As long as online cruelty remains cool, it won’t be solved by hashtags, T-shirts or even censorship

Society at large still has a playground mentality – niceness and kindness aren’t valued or rewarded. 

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I used to think “nice” was the biggest insult in the world. I remember being in primary school and looking at the girls who’d earned this label – girls with perfect ponytails who were followed by enthusiastic cries of “sooo-oooo nice!” wherever they swished. I didn’t see “niceness” as a personality trait, but rather an absence of personality. I thought these people lacked the kind of edge that made someone truly interesting or admirable or different.

I thought that devising speedy put-downs was the coolest, cleverest thing I could do. Towards the end of my time at secondary school, I’d post Facebook statuses that mocked and imitated those posted by the popular girls (usually by adding “ie” to the end of words – “drinkies”, “girlies”, “mumsies!”). It’s embarrassing now to admit that I did this – what a needless, fruitless, pointless way to earn a laugh at another person’s expense. What a boring way to get five Facebook likes and the attention of the boy I fancied.

It’s no secret that being mean to others makes us feel good about ourselves, and perhaps I can’t blame my adolescent brain for scrambling for self-esteem in the midst of my push-up bra and purple-toned hair phase. But it’s not something I stand by now. For the last few years, I’ve made a conscious effort to stop being mean online. I even avoid clicking “like” on anything I deem too cruel. I’ve spoken out when I felt a tweet crossed the line into bullying, and when I err and post something mean I delete it, no matter how many retweets it is racking up.

None of this is especially wonderful, of course, and you’ll be forgiven for keeping your cries of “sooo-oooo nice!” to yourselves. Many do this without making an active decision to, and lots of people take it for granted that this is the decent way to behave. Yet unfortunately, cruelty is still second nature to many of us online – from tweeting about a reality TV contestant’s teeth to relentlessly mocking whoever has made a faux pas that day. (As one viral tweet succinctly put it: “Each day on Twitter there is one main character. The goal is to never be it.”)

In an effort to change normal online behaviour, the hashtag #BeKind was posted thousands of times on Twitter in mid-February, following the death of the TV presenter Caroline Flack, who took her own life on 15 February. In December, Flack had shared an Instagram post that read, “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” Following her death, fast fashion retailer In The Style raised £100,000 in one day by selling “Be Kind” T-shirts; the profits went to suicide prevention charity Samaritans.

Many of these posts and purchases were of course sincere, and that many people had some uncomfortable thoughts while reflecting about what they post online. But do I believe that we can really stem the flow of cruelty with hashtags and T-shirts? Not at all.

I’m not going to pretend I have a solution, but I don’t think it lies in Boris Johnson’s recent suggestion that social media companies should “go further” to remove hateful content. Censorship isn’t a power that I would encourage in tech giants that already listen to our conversations through smart speakers and track us across the internet in order to advertise personalised sweatshirts. (“Never mess with a GEMINI who loves HORSES and was born in 1995!”). I’m also not sure the answer lies in Instagram’s anti-bullying artificial intelligence app, which identifies harmful or hurtful words and asks users “Are you sure you want to post this?” before they publish a comment.

No, I think the solution lies outside tech giants and deep inside ourselves. Society at large still thinks like a jealous primary schooler – niceness and kindness aren’t valued or rewarded, while cruelty is cool.

Online, it’s still considered clever to be the person who makes a cutting observation about a pop culture figure. In the past, I’ve seen former Love Island contestants who have bemoaned their own social media treatment share mean thoughts about contestants on the show. Perhaps there’s some evolutionary reason our empathy is so limited – it’s probably unrealistic to ask people never to be unpleasant again. But as much as we can, we shouldn’t reward each other with the dopamine rush of a like and retweet for vocalising our mean thoughts in a public space.

Perhaps it’s sad and damning that my solution amounts to “be mean in private!” rather than “don’t be mean at all”. But we forget that for decades this is how ordinary people criticised everyone from celebrities to colleagues – harsh, critical thoughts were once secretive and somewhat shameful: it’s the internet that made them loud and proud. It is also the internet that made them so dangerous – I’ve heard from online influencers that not only do they stumble across mean tweets about themselves on a daily basis, they also find it hard not to read gossip forums dedicated to tearing them down.

It’s not up to algorithms to change our behaviour, it’s up to us. We have to stop celebrating cruelty with our clicks, and instead make a conscious effort to reward people who are kind to others or people who call out poor behaviour when they see it. We have to realise that equating meanness with coolness is the approach of a 17-year-old, and that people who dedicate their lives to pouring scorn on others online deserve our pity, not our respect.

“Be Kind” isn’t a hashtag that should trend after a tragedy, or an instruction we should read on the front of a polyester-blend T-shirt. It is a mantra we should carry in our minds every day, especially when we’re scrolling away our hours on the internet. Nice isn’t an insult to describe a boring or basic person – in an online world where cruelty is championed, it is nice people who truly have an edge.

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh

This article appears in the 28 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The death of privacy

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