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TikTok and destructive discourse

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The mom of three-turned-cooking blogger on my TikTok “For You” page (FYP) informs me that she has become an at-home master chef in the midst of quarantine. Are those crepes I see? I think about my diet of Trader Joe’s microwavable vegetarian lunches and grow self-conscious. Maybe more cooking, less “Love Island”? But wait! I, too, have picked up a quarantine hobby, even if many might consider it more of a cardinal sin: making TikToks. 

I started making TikToks solely to pass time in quarantine. At first, I mostly danced and lip-synched jokes to pre-saved sounds, but I have since branched out to content about Black Lives Matter, feminism and body positivity. With the growth of my account and my comfort discussing my opinions, I’ve also become the occasional target of insults based on my appearance and gender. I have seen these comments, as well as others containing judgements about me, grow into destructive dialogue, a conversation in which both parties’ goal is not to create a greater understanding. 

Most of us have, at some point, found ourselves embroiled in a potentially destructive conversation online. We want to advocate for our values in the most effective manner possible, but we also want to protect our personal wellbeing. If you care about an issue, it makes sense to want to disseminate information about that topic; the more people who share your view, as long as that view is grounded in knowledge and empathy, the higher the potential for positive change.

On a smaller scale, constructive conversation between two parties in disagreement often develops and complicates the perspective of each. Unfortunately, efforts to leverage online platforms to amass and mobilize public support can come with a cost. When a conversation becomes destructive, and the goal becomes to “win” rather than to grow an understanding, the attacks tend to shift from ideological to personal. One example is insults. Between the emotional reaction to personal attacks and the frustration associated with talking to someone who might not be interested in listening, destructive dialogue can damage personal wellbeing.

I’ve heard a lot of people discuss the most effective ways to argue on behalf of important issues, but not as many talk about how to protect ourselves in the process. Every conversation is not destined to yield completely constructive results. The question becomes, how we can strive towards that ideal while adapting to reality of the destructive nature of much internet dialogue? There is no simple answer, but I do have three tips grounded in my experiences on TikTok. 

1. Assume the other party has good intentions. 

I found success with this strategy in response to a user who accused me of “reverse racism” for my preference for non-white candidates in upcoming election cycles. This user has since deleted his comment, but I replied with something along the lines of, “Hi! I see where you’re coming from, but actually reverse racism is impossible due to systems of power. If you want to learn more about the difference between occasional prejudice and systemic racism, check out ‘Myth of Reverse Racism’ from the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre!” 

Beyond the informative content of my response, I tried to reposition the interaction as a friendly conversation and acknowledged their point of view. I find that assuming good will in this way yields two main benefits. First, had I misjudged the situation, I would have avoided being the one to derail the conversation from something potentially constructive to destructive. Second, because I remained focused on my goal of holding a productive conversation, other viewers were more likely to think about my response. 

2. Know when to step in.

A few weeks ago, I came across a post on my FYP in which a girl followed a trend of “showing off” her #1 best friend on Snapchat. The best friend in question was a D1 football player, and the post had around 200k likes. I swiped to the comment section, expecting to find comments praising the boy’s looks or asking what school she attended.

Instead, I was met with hundreds upon hundreds of hand and paint emojis, posted by mostly anonymous TikTok users who had likely come across the post on their own FYPs. These icons referenced a trend of sexual assault survivors coming forward about their experiences without naming their accusers, by simply making handprints on their bodies with paint as a symbolic act of regaining bodily autonomy — and posting the imagery on TIkTok. Comments under this seemingly unrelated post, such as, “when he leaves her on read *hand emoji* *paint emoji* *hand emoji*” implied that this girl would later falsely claim that she had been sexually assaulted if the friend rejected her. Comments like these mocked and vilified women who choose to open up about their sexual assault on platforms like TikTok.

Concerned and alarmed, I thought about telling these people that they had no right to joke about sexual assault or to belittle survivors. But I was apprehensive because of previous comments I had received, such as, “The ‘L’ in girl stands for laundry. Now go.” While that particular comment was responding to a completely unrelated, apolitical post of mine, it nonetheless made me wary of the potential repercussions for voicing my opinions around gender-related issues in a toxic environment.

With this in mind, I made a judgement call about my audience based on the fact that the aforementioned comment about sexual assault survivors boasted 10k likes. I ultimately decided that, in this particular case, the effort and personal risk, which could  include a multitude of comments on that post and even on my own page attacking my appearance, personality and intelligence, outweighed any potential benefits. 

3. Know when to step out.

Most of my brushes with online trolls have been one-offs. However, one anonymous user, after getting annoyed at my word choice on one post, decided to comment on three other posts at different times. They said that I should have listened up when a boy verbally degraded me during my first kiss, that I should keep my shirt on because no one would ever want to see it off and that I wasn’t funny because I’m a woman. I responded politely to the initial comment in order to clarify my intent and responded slightly sarcastically to the second. However, after the third comment, it became clear that this user would continue to provoke me as long as I let them. So instead, I blocked them. Then I prepared a bowl of blueberry oatmeal. Mmm — the sweet, sweet taste of personal boundaries. 

Now, more than ever, knowing how to engage in potentially destructive discourse in a manner that both optimizes educational opportunities and protects long-term personal wellbeing is a critical skill. I think TikTok, a platform overrun with young, anonymous users, has something unique to teach us about conversation in today’s virtual landscape. Hopefully this is something to consider next time you renegade. 

Contact Katie Reveno at kreveno ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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