Making Wise Choices Online: Navigating the Moral Web

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Image of a man holding a phone at a railway station

By Aidan Thompson, Director of Strategic Initiatives
The Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues, University of Birmingham

Last week, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby called for social media users to engage with ‘truth, kindness and welcome’ when interacting online. The focus on engaging with social media morally and positively, from a prominent religious and political figure in the UK, emphasises the need for something that goes beyond mere regulation online.

The undesirable aspects of social media, particularly those of fake news, trolling, and other negative interactions, are regularly highlighted in the mainstream media. A simple Google News search of ‘trolling’ brings up millions of news articles on the subject, often describing and depicting hate speech, online bullying and other objectionable behaviours. Such reports, though, have become so mainstream, regular, and ourselves so desensitised to such actions, that it is hard to be shocked by any longer. Indeed, the term ‘trolling’ has moved into the offline world, where acts are celebrated as humorous, playful, and harmless.

Whilst the two recent examples given are not particularly dramatic, fairly witty, and show a lighter side to competitive sport, the way that they are reported, shared on social media, and generated hateful replies and comments online demonstrates the difference between our actions online and offline. Indeed, with these particular cases, Alex Morgan was forced to defend her celebration in a post-match interview, such was the vitriol and anger that was generated on social media towards her, and Drake agreed to stop ‘trolling’ the Golden State Warriors, seemingly to prevent the rivalry between the Raptors and the Warriors from getting out of hand.

The matter of engaging with fellow social media users in kind and respectful ways could, then, be boiled down to the phrase ‘making wise choices online’. This is something that the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues has sought to explore through its focus on character education, via the concept of ‘cyber phronesis’ or ‘cyber wisdom’. The Centre’s Framework for character education roots itself in a neo-Aristotelian approach, centred on the development and habituation of phronesis, or practical wisdom.

Whilst the Framework does not differentiate between online and offline character, it is evident from the huge number of examples of negative actions online that people are capable of behaving in a manner that differs markedly from their actions offline. Thus, we, as individuals, appear to be able to show different ‘types’ of character, good and bad, when negotiating our lives online and offline. From a research perspective, this is interesting.

Research into the long term implications of using social media is still relatively non-existent, but the Jubilee Centre has sought to undertake its own data collection in an attempt to highlight the potential for both good and bad actions online. The 2017 collaboration with think-tank Demos led to the publication of The Moral Web, which reported contradictory findings that ‘social media creates opportunities for young people to display moral and civic virtues, and acts of courage that counter online abuse’, but ‘a quarter of 16-18 year-olds say they have engaged in cyberbullying or trolling on social networking sites’.

The current partnership between Demos and the Jubilee Centre seeks to extend this research by considering the ‘discussions’ on virtue held by UK users of Twitter. Using new mass data collection techniques, it is possible to sample millions of tweets that include the language of virtue and, using classification algorithms and machine learning, better understand what else people tweet about when they tweet about the virtues honesty, humility, empathy, and courage. The findings of this report will be published later this year, but it is hoped that they will uncover how users engage with the language of character and virtue online.

The initial datasets show that this is happening, on a wide scale, so it is important for researchers to better understand how that language is being used. The Centre’s approach to character development begins with ‘virtue literacy’, a comprehension of virtue terms, and an ability to apply them to one’s own life. Where this is readily being cultivated in schools across the country in the offline world, there is far more work needed to understand how to better develop our character online.

Calls such as that of Justin Welby are well-intentioned, but they need to be better supported by research that can articulate the impact of our actions online on our character and on those around us.

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