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Whether we’re taking an online class, catching up with friends, reading the news, checking our favourite Reddit thread, or watching videos of baby pandas sneezing, we all spend a lot of time online. Our online communities are full of opportunities for sharing, connection, and positivity, but sometimes we may encounter negativity and downright nastiness, to put it mildly.
We can all play a role in shaping online communities in which everyone can thrive. Disrespect and harassment are less likely when digital spaces reflect our values. For example, building supportive communities makes sexual harassment and violence less likely. Creating respectful spaces online is a critical part of these efforts. So how do we make the online communities we participate in feel more positive, especially in an era where we might feel particularly divided? And how do we respond when we see negative posts in a group page we’re in charge of? Or when we notice a hurtful comment in a community we participate in?
Whether you have a leadership role in an online space or you’re just a casual participant, there’s plenty you can do to help keep things positive.
Here’s how to use your role to create the online space you want
If you create, manage, or moderate an online space, you have a key role to play in building a supportive community. But being a member matters just as much. You get to model and shape the online community you participate in. Here’s a four-step guide to making it work—no matter your role.
Whether you’re starting a new group or taking over an existing one, start by reflecting on your goals.
Consider the following questions:
- If this group is new, why are you starting it? If you’re taking over an existing page, what are the group’s shared goals?
- How do you want members to experience the group?
- What would be the best possible version of this group?
It’s essential to define your goals even if your group is small and informal. For example: Imagine that you create a GroupMe for the people living on your residence hall floor. The following goals could take the group in three very different directions and would call for different leadership:
- Planning large parties for everyone in the hall
- Upholding community standards (e.g., reminding people to be quiet during finals)
- Meeting new people
Goals matter for members too. In fact, knowing what they are and communicating them effectively sets the tone for the rest of the group. This doesn’t have to be formal. It’s about having a shared purpose.
Think about this: If you share a group chat with your friends from high school, what’s your purpose for doing so? How can you make sure others are on board? Your personal goal might be to stay in touch while building stronger connections with everyone. What are some small steps you can take to reach this goal?
- Model what you’re looking for by offering it first: Share updates about your life and ask others to do the same.
- Open participation: Invite other people to participate and pull quiet, shy, or disengaged people into the conversation.
- Make concrete plans: Suggest group activities or meet-ups.
By actively engaging in the group in a positive way, you’re setting an example for other members. A significant body of research shows that when we believe our peers expect us to behave a certain way, we’re more likely to behave that way (this is called social norms theory). This means that when we’re positive and don’t tolerate harmful behaviour in person and in an online setting, it sets the tone for others to follow suit.
Explicitly communicate your expectations. People are surprisingly attentive to group guidelines. A 2016 analysis of the Reddit thread r/science (which has more than 13 million subscribers) found that posting page rules increased users’ compliance with the rules and even increased the number of comments made by newcomers on certain posts.
“By setting the expectations from the beginning, the group can then have a clear understanding about the conduct that they can expect from others, and what’s expected of them,” says Cari Ionson, Sexual Violence Response and Awareness Coordinator at Mount Royal University in Alberta. “This can set the tone for the group of promoting interactions based in respect. If interactions become disrespectful, the moderator can point back to the group agreements as a strategy for intervention.”
How you can put this into practice
Let’s say you take over the Facebook page of a campus multicultural centre with several hundred members. How might you create guidelines for the group?
It’s also important to create guidelines for informal groups. If you created a small Facebook group for your friends in the multicultural centre, you could casually communicate your expectations. Try statements like:
- “Let’s use this group to stay in touch over the summer!”
- “If anyone has questions about this group, I’m happy to help out.”
Point out behaviours that positively reinforce your group standards and support the community guidelines—you can keep it casual. This sets the expectation that people will interact in positive ways. Try out statements such as, “It’s awesome how we can disagree without things getting ugly.”
It’s easiest to take action at the first sign of disrespect or someone behaving outside of the group guidelines. Don’t wait for problems to escalate before you step in.
Just like in social situations or in the classroom, you can practise bystander intervention by stepping in to address disrespect and prevent harm. In a 2015 study of adolescents and young adults, bystanders stepped in at similar rates when someone was being harassed online as they did when an incident happened in person (Journal of Youth and Adolescence). In fact, bystanders were most likely to step in when someone was being harassed both in person and online.
What this might look like
Imagine that you’re the moderator of an online study group. You all use the group to share study tips, ask questions, and set up times to work together. One day, the posts start to stray from the class material to people complaining about the course and insulting the professor’s looks. How do you handle it?
Try privately messaging the people involved, or leave a comment of your own. Assuming good intent can make these conversations easier. For example:
- “You probably don’t mean any harm, but your comments came off negatively.”
- “Please refer to the community guidelines.”
Comments to redirect the group
- “We have that big test coming up, so let’s focus and be prepared.”
