Social Media and the Decline of Civility

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Social Media and the Decline of Civility

ICYMI1 I’m on twitter (@UALawGrad) and, as far as it goes, I’m intermittently active. As you will read elsewhere, social media is a wild and widely unregulated arena rife with defamation (Vickers, infra; Burnett, infra). As far as a repository for the marketplace of ideas upon which free speech, a foundation of democracy, is built: social media is also rife with fake news and gross incivility; hardly a recipe for successful dialogue. We have seen the effect of social media on election campaigning and, arguably, elections. The uncivil discourse on social media means discussion and debate essentially devolves to childish arguing. Just as I worry about the effect of fake news on election outcomes, I worry about the effect of incivility in social media on election campaigns. We are not engaging in constructive dialogue when we are being uncivil to each other. We are not contributing to the marketplace of ideas when we’re simply shouting at each other.

Incivility and civility in social media are increasingly frequently being studied. Teachers in British Columbia are being taught on Social Media Wellness: Helping Teens and Tweens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World. Civil interactions have been found to increase users’ experiences. (Antoci, Bonelli, Paglieri & Reggiani, “Civility and Trust in Social Media,” Journal of Economic Behaviour & Organization 160:83-99 January 2019). It seems like civility on social media increases happiness with social media, which seems intuitive. It’s a good reminder that civility generally contributes to happiness and wellness.

I believe part of the reason for incivility on social media is the pure anonymity of it. You do not need to identify yourself on many social media platforms. Twitter users can be, and often are, completely anonymous. And if you’re anonymous, there’s no accountability for incivility. However, I fear incivility on social media, and the lack of accountability for incivility on social media, may empower some to be increasingly uncivil in the real world.

As lawyers, we have certain professional obligations, including basic obligations to be courteous and civil to the court, to our clients, to adverse litigants, to witnesses, and to each other. Much has been written and discussed about the tension between this duty and the duty to zealously advocate for our client (see Groia v. Law Society of Upper Canada 2018 SCC 27). However, we all know we have a positive duty to be courteous and civil to each other in our day-to-day communications. Does the duty to be courteous and civil to each other require us to be courteous and civil in our social media interactions, particularly if it is a named professional account?

Missing in this discussion, though, is civility within our own workplaces. In this context, at least, civility can include a conscious awareness of the effect of one’s thoughts, actions, words and intentions on others. It can also include a consistent effort to adopt and exhibit civil behaviour.2

I heard an interesting presentation at the July Benchers’ meeting about the business case for civility. Dr. Lew Bayer presented her argument that organizations who implemented civility programs saw an increase in profit and an increase in staff retention and engagement. Dr. Bayer posited there are four core competencies necessary to establish a culture of civility: social intelligence, system thinking, cultural competence and continuous learning.

Last issue I wrote about the importance of young lawyers getting connected. We also know civility in the workplace increases retention generally. There is no reason to believe that wouldn’t be true of lawyers generally, including young lawyers. If followed, more civility at the Bar and in the courtroom would increase retention of young lawyers.

  1. ICYMI is a text message/social media abbreviation for “In case you missed it” because there are character limits. |
  2. This definition is adopted from |

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