Opinion | We need to make the internet a safer place

By Mackenzie Oster, Staff Columnist

Let’s face it — getting people to stay off social media is no more likely than Pitt cancelling school for low temperatures.

Even our own president uses Twitter as a serious platform for communication. In fact, according to his Twitter profile, he’s posted a total of 37,600 tweets, which equates to 11 or 12 tweets per day. The use of social media has been steadily climbing for years now, and in 2018 about 77 percent of the U.S. population owned at least one social media account. The most widely used social media platforms are Facebook with 2.23 billion users, YouTube with 1.9 billion, Instagram with 1 billion and Twitter with 335 million.

Social media platforms possess so much power because they allow us all to connect, no matter where we are in the world. The internet was once seen as a beneficial platform for connection, but has since turned into a platform for heated, uncivil debate. Social media sites have developed into places where people build themselves up by tearing other users down, whether by demeaningly voicing an opinion or starting unnecessary fights. The internet must become a safer, more civil space if we expect our discourse there to be healthy and productive.

The Weekly Standard argues that Twitter, specifically, has “changed America, mostly for the worse.” Twitter is one of the platforms that tends to tempt those into contributing to call-out culture with what social media users refer to as Twitter fights. Call-out culture is when people publicly bring attention to others’ racist, sexist or otherwise objectionable behavior, but the action of calling out others can often be as toxic as the behavior being called out.

We had the privilege of witnessing two of the music industry’s most prominent rappers, Kanye West and Drake, hash out their differences via Twitter a couple weeks ago. West reignited his Twitter beef with Drake, accusing Drake of following West’s wife, Kim Kardashian, on Instagram, and demanded an apology. For all we know, the fight could’ve been a complete publicity scheme. This is a prime example of the call-out culture that users have developed, using social media as a means of negative conversation rather than a beneficial connection.

Today is this year’s Safer Internet Day, which carries the slogan “Together for a better internet.” It’s a campaign that seeks to create a better, more positive internet space for users and aims to target young people to celebrate the beneficial aspects of the internet, like the opportunity for meaningful discussion and the ability to learn from others’ points of view.

We indeed have the potential to be utilizing social media in more beneficial ways. For example, by limiting the negative commentary we put out and by respecting the opinions and expressions of other users, we could create a more productive environment. This may be easier said than done, but even being conscious of how your posts may be interpreted and how they could harm others can make a big difference.

Other ways to ensure the negative aspects of social media aren’t affecting your everyday life are to limit the time you spend attached to a screen, to not engage with people who instigate a negative interaction and to keep in mind that you are in charge of who you interact with online — the block button is there for a reason.

Of course, we should also make an effort to step back and respect our fellow users. This way we wouldn’t be as worried about gaining acceptance and be much more inclined to be more genuine online. In a study conducted by The New York Times Consumer Insight Group, 68 percent of people responded that they chose to express themselves online to show people what they care about and who they are. People use social media to portray themselves as the person that they want other people to perceive them as, not necessarily who they truly are.

If judgment wasn’t as present online, social media platforms would also be much more casual again, meaning we wouldn’t feel so pressured to spend so much time editing every flaw out of a photo before we post it online. This can be done by accepting that we are human and our lives aren’t always together, and recognizing that even though someone may look as if they have it all together online, we can only see what they want us to see.

When we do voice our opinions, it should be in a civil manner. Discourse would advance much further because when we are civil, people are much more likely to listen and respond in a respective manner. Social media itself is not reality, but the commentary left on a profile reaches a real person and can affect that user’s reality just as easily as spoken words can.