I noticed an alarming spike this week in disinformation communicated on social media. It’s not a new thing and over the years it’s been perpetrated by total strangers, people I know tangentially, and even occasionally by people I know very well and love. When I’ve been able to ask why, the reason is usually something about just impulsively sharing something they had an emotional reaction to without really thinking it through. It’s very easy to do these days with a quick click of a button.
Just as words (and memes) can be inspiring, healing and unifying, they can also be cruel and divisive. A genuine heartfelt apology can begin to soothe a lifetime of hurt while a falsehood can sow unnecessary doubt, take us off course, and even destroy relationships, lives and livelihoods.
Though legally a distinction is made between speech and action, when we speak we are in some way acting on our thoughts and feelings. If we’re clear on the intention behind what we’re about to communicate, this can help us choose our words more wisely. I believe most of us have good intentions. We genuinely wish health and happiness for ourselves and others and we don’t deliberately intend for our words to cause harm. Mindfully checking in on our intentions before sharing can help us connect our actions with our values.
In the ancient tradition that undergirds the modern practices and attitudes of mindfulness, there is the concept of “right speech” that provides guidelines for skillful communication. Simply stated, it recommends abstaining from:
- lying – we do our best to speak the truth as we understand it
- divisive and abusive speech – we endeavor to speak kindly and beneficently with intentions of good will and the promotion of unity
- idle chatter – we conserve our speech to things that are timely, purposeful, and constructive
It’s so very easy to fire off an impulsive and dubious communication on social media, but it takes a lot more work to undo the damage caused by it. Brandolini’s Law states, “The amount of energy needed to refute bull$#!+ is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.” There’s a lot of nonsense proliferated out there and not many can or are willing to take the time to refute it. Plus, those who do take the time to help debunk the mountain of disinformation won’t win any popularity contests, even when done respectfully.
Some people have averred they should be able to fire off whatever post or tweet they want, whenever they like, because it’s their “freedom of speech”. But, freedom without responsibility is risky. Anybody who has been or has raised a teenager understands this. An example of the damage that can be done is a recent documentary trailer violating COVID-19 misinformation policies that was viewed over a million times before social media platforms could shut it down. Everyone who shared it potentially contributed to unnecessary harm to others by spreading falsehoods during a public health emergency.
The Brookings Institute lists 4 steps for stopping the spread of disinformation online for which I’ve added an accompanying mindful practice or attitude:
- Realize that the algorithm of your social media feed may be biased (adopt a beginner’s mind)
- Retrain your newsfeed to offer you differing viewpoints (step out of autopilot)
- Be a wise consumer of information – consider the source (practice discriminating wisdom)
- Decide not to share sometimes (let go and let be)
We all make mistakes and sometimes, despite our best intentions and efforts, our communication goes awry. It takes guts to admit when we’ve made a mistake rather than indulging the urge to save face. It takes integrity to question ideas that seem to support a favored worldview, being willing to consider the facts despite strong emotions that may be pulling us in another direction. A dedicated mindfulness practice can empower us to choose where we place our attention rather than being automatically hijacked by feelings and urges. Mindfulness makes space to connect our communications with our highest values, preventing unnecessary harm to ourselves and others.
The Integrity of mindfulness requires we be of benefit to our collective humanness, not simply to our personal being…
- Integrity is doing the wise and compassionate action when no one agrees with us
- Integrity is walking our highest path, even if it is painful and arduous and long
- Integrity is acting on behalf of others when we do not have to because we have some benefit, privilege, power, or entitlement that protects us
- Integrity is standing actively, and not by standing “in solidarity”, with those whose voices and abilities have less volume or impact than yours
- Integrity is being kind when everyone and everything around you is not kind
- Integrity is loving when you do not feel loved yourself
- Integrity is having ethics in unethical and amoral times – having a moral compass when others around you do not have a clue to what that means and/or disparage the very intentions of ethical behavior
- Integrity is placing a higher value on the greater good of all, rather than the gain of an individual or selected individual groups
- Integrity is holding to these principles, even when there are an infinite number of distractions, seductions, and judgments that seek to weaken and obliterate those principles
In sum, integrity provides the vision, the aspiration, and the guide to any actions of mindfulness and kindness.
– Larry Yang, Awakening Together