- “Let’s stick to the focus of this group.”
It’s not just the leader’s responsibility to uphold community standards; it’s also on you as a community member to redirect group members who fall short of your goals. It can be as easy as asking a different question.
Here’s how you might step in as a community member in the study group scenario:
- Distract the group with a question that relates to the original goal (e.g., post a question about the homework).
- Redirect the group: “We have to get through this critical analysis, so let’s focus and be prepared.”
- Find an ally: Talk to a friend in the group about the behaviour and come up with a plan for approaching it together.
- Go undercover: Anonymously post a comment saying the behaviour is unacceptable.
- Ask for help: Ask a moderator to reiterate the group values—or establish them if there aren’t any.
What can you do if serious disrespect, harassment, or hateful behaviour emerges in an online space that you manage?
For example, imagine you’re managing a student publication’s website. Debate in the comments section is usually respectful. One day, a regular commenter calls another a slur. Here are four options for how to intervene:
1) Delete the harmful content, and consider banning the commenter.
“Delete the person whose posts are negative. By proactively doing this, [you show] that [you] have had enough and will not engage in their negative and hurtful behaviours.”
—Ross Ellis, Founder and CEO of STOMP Out Bullying, an American national bullying and harassment prevention organization
2) Reach out to the people who were targeted.
“Check in with them. Being disrespected or harassed can be incredibly damaging to a person, and can impact how they continue to choose to engage online and how they’re feeling generally,” Ionson says. “It can be helpful to ensure that they’re told that what happened was wrong, and it wasn’t their fault.” Let them know you deleted the content, you support them, and offer to direct them to university resources.
3) Report the incident—if the targeted person wishes that you do so.
Consider reporting the behaviour to a campus official, such as a dean. Check with the person who was targeted to ask for their permission first, especially in the case where imminent danger and harm is present, Ionson says, or threats to harm another person or themself. “In these cases, the individual reporting the incident should work closely with those who’ve been impacted to see how they’d like to approach reporting, their level of involvement, and concerns they may have,” she says.
4) Reiterate your group expectations.
After you have dealt with the harm, work with other members of the publication team to refocus on your core goals.
What if you see this happening in an online community you’re a part of? As an active member of the community, stepping in reinforces the standards of the whole group and sends the message that this behaviour isn’t tolerated here. Here’s how you could do it:
- If the behaviour affects someone you know, privately reach out and express support. Try language such as, “That was messed up. Is there anything I can do?”
- Consider contributing some positive words. Offering encouragement and support is a simple way to mitigate the effect of online harassment. Manners (good and bad) are contagious. Modelling civility and constructive commentary online can potentially dissuade others from trolling, according to a 2017 study by researchers at Cornell University.
- Ask before you act on someone else’s behalf. If you want to confront the aggressor or request an apology on behalf of the person who has been wronged, this isn’t your decision to make alone. “Get input from the person who was targeted about how they’d like to see it handled and if there are other risk factors that you may not be aware of at play,” says Ionson. “If there aren’t other concerning factors, like the harassment is likely to escalate, then speaking to the individual about their online conduct could be useful if the individual is open to the conversation.” Work with the targeted person and respect their wishes about how to proceed. They might prefer to not confront the aggressor or to report the issue to the relevant site directly. Except for situations of acute danger, don’t take action on their behalf if you haven’t been asked to do so.
“There are guidelines for users posted with a focus on respect towards others. We have zero tolerance of racism, sexism, or xenophobic language. We acknowledge that disagreements happen, but messages with personal insults will be removed. I’ve had to step in and delete posts or lock threads before.”
—David S., third-year undergraduate, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology
“The main focus should be on setting a good example for others on the forum and displaying proper online etiquette and manners for all. Respect should also be highly regarded and prioritized online. If members aren’t following my example and portraying disrespect towards others, I first message and talk to the individual(s), and then the next step is to ban them from the online community.”
—Melanie S., third-year undergraduate, Queen’s University, Ontario
“I handle and address all complaints (though there haven’t been many in the three years I’ve run the page). The community only consists of around 20+ regulars, so they’re all tame and friendly. It’s a support page so I’d hope it’s a positive environment to begin with.”
—Delanie A., second-year undergraduate, Fleming College, Ontario
“There’s a positive relationship established outside of the online group chat space. Therefore, everyone’s respectful. Otherwise they’ll be warned and then suspended from the group until there are improvements in behaviour.”
—Fatum Y., fourth-year undergraduate, Mount Royal University, Alberta
Strategies developed by the Communication and Consent Educator program at Yale University.
Ross Ellis, Founder and CEO of STOMP Out Bullying, an American national bullying and harassment prevention organization.
Cari Ionson, MSW, RSW, Sexual Violence Response and Awareness Coordinator, Mount Royal University, Alberta.
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