Negativity, hate speech on social media at a level ‘never seen before’

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There has been a rise in negativity on social media in the past year, including backlash against leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Preston Crawley)

Negativity on social media has increased in the past year and has included backlash against leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, social justice movements and political turmoil, Church leaders have been active in their messages promoting getting vaccinated, wearing masks, social distancing and loving others. Their statements have been met with escalating backlash on social media, where users don’t have to take personal responsibility for their negative comments.

On March 31, the Church updated its handbook to include a section on vaccinations. “Vaccinations administered by competent medical professionals protect health and preserve life,” it reads. “Members of the Church are encouraged to safeguard themselves, their children, and their communities through vaccination.”

The entry goes on to say individuals are responsible to make their own decisions about vaccination.

President Russell M. Nelson receives vaccine

Back in January, President Russell M. Nelson received the COVID-19 vaccine with his wife, Wendy Nelson.

He posted a photo and caption to each social media platform, stating they had prayed often for the vaccine, a “literal godsend.”

With President Nelson’s experience as a former medical field professional and overseeing the Church’s medicinal humanitarian efforts around the world, he sees the COVID-19 vaccine as a blessing.

President Nelson’s statement concluded by saying, “receiving the vaccine today is part of our personal efforts to be good global citizens in helping to eliminate COVID-19 from the world.”

Some comments on President Nelson’s Facebook post said:

“I have already had COVID. I’m doing everything to maintain my immunity. Please don’t command me to take the vaccine.”

“As someone with a family member who recently was vaccine injured, this is really upsetting. It sounds like those of us who have real and valid concerns about this aren’t considered ‘good global citizens’ which isn’t the case at all.”

The Daily Universe declined to include examples of numerous comments that included profanity, disinformation and outright falsehoods. Instagram and Twitter comments expressed similar tones.

The Church’s official social media account posted a statement underneath President Nelson’s vaccine post on Facebook: “Please keep in mind community guidelines. Comments that are profane, crude, insensitive, off-topic or contain personal attacks will not be approved. While we encourage conversation it is against our guidelines to support long threads of argument.”

Increase in negativity

“Over my eight-plus years managing BYU social media accounts, I have noticed many shifts in user behavior among our audience,” said BYU’s previous social media manager Jon McBride who left the position in November.

McBride’s career is focused on doing sentiment analysis on thousands of social media posts. He said he can’t speak to whether there is more negativity among Church members as a whole or more political tribalism than before.

However, he said the negativity on social media has definitely increased, and the source of the majority of negativity in the BYU audience has shifted.

“This isn’t about liberals and conservatives wanting to share their beliefs and values. We’ve always seen the desire for that. This isn’t about simply sharing a difference of opinion or having a spirited debate. We’ve always seen that,” McBride said. “This is about a level of negative sentiment that we have never seen before on social media.”

Yvette Cruz has been the social media manager at KSL.com for two years now. She said she saw hostility on a slow uphill growth rate before 2020. When the pandemic began and a crazy year followed, Cruz saw online hate speech skyrocket.

Before the string of 2020 events that led to a hectic year, Cruz said she knew exactly what topics would create charged comments or debates on the KSL.com social media pages and what stories would have the most need of her monitoring the comment section to remove hate speech.

Once the pandemic started and political turmoil rose, Cruz said every single story would have thousands of comments and she could no longer monitor them all. She was saddened to see that because people needed to stay inside and away from others, they seemingly found more time and energy to be negative and lash out.

“We’ve always seen people disagree about politics or city zones or little things, but at that point, it turned into people attacking the characters of people they didn’t know. There are now comment threads of hundreds of people attacking each other,” Cruz said.

Anonymity feeds online negativity

During her time monitoring KSL.com’s social media, Cruz said she has come to believe people are wary of their online presence. This leads to many users writing under anonymous accounts.

“Nowadays, lots of employers, schools and even friends will hold people accountable for the things they do or say online, and so people might use so-called ‘burner accounts’ or fake usernames to say things — often negative, or even downright hateful — that they wouldn’t want attached to their real person,” she said.

Some people believe as long as they remain anonymous, they can get away with more, she said.

McBride said an essential part of effective social media use is authenticity. He said the basic definition of authenticity is “of undisputed origin” or “genuine.”

“In relation to the rise of negativity, hate and outrage on social media, we have definitely seen that much of it comes from anonymous accounts,” he said. “Many behind these accounts seem to feel emboldened to say whatever hateful thing they’d like, because of the lack of personal accountability there. It’s certainly inauthentic content.”

McBride said Church leaders have been clear that such online anonymity should be avoided.

A student’s experience

BYU senior Sarah Hodson said she feels if people see something extremely disagreeable or polarizing, the gut reaction they act on is to respond with the opposite extreme.

“I wish we would focus more on what we actually believe or think, instead of ‘what’s the best argument or fact to use against someone I disagree with,'” Hodson said.

As a member of the Church, she said she has gained a testimony of its leaders’ divine authority independent of politics or continuous world issues.

“I recognize the prophet and apostles have their own opinions, but I also recognize they are inspired men,” Hodson said. She doesn’t want to automatically accept their opinions, so she differentiates between doctrine and opinion.

Hodson said when Church leaders make a public post about something, it makes her want to research the context behind the post. “When an apostle thinks it’s important to address something, I think it’s important to take time to try and understand it.”

Advice for social media use

Both Cruz and McBride said there are extremely difficult periods of being so involved in social media as a career. Cruz said at times, she’s needed to step away from her computer or phone and take breaks from consuming or creating media.

McBride said being the target, although mostly an unintended one, of never-ending negativity, hate and outrage has a very real impact on someone’s mental health.

“It takes a toll being the one having to observe it day-in and day-out,” McBride said, adding that a lot of his colleagues at other universities have left the social media management field.

Cruz said she hopes media consumers recognize the “mute” and “unfollow” tools are often underused.

She would encourage people to be conscious about when they need a break from certain people on social media or online forums in general. That can either be logging off for a couple of hours or deleting media apps for a period of time, she said.

Hodson said some of the people she has very close relationships with are the most vocal and disruptive on her media feed. This is difficult to navigate, and she said there’s a real feeling that she can’t unfollow them because of her relationship with them.

To create a bit more balance on her media timelines, Hodson makes sure to follow Church leaders, uplifting health accounts and other positive influencers. This helps create a greater spectrum of content, she said.

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