The internet became public in 1993, which led to social media few years later. Beginning with group emails, social media soon evolved into various platforms including, but not limited to, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tic Tok. 

These platforms enable people to communicate their thoughts and feelings to friends and family, as well as people they have never met in person, on just about any topic whatsoever. Many, myself included, believed this was a great communication breakthrough. 

I was wrong. 

It did not take long to see the internet’s dark side. Many social media conversations start innocently enough from important topics to the trivial. Some topics or conversations soon degenerate into heated name-calling and back-and-forth arguments called “flame wars.” 

But is this anything new?  These situations often remind me of the proverbial holiday family dinner. 

Everyone sits down to dinner and before long a discussion – about politics, religion, sports, or whatever – turns into a heated argument or worse. Some family members sit quietly, wishing it would all go away. The host might in desperation say something like, “Can’t we all get along?” 

Social media can seem like one big virtual holiday dinner minus the food. The hosts (moderators) do their best to be even-handed in their attempts to control runaway online flame wars. There are the ubiquitous rules of online “netiquette” and being respectful of each other even as their own biases perhaps creep in making things worse.

So how do we explain this behavior? Many experts claim that the online or virtual environment, where there is no or little face-to-face contact, is the culprit. There is a false sense of familiarity as well as anonymity that gives people license to say things that we would not usually say face to face. 

However, how do we explain the holiday dinner scenarios and similar in-person encounters? Most of us have forgotten, or perhaps never learned, the art of civil debate. There are debating clubs in high schools and colleges but not everyone joins the debating team. Too many of us learn “civil discourse” from the media and so-called “reality TV,” where insulting comments get ratings. Think “Survivor,” “Big Brother,” “The Apprentice” and the like.

For generations, we have watched political debates on TV, but they are anything but debates. The moderator asks a question and the candidate, more often than not, does not answer the question but gives a prepared response that oftentimes disparages their opponent personally. 

So how can we have civil discussions when we do not always agree?

A good rule proposed by Carl Sagan, a noted scientist and philosopher, suggests that we should try not to get overly attached to an idea or belief just because it’s ours. That’s easier said than done! Too often the slightest criticism of our ideas or beliefs is taken as a personal attack. Once we feel attacked, whether real or imagined, there is almost a knee-jerk to reciprocate. 

As with most wars, once started difficult to stop. There is no easy solution. But perhaps hitting pause or delay before we respond may be a start. 

John Riolo of Moss Creek teaches graduate research online at Walden University.