The first of these is to live by the golden rule of acting with empathy, compassion and kindness in every interaction. This rule encourages people to think about how they like to be treated and to treat others with the same dignity and respect they themselves would hope to receive.
The next ideal talks about the importance of respecting differences. Whether cultural, political or pertaining to aspects of a person’s identity, thoughtful disagreement can be healthy, but resorting to personalized hostilities is not. If someone puts forward a view you disagree with, try to find a way to offer an alternative perspective without dismissing theirs.
The third ideal addresses something many of us have seen online. One minute, two people are disagreeing, and the next, harsh words are exchanged and the situation deteriorates. But it needn’t be like that. When the conversation starts to become heated, pausing before responding can prevent things getting out of hand.
The fourth ideal reminds people of the need to take action if someone they’re engaging with online makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe. That often means telling someone about it. This is a particularly important message for parents, teachers and caregivers to exemplify in their own interactions and pass on to young people in their care.
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The Council for Digital Good
Focusing on these areas to increase digital civility is an important first step. But there is also a broader need to better understand online attitudes and pressures, and to learn about and consider alternative approaches.
In 2017, Microsoft created the inaugural Council for Digital Good, a pilot program that brought together 15 teenagers from across the U.S. to work with Microsoft on how best to encourage constructive behaviors online. In particular, that meant focusing on how to understand, recognize and reduce digital risks while simultaneously promoting safer, healthier and more respectful online interactions.
The window for applications to join the next council closes on March 1, after which a second cohort of young people from diverse backgrounds from across the U.S. will take part in 18-month program of activities. It will culminate in a public forum in Fall 2022, travel conditions permitting.
During the inaugural meeting of the 2017 council, members highligted some of the challenges they faced and together identified a number of concerns, many of which are still relevant today.
Social platforms are crafted to encourage as much participation and engagement as possible. That can lead some people to continually share – or overshare in some cases – personal information. That may even result in feelings akin to addiction as individuals seek reassurance and validation via social media likes and shares.
Council members also raised the fact that this same desire for approval could lead to people creating online personas that weren’t true to themselves. That lack of authenticity could result in people being unable to be honest and open about their feelings.
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Jacob Sedesse, from Florida, was part of that first council. In the January 2021 Microsoft blog post that announced the launch of the second council, he said: “I was so honored and grateful that my voice was taken into consideration and that my early internet experiences, good and bad, meant something.”
Encouraging people to adopt better standards of online behavior is not something that can be left to legislators and regulators alone. In addition to the important role of public policy, especially in relation to hate speech, threats and misinformation, everyone needs to take responsibility for their actions and be accountable.
It falls to each individual on the internet to think about the kinds of engagement that are positive and beneficial so that, together, more digital good is added into the virtual world.
For more on how Microsoft works to help find solutions to issues like these, visit Microsoft On the Issues. And follow @MSFTIssues on Twitter and LinkedIn.