Recently, a physician colleague of mine, someone whom I’ve met in person and with whom I’ve shared a laugh, began to tweet increasingly hostile barbs about me. In a certain respect, it was a typical social media interaction — an uncharitable reading of one’s point of view and a scornful reply. But it was also unusual, as we have met in person, face to face.
In my experience, online anger like this is summoned only when the other person has been depersonalized — just a face dissociated from a person. I’d rarely experienced it from someone who I knew in real life. Just as I started to wonder what might be going on, a mutual friend called to say they had seen the out-of-character barbs. Apparently, this colleague has been suffering from a serious medical illness and was going through a hard time. By the end of the call, I was left feeling sympathetic.
Later that day, I noticed that a professor whose tweets I greatly enjoyed had shut down their account. Poof! They, and their astute comments, were gone entirely. I sent them a note, mostly to let them know that I had been affected by their sharp thinking over the years, and was sorry to see them go. The person wrote back that the growing hostility had driven them away. Every time they said anything, they felt mobbed by a sea of increasingly angry voices. They didn’t need the stress.
Finally, the same day, a colleague from another university called me to ask for some advice. She had been on Twitter, and was troubled by increasingly hostile and negative feedback. The specifics were ugly, and I could tell from the tone in her voice that my colleague was pained. I gave the few tips I know and went for a long run to think.
What Is Going On?
In the best of times, social media is a double-edged sword. It is a great way to get a message to many people, but it is de-personal, and driven by the economy of attention. Anger, disgust, and outrage are the emotions that engage and addict the users. People, good people, can become disinhibited and say things they don’t truly mean, or would never say in real life. Of course, this is during the best of times.
We are not in the best of times. People have been cut off from friends, family, and co-workers, and many are living in isolation. In fact, it is the loneliest year in human history. The largest number of people in history (billions) have deprived themselves of, at least some, social interactions. Mental health is suffering, and physicians, healthcare workers, researchers are suffering alongside everyone else. When we are tired and angry we are not our best selves, and paired with the algorithms of social media, it is a recipe for disaster.
Where Are We Now?
Every day people go online and the difficulties of the last year loom large in our minds — over 500,000 dead Americans, disjointed and often incoherent policy responses, the list goes on. Some are angry that we didn’t do more, sooner. Others are angry about interventions and restrictions that were broadly implemented that might not have helped, and even hurt. Both groups might be right: we were unwilling to do some things that might have helped, and simultaneously pursued other interventions that didn’t, and unfortunately hurt less-fortunate Americans. It will take years to tease these apart, as I have written. Regardless, we are angry. So, we go online looking to vent that anger. If we felt the bigger error was not enough restrictions, we get angry when someone is critical of restrictions. And if vice versa, we find a different scapegoat. A philosopher recently told me, we get most angry when other people don’t follow restrictions that we are able to follow.
The angry train goes off the rails when we invent motivations for others. Folks who share our point of view are always good people who want to save lives, and folks who disagree with us are people indifferent to human beings, grifters, ideologues, or attention-seekers. But, if one steps back, how can that possibly be? Surely people on all sides of an issue — whether that be school reopening or best vaccination practices — have varied reasons for holding their view. A tiny fraction may have some ulterior motive, but surely the vast majority hold their view for the same reason folks who disagree hold their view — an alternative interpretation of facts and values. I suspect a year from now the idea that the world is full of strictly good and bad people will look particularly ridiculous.
How Can We Make It Better?
I don’t know how we can improve the situation on social media, and more critically, reverse the anguish so many are facing in real life — but I do have some tips about how we might help ourselves.
1. Get offline. The professor who deleted their account had the right idea. Each of us has to decide if social media serves our purposes and makes us better informed or happier, but probably all of us should use it less. Read it less, and post less.
2. Mute all notifications. I did this a few years ago, and I quickly found more joy in my life. Say what you have to say, and let it go. No need to reply to anyone, and the easiest way is to set the accounts to never disturb you again.
3. Don’t reply to others. If you read a point of view you disagree with, what value is there in replying to the other person? Just state your point of view in your terms on your feed. No need to pick a fight. Just make your point on your terms.
4. If you are having a hard time at home or work, don’t use social media. It is hard enough to manage when you wake up in a good mood, but when you are feeling tired, scared, afraid or sick, it is too much. Corollary: If you love someone, and they are hurting, suggest they do the same.
5. Meet or call someone every day. Social media thrives from our loneliness — it’s a cheap way to feel less lonely in the loneliest year of human history. But it is a neon light to the sun. Call someone. Visit someone. Interact more in real life.
6. Tell someone you don’t know you appreciate their thoughts. Perhaps the best thing we can do to combat negative emotions is to give some positive feedback to folks we appreciate. I have sent some emails to people, but perhaps I am not thinking big enough. I plan to go on social media and talk openly about people whose thinking delighted me over this last year. It is the least I can do to combat the animosity.
Toward More Productive Dialogue
When we are feeling powerless, getting angry at someone is seductive. It is a way to channel and reorient your energy. Unfortunately, it leaves all involved worse off. Instead, consider using your energy to articulate or refine your perspective, to push for positive change. That doesn’t mean that there are not real errors — but jumping on a single tweet by a minor character in a drama is unlikely to be the change-maker. My tips are just suggestions, but all meant to re-orient the compass toward productive dialogue.
Vinay Prasad, MD, MPH, is a hematologist-oncologist and associate professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco, and author of Malignant: How Bad Policy and Bad Evidence Harm People With Cancer.