractions everyday, and first reports are often proven wrong.  If you cite a media source, have you checked competitors? Did you check Snopes? If your source is partisan, have you sought an opposing view? If you quote someone famous, did you Google it? If it refers to a court decision, did you read the actual finding? Think this is overdoing it? How do YOU like to be on the receiving end of an endless stream of partisan screeds, troll-tweets and fake news? Don’t add to it; be value-added by checking the truth!
  2. If it is true, have you questioned your motives? Ask “why am I posting this?” To antagonize someone? To score a point on the internet scoreboard? Will this cause someone to think, or just react? If the only response you seek is “Wow, you’re right!”, you may be virtue-signalling. If you are, you are also contributing to the social media echo chamber. Just don’t.
  3. It was true, and your intentions are as pure as the driven snow.  Great, now ask yourself “what good will come to those who read this?” Not good for you, mind you. Will they be better educated about an issue? Will they understand some little known aspect or nuance? Will they encounter an unexpected argument or a compelling case? Or it this a tired rehash or a polemic?

That’s it. The internet did not suspend the rules of civilized discourse–it just seems so. Simply because someone (even the President) violates them, that does not mean we abandon them altogether. If you think otherwise, where does it stop? By all means argue for your cause, and oppose hatred and bigotry where you find it, but do so with love and wisdom. The worst abuses have come from those who were certain they were on the right side of history.

Social media needs some rules. It is great for cat & dog pics, news on family, and finding old friends. It is not so good for informed discussion and adult discourse. Let’s make it better.

PS. This post was not directed at any of my good friends or their recent posts. Given the state of social media in general, I could post this ANY time.

3 thoughts on “Rules for Social Media”

  1. Well written Patrick! I dare say not all friends and family adhere to these “laws” (including myself) because of our own morals and beliefs. It is a fine line we all walk. Love to Judy and yourself!

  2. Excellent commentary, Pat. I can see that your–and my–former profession has had a profound effect on how we should hope to conduct “civilized discourse,” which is particularly trying since basic rules of probity, courtesy, and evidence-checking have gone out the window.

    1. Very true, Jim. The level of discourse this week (Russia indictment, school shooting, immigration, POTUS extra-marital affairs) has reached an all-time low. Seems like folks just want to find the most outrageous portrayal of “facts” to support their views, then repost them. I guess it makes them feel good, but accomplishes nothing. There is a phrase for that, but a gentleman need not invoke it.

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