We Should Behave with Civility and Caution in Social Media

Now that social media has become a way of life, society is looking more critically at the challenges it presents. Many comments these days lament how young people and adults alike are wasting time in banal interactions with “friends” and “followers,” with a negative impact on educational progress and workplace productivity. Another challenge arises because the social media is inconsistently regulated, and that increases the temptation for character defamation. We’re trying to deal with that challenge at (our college).
[We teach students]  to deal with one another with respect no matter how strongly we disagree. If we stoop to character assassination, we lose any chance of reaching agreement and destroy any hope of a positive relationship.

Social media has increased the shouting, and the likelihood of libel is exacerbated because it may be cloaked in anonymity. Jonathan Zimmerman, a teacher at New York University, wrote in an AJC column about two cases where students created fake MySpace profiles to ridicule their principals. On one, a student depicted his principal boasting of steroid and marijuana use; on the other, the principal was cast as a pedophile and sex addict. Zimmerman encourages teaching our young people how to debate “with clarity, patience and respect for one’s adversary.” He describes attacks on school employees as echoing “the worst aspects of our debased popular culture. Isn’t it time we taught children a better way to talk?”
After a century of legal decisions, but before social media, libel and slander were relatively well defined. Now it’s more complicated. An article by lawyer Nicholas Delaunt on a Website called Reputation Management illustrates the point. “In Carafano v. Metrosplash.com, Inc., a federal court ruled on the application of the safe harbor of the Communications Decency Act (CDA). The defendant in that case operated a matchmaking website known as matchmaker.com. As part of its service, the defendant collected profiles of singles based on an extensive questionnaire. The plaintiff sued Metrosplash because of a false profile of her, which an unknown user had posted to the website. The court ruled that by creating the questionnaire, Metrosplash played an active role in developing the information that had been posted. Furthermore, the court ruled that Metrosplash was an information content provider and thus not eligible for the CDA’s safe harbor provided to ‘interactive computer services.’” The decision was overturned on appeal.

Whether the courts ever catch up to the current free-for-all remains to be seen, but the real solution must lie in teaching one another how to behave with civility in a culture that too often, as Jonathan Zimmerman notes, is angry, strident and debased. In the meantime, we do well to proceed cautiously in our use of social media. “If you can’t say anything good about someone,” our moms used to say, “don’t say anything at all.” Mom’s advice is more relevant that ever.

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