It’s time we face up to our own role in toxic social media

17 Feb 2020

Image: © pogonici/

We can blame the platforms all we like, but a huge part of the toxicity of social media is our own behaviour and we need to own that, writes Elaine Burke.

Irish Twitter was something of a hellscape this past week. Infighting between accounts was heightened during the general election and this has not dissipated with the inconclusive results. Actress Jameela Jamil was getting hammered, again. Administrators of long-dormant accounts were coming across flurries of DMs as a campaign demanding unfollows to one particular toxic Twitter presence took hold. And then came the news of Caroline Flack’s suicide.

The 40-year-old TV personality’s tragic death was instantly connected to her treatment both in mainstream media and on social media, but that didn’t quell the tweets. We were still left wading through a quagmire of negativity.

You’re toxic, I’m slipping under

Twitter toxicity is well known to any user as active (and more so) as myself. It’s my most-used social media platform but I know its issues are not unique.

For anxious users like myself, it can have troubling effects. What’s addictive is not always a high, and scrolling through Twitter into the late hours and being barraged with negativity takes its toll. And that’s as a mere bystander, outside of the firing line of insults and abuse.

I have lately acknowledged for myself the negative impact of Twitter on my mental wellness. I’ve long suffered from a disruptive sleep pattern and after addressing many of the environmental factors contributing to this, ditching the app is my last major obstacle to overcome. The late-night scroll through a stream of bad news and nasty sniping leaves me wound up and unable to get a restful sleep. And even though I am well aware of this, I still find myself obsessively scrolling long past a sensible hour, beyond any spark of serotonin that my brain is apparently seeking.

The truth is the happy moments are fewer and far between of late. But still we dig for them, hoping to uncover the smile-inducing gem amid the tirade. A quip from Lil Nas X. A wholesome meme. Animals being effortlessly adorable. Oddly satisfying cleanliness.

Think first, tweet later

So many of us are addicted to this toxic morass and we actively hold the power to effect change in our hands. We can commit to putting positivity on the timeline.

I am by no means an optimist by nature. The clue is even in my Twitter handle: @CriticalRedPen. But I made a conscious decision a long time ago to share what’s good and hopeful over what’s bad and despondent. I often write a tweet and delete it, checking myself when I consider, “What does this add to this discourse?” and finding I’ve come up short.

As much as I’m cynical, I am also imperfect. I’m certain that I’ve slipped sometimes and spewed negative thoughts to an unwitting social media following. But I aspire to do better than that.

It’s not about being uncritical, which would be against the very nature of my nom de plume. But instead of always sharing what we don’t like, pointing at who is failing and calling out the bad guys, we could make as much of an effort to celebrate more of what we love, point to those who are trying and shout out the heroes who are making the world a better place one small act of kindness at a time.

Accentuating the negative

I grew up in an age when we became enlightened to the struggle of fame and the pursuit of physical perfection in its related industries. The toll this took on people’s health has been well documented and, while not wholly evolved, we probably see those days as somewhat behind us.

Yet now we demand anyone with influence to reach a level of godlike purity that is beyond impossible. Calling them to account is not just the red ring of shame so famously and viciously deployed by the tabloid press, but the resurrection of social media posts from an age of ignorance, viral snapshots of misguided moments and the web of connection deemed an endorsement. But nobody is perfect and we are all living, all struggling and all learning in our own way and on our own journeys.

This is not to condone any hateful or abusive behaviour with silence and a blind eye turned. But the case of Caroline Flack, as a current example, is full of nuance and complexity with no pristine heroes and outright villains. This is why it is exactly the kind of thing that could do without thousands of 280-character opinions muddying the facts.

‘With all the negative noise, we run the very real risk of drowning out those with real insight’

I also must acknowledge my position of privilege in this context. I’m a cis, white, able-bodied woman doing well for herself, and I count myself very lucky to have little to complain about in my own life. I do what I can to give voice to others who haven’t had such luck in life’s draw, and sometimes that’s by keeping my own voice out of it. With all the noise, we run the very real risk of drowning out those with real insight to share on what it means to live a life less privileged.

This isn’t about cancel culture (which I’m not convinced is even a real thing). This is about our comment culture. If we just spare a moment’s thought for the individuals behind a handle before we post, we might just rest those itchy trigger fingers.

We can all afford to be kinder to one another on social media. Negativity is pervasive. It’s contagious. And it can be all-consuming. Take one look at the accounts of those we wish the ones we love didn’t follow to see what happens when negativity swallows your personality whole.

We can do better. And we can do it with kindness.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.