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Don’t normalise the abuse of organisations on social media — it impacts the person behind the screen

A colleague once told me “You must have a really fun job”. Working in social media roles, I’ve been able to flex my creative muscles, collaborate with fascinating people and connect with audiences on a different level. In that aspect, she’s right.

One aspect of social media work that people may not consider is mental health. What was once consumers sending strongly worded emails has transformed into social media users spouting abuse, demanding their vitriolic voices be heard and even sending death threats.

A study from UC San Diego and Yale found that “the use of Facebook was negatively associated with well-being”. Those who used Facebook in a variety of ways, such as posting a status, reported a decrease in their self-reported mental health. For many people, this would present the opportunity to take a break from social media, to find solace in offline activities. When your job involves social media, this becomes significantly more difficult.

There are ways to manage your wellbeing in a job such as mine. Taking a break from your devices to go for a walk, focusing on offline work or engaging with colleagues provide a necessary diversion. I’m fortunate to have worked for organisations who care about my mental health, and to work with many people who support me. Ultimately though, I still need to return to my computer and respond to harsh messages on social media. This is a common occurrence for social media employees — all the measures in the world can be put in place to support us, but it doesn’t stop the negativity coming from the other side of the screen.

One possibility is that people (unknowingly) do not always practice what they preach. With mental health issues getting wider coverage in the media, we’re more aware than ever of why we should look after ourselves. We sometimes forget that the things we do can hurt others, and we struggle to maintain our support outside of designated mental health days. It’s not always intentional; it’s simply human.

Some individuals, however, use social media to intentionally hurt others. They may have been inconvenienced by a business, and their response is irrational and uncontrolled. They will take to Twitter, caps lock at the ready, and make sure everybody (or at least their 10 followers) knows how angry they are. For some people, it’s their sole use of social media.

One thing we need to separate is holding organisations accountable on social media versus abusing an organisation. When Pepsi launched their infamous “Live for Now” ad featuring Kendall Jenner, criticism quickly mounted. The company was accused of profiting from the Black Lives Matter movement and white-washing iconic imagery such as Taking a Stand in Baton Rouge. As with any significant occurrence, people on Twitter reacted in a variety of ways. Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr, tweeted “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi”. Meanwhile, users poked fun at going to jail for not having a can of Pepsi, highlighted the focus on white people in the ad, and even parodied the well-known Tank Man photo. There is absolutely no doubt that Pepsi was rightly held accountable for their actions.

In other instances, abuse of organisations on social media does not highlight mistreatment. Instead, it ignores the initial point in favour of damaging another person to make one’s self feel better. When you hold an organisation accountable, you use a level of transparency to highlight an error or poor judgement. Social media abuse misuses this transparency and nullifies the initial point. That isn’t to say anger is unjustified — it’s a natural emotion when you’ve been wronged — but it’s how you proceed that matters.

One common misconception is that when a negative message is sent to an organisation on social media, the person or team referred to will immediately see the message. In truth, the message will first go to an organisation’s social media team, then will go to a complaints department (or similar), then may go to the people in question. For some companies (especially large ones), the person referenced in the complaint will not even see the message. This means the social media team bears the brunt of the negativity.

I’ve worked in both retail and social media. These two jobs seem far removed from each other, but the similarities are there. Both have a large customer service aspect. Both require being able to answer a wide range of questions, both common and niche. One of the biggest similarities is that both experience abuse for things they have no control over. A retail assistant does not set the prices, nor do they manage the company’s many policies, yet customers will see it fit to scream in their faces and demean them. Similarly, social media employees will witness abuse for an organisation’s every action, whether it was done by the CEO or a minimum-wage worker.

How can we tackle this level of abuse? Many organisations have wellbeing support in place for their employees, which is a good start. If this can be tailored to consider social media abuse, we can build a deeper understanding of modern world perils. I have colleagues who recognise these issues, and they know how not to contribute to these problems. Unfortunately, not everyone has this level of camaraderie, and so this must be developed across all businesses.

To risk sounding saccharine, the best way to tackle this is to just be nicer to each other. Consider the person behind the screen before you send an abusive message. Ask yourself “Is this the best way to get my point across?”. From a social media employee’s perspective, you’re more likely to get better customer service by being polite. Leading with abuse not only makes it more difficult to help you, it negatively affects the employee reading your messages.

People who work in social media need a thick skin — that’s undeniable. What we need to reconsider is how we use social media to tackle our problems, and whether the culture of negativity we’ve developed is practical.

This article was originally published on Medium.

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