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How to avoid becoming the bully you hate on social media

If you're looking for a fight, there's no better place to lurk than social media. 

At its best, the digital public square can connect people whose lives — and ideas — would otherwise remain distant. At its worst, that open-ended conversation can quickly devolve into an online screaming match, no matter the subject. 

This poses a difficult challenge for people who are passionate about their politics, causes and even celebrities, particularly on a platform like Twitter where users can conceal their identities and lob inflammatory sentiments into timelines all day long. 

The question remains: When do you take the bait and what do you do with it? Answering that riddle correctly not only has implications for your state of mind, but can also determine whether you'll become the kind of bully you loathe. 

Whitney Phillips, author of This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture, has spent nearly a decade researching internet communication, and believes the answers are far from simple. 

The cycle of comment and response, she says, has a fundamental problem: It's almost impossible to know what anonymous users intend. In the absence of in-person signals like facial expressions, gestures and key phrases, what looks like an offensive statement may actually be an attempt at a subversive joke. It can also be a "honeypot," a remark designed to lure people with sincere beliefs into a battle of words just for fun, or lulz.

Take, for example, the racist backlash directed at Normani Kordei, a member of the musical group Fifth Harmony, after she called her bandmate Camila Cabello "quirky." It seemed to be a compliment, but some of Cabello's self-proclaimed fans felt the comment was a slight and targeted Kordei online. 

While the New York Times described the attack as the work of Cabello's followers, Phillips says it's difficult to know for sure. The responses could have been written by instigators who saw an opportunity to promote racist speech because they craved the attention or wanted to turn people against each other as a joke. 

"You don’t know where the game begins and ends," says Phillips. "You don’t know who's participating." 

Phillips is unequivocally clear about the importance of calling out discriminatory and hateful speech, especially at a time when the "alt-right" — a movement that embraces white nationalist beliefs — is flooding social media with commentary and lending its support to Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump. 

What's harder to do, she says, is spotlight offensive behavior without giving it a bigger audience by ratcheting up the rhetoric. Intervening, says Phillips, can be most effective when you counter offensive speech with a message that explains why the comments are wrong, and then move on. 

Another option is to ignore the account and try reporting it to Twitter for violating community guidelines. Critics of Twitter, however, might not find this a satisfying approach given the company's lack of success in eliminating abuse and harassment. 

"When in doubt, don't engage," says Phillips, describing her motto regarding comments made by users whose identity or intentions aren't clear. That silence, she adds, can be irksome for someone bent on wreaking havoc: "To deny them of that attention — essentially that’s their worst nightmare."

There are other temptations, though, like resisting the urge to become part of an online army. Those emerge in different contexts, including the classic pile-on response to an objectionable comment, but Phillips is surprised how frequently celebrities sit back and watch their supporters take on other famous people with whom they've been feuding. 

Kim Kardashian West demonstrated how this works when she tweeted snake emoji before revealing video evidence of a phone conversation between Taylor Swift and her husband Kanye West, which Swift previously said hadn't taken place. "They have holidays for everybody, I mean everything these days!" Kardashian tweeted, along with 37 snake emoji. 

Swift had been snake-bombed on social media the previous week following critical tweets from her ex-boyfriend Calvin Harris, and this instance was no exception. When Swift posted a response to Kardashian on Twitter, users came at her with the snake emoji and continue to do so a month after the controversy. (Instagram appears to have made it difficult for people to spam Swift's comments with the icon.) 

"The people we frame as the bad guys, they’re not the only ones doing it," says Phillips of online behavior meant to rile up a crowd and direct it toward a foe with the equivalent of digital pitchforks. "We don’t frame [what Kardashian did] in the same way as trolling, but the behaviors are not that different at all." 

Users who join an online mob may see it as harmless amusement and a way to express their identity as a fan (or anti-fan), but Phillips says it's ultimately destructive: "The problem with piling on when you perceive someone to have done something wrong is that you would feel differently if it was you or someone you loved."

Phillips also believes the impulse to attack first and ask questions later — or never —requires forgetting that none of us is perfect. And while these dynamics have long pre-existed the internet, they seem to flourish the more we live our lives online. 

One way to avoid them, says Phillips, is to keep company with people online who don't target the vulnerable, and avoid communities that take pride in antagonizing or feuding with outsiders. 

"Anytime you can make a choice to step away from negative nasty behavior," says Phillips, "you’re doing yourself a favor."

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