I have a tenet that I follow when it comes to social media conflagrations: Don’t add your air to someone else’s fire.
This rule has saved my butt multiple times. For example, during one social media snafu, a writer responded to a post I made of an article I’d written, saying she wanted to discuss our opposing views—in a Facebook forum of thousands of people. The wording and tone of her comment showed she wasn’t interested in a real dialog, so I didn’t respond. Had I agreed to the request or made a snarky comment like “Get your own damn articles published,” I would have been following her playbook to gain attention for herself and undermine me and my work. Should I have done something else? I figured I’d check with the experts.
“You did the right thing by not responding,” says Michele Borba, an educational psychologist and author of Thrivers. “No response is a great response, and often the most powerful response. The person wants the attention, and you are not giving it to them. She clearly wanted to use and undermine you by hijacking your platform. If you shamed her, you would have lost credibility and would be in a position of defending yourself.”
Sameer Hinduja, codirector of the Cyberbullying Research Center agrees, and says, “Whenever we respond to someone trying to insult us, we show we deeply care about their opinion. And then we’ve given them the power to invalidate us.”
Not responding on social media can be the best way of showing strength, rather than lending your voice and energy to the noise. In fact, research published in the journal Psychological Science shows that firing up the keyboard isn’t nearly as effective as speaking to someone one-on-one or sharing visuals. Of course, that works best if you have a real relationship or care about what the person thinks of you. “If it is someone who isn’t really in your life, then what you did was right,” says Ulash Dunlap, a San Francisco–based therapist. “If it’s an important relationship, I suggest you message the person and ask for a phone call to avoid miscommunication.”
Dunlap also recommends taking five minutes and assessing the situation before responding, and avoiding knee-jerk reactions on social media so people can’t see that they’ve pushed your buttons. “If someone is devaluing you or bullying you over your beliefs, or looking to make themselves right and you wrong, or looking for fame through you, then end the conversation, either by not responding or even saying, ‘Thank you for your feedback,’ similar to how corporations respond when criticized.”
So how do we keep ourselves from feeling disempowered when these situations arise? “Remember, if they don’t know you well, the person on the other end doesn’t understand you or your lived experiences. They don’t have the backstory,” says Dunlap. This might also be a person who loves to win. “You can go through the person’s Facebook or Twitter feed, and you will see it. If they are that way, find an exit strategy and end the conversation.”
“Ask yourself, was that helpful or hurtful?” says Borba. If it was helpful, you can figure out how to respond, but if it was hurtful, you can ignore it.” But what if a relationship is important to you and you decide to communicate with the person? What is the best way to move forward?
“It’s all a matter of how you say it,” suggests Borba. “Shame is not the game. What you are looking for is respectful discourse. There is more than one way to see things, and all sides matter. You don’t have to agree, as long as you are respectful and aren’t negating or guilting the person. Just say to them, ‘That is one way of thinking about it.’”
Many years ago, a female boss taught me that when someone is attacking you in a meeting, don’t respond or look at them. She told me not to reward the other person with my energy or time. Instead, she said, look at and direct your comments to their boss and say, “I would like to see the backup or the research on that.” I found this advice quite effective and wondered if it could be used in online situations as well.
“That is a perfect example of redirecting the power,” says Borba. “Most of the people will turn to the boss, depriving your attacker of the power they wanted. You can do the same thing online, for example in a Twitter war, by finding someone influential to defend you.” She points out that bullies are looking for power. So the best response is to diminish that by not responding at all or finding strength in joining with another group that agrees with you. And, according to Borba, very often that person will bring along the people who wanted to support you but were too shy or fearful.
Laurie Easter had an experience where she needed to step back when a distant relative who learned of her publishing deal with a university press wrote, “Oh, you found somebody who wants to read your dark little stories. Stranger things have happened.” Easter shared what happened on social media, and several people wanted her to punch back, but she took the high road and didn’t respond. “I thought, she’s jealous because she always wanted to be a writer,” Easter said.
So what makes other people think they have the right to tell you you’re wrong or diss you? “When it’s on social media or not in person, it’s easier for them to do it because you can’t see them,” says Borba. “Saying it face to face is a lot harder, especially when they want to be insulting or are deliberately trying to hurt you.”
Hinduja recommends focusing on resilience, which means staying calm and shrugging off name-calling, insults, and passive-aggressive behavior. “This way you show that words, likes, or comments will not affect you, and your self-worth is not coming from someone else’s agenda. If people are making you feel uncomfortable, you have every right to mute, block, or report them so they aren’t controlling your online experience.”
I will say that if I’m in a public Facebook group and I see someone being consistently disrespectful or inflammatory under the pretense of offering helpful critiques or points of discussion (also called trolling)—which nobody is finding helpful—I block that person on my account (without announcing it), because I know nothing happens in a vacuum, and those self-righteous people are not looking for areas of agreement or to listen. Besides, who needs the aggravation? And when I want to genuinely clarify someone’s point, I use probing questions (Why do you think that? What data supports it?) rather than accusations, and I make sure I'm not attacking but instead approaching from a place of interest and curiosity.
I feel fairly safe on my Facebook page, although I’ve been known to make liberal use of the mute button when people annoy me or make snarky comments, but in public places (despite the false feeling of intimacy), it is the same as sharing your deepest or even most casual thoughts with the thousands of people who used to walk through Times Square. You wouldn’t do that, so why would you do it online?