The Internet has changed how we communicate, but have our ethics adapted to this major social shift? While pushing the Send or Post button is easy, the consequences of what we say and share online can be grave and lasting. The Digital Age is changing the way we engage with and view the world – it’s time our moral code adjusted with it.

1. Share About Others as You Would Have Them Share About You

Judge not lest ye be judged applies as much in a Digital Age as it did in times past – only now because our public space has changed, our judgment has wider implications than it ever did before.

WildWebOur public space has moved from what we can experience directly in front of us – say in our own town – to an interconnected digital space spanning the world over. What we once might have only described to our friends verbally, we now surreptitiously capture on mobile phones and share online – for a potential audience of 3 billion people, or 42% of the planet. “Public” in a Digital Age is an ever-expanding space.

Every day unflattering pictures and videos are posted to the Internet – of friends as well as random strangers. The web abounds with curated awkward family photos and there are entire sites devoted to publicly mocking the style-challenged. While we might not know those whom we condemn to a life of online ridicule, they are still people – identifiable people who through no consent have been digitally archived for popular amusement.

Few understand how vast this new audience is better than those who have found themselves the unsolicited target of its contempt. Ask Ghyslain Raza, who became an Internet sensation after classmates found his self-taped video featuring Star Wars fighting moves – and posted the footage online without Ghyslain’s knowledge or consent. The video, which has had over 30 million views on YouTube, brought unrelenting torment, with commenters telling the young Canadian to kill himself, and one calling him “a pox on humanity”. Ghyslain was ultimately forced out of school not returning until his senior year.

Given the potential for damaging a person’s life in such a lasting way, we should think carefully before posting online about other people. Share about others, as you would have them share about you.

2. Shame Online and Be Shamed

How long should a person be punished for a mistake or misdeed? In the real world, a punishment is typically meted out depending on the severity of a transgression, with repeating offenders getting increasingly stronger sentences. However, even they get a chance to turn a page after serving their sentence. That might have been the case in a pre-internet era, but as with “public” space, our memories have expanded in a Digital Age. Our collective desire to punish people online, in many cases, far exceeds the crime, lasting indefinitely.

A pattern of virtual vigilantism has been forming. Someone is caught doing something stupid, the documenter takes extreme offence to the crime, and posts the record to the web for all to see and share in the indignation. Viewers hurl their digital rotten tomatoes in the form of disgusted comments. The horror of stupidity is illuminated through the pixelated torches of people sharing the gross act over and over again, with calls for the social criminal to be fired from their job – whether what they did had anything to do with work or not. Intense online public shaming can last weeks or months. The offender caught in the digital pillory will find no escape from what they’ve done, as the effects spill over into their offline world, destroying self-worth, careers, and relationships. As long as the Internet exists to keep the memory of the transgression alive, the culprit will suffer its lingering impact with every Google search returned.

It is a horrific fate, all things considered. Especially when considering how trivial are some of the acts that have spawned such moral outrage. In some cases, telling bad jokes at a conference is enough to get a person fired from a job. But publicly shaming bad joke tellers can also land you on the unemployed list.

In very tragic situations, public shaming has been linked to suicide.

While in some special cases, taking a faceless corporation to task on social media has led to a positive resolution, the act of public shaming online poses risks to both the shamed and those who shame. What goes around online comes around.

3. Thou Shall Not Watch Unnecessarily

Part of the problem is the ease with which we can watch each other now. As if we all want to be reality TV directors, we document everything we see that might make for a good share.

Online surveillance is more often discussed in the context of overreaching governments, but the Internet has given us all Big Brother-like powers. Our ability to peer into each other’s worlds has turned us into a distributed digital network of Little Brothers, feeding into a bigger database of surveillance. We can monitor and document strangers in a “public” space, watch our houses for anything remotely suspicious, and track our children through all their online forays.

This sort of constant monitoring erodes trust and fuels the watcher’s growing paranoia. Where does one draw a line? Checking your spouse’s email once isn’t likely to abate any suspicions. Tracking staff through mobile apps won’t increase faith in their abilities – much less workplace efficiency, considering how much time you as a boss will waste stalking employees. Attempting to prevent a possible misstep in your children’s online forays isn’t teaching them life skills to cope independently in a Digital Age.

While our laws lag behind this rapidly increasing surveillance environment, our ethics can more readily adapt. Nothing prevents us from creating our own guidelines for surveillance. Watching our neighbors might only be confined to considerations of their safety: if they are not at risk of harming themselves or someone else there is no need for us to lurk (much less record videos). Spouses who are so untrustworthy to warrant surveillance are not really life partners at all. In nearly every situation where surveillance can be conducted, there are more reasons to argue against it than for it – that is, if we aim to maintain healthy relationships in a Digital Age. After all, suspicions are only ever confirmed.

4. Thou Shall Not Troll

Among other things, the Internet has fuelled a new fetish: the love of provoking people online, with deliberately offensive posts just to anger or upset them. Yet what differentiates a troll from, say, a person who has strong views about an issue and never fails to post a comment about it?

Take a look at the comments section on any given news page – or, heck, any social media post of an active user for that matter – and the line between troll and non-troll is blurred. Unless you are particularly dedicated to culling your social networks of highly polarized contacts, chances are you know of at least one person who, without fail, will comment furiously about a certain topic (or two, or more!). You might even be self-censoring your posts to avoid the inevitable confrontation that such a clash of online opinions will cause. Does motive alone distinguish such opinion-sharers from the trolls? Is the conviction of holding the real truth on a subject a more acceptable reason for a provocative response than the joy of irritating people? Surely, it amounts to the same, an unpleasant online encounter.

We should take care in how we comment online.

How we react to something such as a public shaming can easily make us just as complicit in possibly destroying a subject’s life as the person who first shared the message. Unthinkingly posting our outrage at something, or insisting that others see and accept our viewpoint can quite resemble the commentary of an average troll. Before responding to a post we may ask ourselves if what we have to say offers any additional value?

In contradicting someone else’s belief or viewpoint online, we are not likely to convert them to our perspective. No matter how persuasive you believe yourself to be, the likelihood that you will sway another to your side of an argument is slim. In fact, challenging an opposing opinion is more likely to result in the other person more fervently believing their initial point of view rather than coming around to your side.

In knowing this, and continuing to join in on shaming or attempting to sway others, your comments are no different than those of a troll. After all, what you do online has a deliberate aim – to provoke a person into feeling shame, or believing what you do. Trolling is in the eye of the beholder.

5. People With Access to Search Engines Shall Not Spread Lies

As with trolling, we are all more complicit in the spread of disinformation than any of us would like to believe. Disreality is constructed as much by individuals as it is by governments or corporations seeking to shape our perspectives. While we are often manipulated into sharing disinformation, sometimes out of concern such as with false amber alerts, we still have a choice between reposting and not. Even if the situation appears to be a dire emergency, the 5 minutes it will take to conduct an internet search to assess the content’s accuracy are not likely to impact the outcome of events should the situation be true – regardless of how powerful we think social media to be.

In engaging online we have as much personal responsibility to keep the digital realm clean as we do in a physical space to not pollute. Unless you are a bona fide expert on a subject, search the topic before you share. Verify that a claim is true. Be aware that media outlets can be fooled too and are not always a reliable source. A healthy skepticism is necessary in a Digital Age. Not only will you be helping to keep the online clutter of urban myth at bay, but also your friends with freakishly good memories will thank you. (If only, the horrible undergarment rash scam could be forgotten! Even fake things can traumatize.)

People with access to search engines shouldn’t spread lies.

The Digital World is Our Responsibility

As the physical world is our home, so too is the digital realm. We all bear responsibility to keep it a safe and welcoming space for all of us to engage. To that end, perhaps it is time we codify some rules by which to live online. Below are five to consider:

  1. Share About Others as You Would Have Them Share About You
  2. Shame Online and Be Shamed
  3. Thou Shall Not Watch Unnecessarily
  4. Thou Shall Not Troll
  5. People With Access to Search Engines Shall Not Spread Lies

These are by no means exhaustive. The Internet has quickly altered the way we interact. There are many other mores that should be reconsidered in a Digital Age. Please share your suggestions in the comment section below.

About Author

La Generalista is the online identity of Alicia Wanless – a researcher and practitioner of strategic communications for social change in a Digital Age. Alicia is the director of the Partnership for Countering Influence Operations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. With a growing international multi-stakeholder community, the Partnership aims to foster evidence-based policymaking to counter threats within the information environment. Wanless is currently a PhD Researcher at King’s College London exploring how the information environment can be studied in similar ways to the physical environment. She is also a pre-doctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, and was a tech advisor to Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder. Her work has been featured in Lawfare, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, and CBC.

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