Think Before You Share

The internet is all about sharing – sharing news, sharing videos, sharing our thoughts and opinions with our friends.

The fundamental element that makes the internet different from other kinds of media that came before is the hyperlink, which can take you – or someone else you share a link with – to almost any kind of content imaginable. While this can sometimes be abused[1], for the most part we enjoy sharing content and sharing it with others; this is almost certainly a large part of the appeal of social networks, which handle the technical aspects of sharing and make it possible for all of us to become broadcasters of content. While most of us share primarily with our friends and families, there's no way to predict when what we're broadcasting may reach a much larger audience, as when Sohaib Athar found himself unintentionally live-tweeting the death of Osama bin Laden.[2] While what we share may sometimes provide news outlets with accurate information they wouldn't otherwise have, as in that case, they may pick up unverified or false information as well, resulting in its spreading much more widely.[3]

Social media doesn't only make sharing easier, but actively encourages it as well. This is partly because of the nature of human relationships and communities: as social animals, we respond strongly to other people's approval and disapproval, and sharing content is a good way to do either. This is most likely why posts that are morally or emotionally charged spread more widely on social media[4]: strong emotions evoke strong reactions. As Molly Crockett, a professor of psychology at Yale University, puts it, “if you punish somebody for violating a norm, that makes you seem more trustworthy to others, so you can broadcast your moral character by expressing outrage and punishing social norm violations... people believe that they are spreading good by expressing outrage – that it comes from a place of morality and righteousness."[5]

There's more at work than just human nature, though. Since social networks rely on their users to provide content for other users to consume, they are designed to keep us sharing through features such as Likes, comments, retweets and so on. As a result, Crockett says, these networks can become "an ecosystem that selects for the most outrageous content... where it’s easier than ever before to express outrage.”[6] This is exacerbated by the fact that social networks make it possible to communicate only with people who share our views, which can result in those views gradually becoming more and more extreme and in our becoming more and more resistant to other opinions – and more likely to share false or unreliable information.[7] At the same time, these self-selected networks can also function as "echo chambers" by preventing the message we share from reaching people who don't already agree with them, thereby limiting their value as a way of protesting or changing social values.[8]

Just as news organizations have a responsibility to check the accuracy of what they report – and to publish a correction when they're wrong – when we share content on social media we have a duty to be responsible broadcasters of information. As well as the tips and tactics provided in the other articles in this section for verifying different kinds of content that you might share, Alan Jacobs, author of the book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, suggests four habits to follow for responsible online sharing[9]:

  1. Wait five minutes before sharing something: As noted above, social networks are designed not only to make sharing as easy as possible but to encourage you to share: one study found that it only takes most people six seconds to decide whether or not to retweet something.[10] Making a conscious habit of waiting a few minutes can give you a chance to decide if it's really worth sharing with everyone you know. As well, you can use that time to gauge how you're feeling, and your motives for sharing it: we're more likely to be intentionally provocative – in other words, to be a troll – when we're in a bad mood.[11]
  2. Accentuate the positive. While sometimes it is important to share protest and criticism, in general it's more useful to share positive content. That doesn't mean taking a Pollyanna approach and only sharing anodyne feel-good stories, but rather choosing things that communicate your own values and ideals rather than attacking someone else's.
  3. Don't look at interactions in terms of winning and losing. It's easy to treat every conversation as a debate, especially if it's about an issue you feel strongly about. As we'll see later in this section, though, it's very difficult to actually change someone's mind through argument. Think of sharing as being just that – sharing your thoughts and values with other people, rather than winning a debate.
  4. Practice empathy. When you're sharing with people who disagree with you, try to imagine how things look from their point of view. Make a point of remembering times that you've been wrong: at the very least, it'll help you strengthen your own position.

[1] Astley, R. (2009, October 24). Never Gonna Give You Up [video file]. Retrieved from
[2] Shedden, D. (2017, March 02). Today in Media History: In 2011, Twitter broke the news of Osama bin Laden's death. Retrieved April 05, 2018, from
[3]  Zubiaga, A., Liakata, M., Procter, R., Hoi, G. W., & Tolmie, P. (2016). Analysing How People Orient to and Spread Rumours in Social Media by Looking at Conversational Threads. Plos One, 11(3). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0150989
[4] Brady, W. J., Wills, J. A., Jost, J. T., Tucker, J. A., & Bavel, J. J. (2017). Emotion shapes the diffusion of moralized content in social networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(28), 7313-7318. doi:10.1073/pnas.1618923114
[5] Vince, G. (2018, April 2). Why Good People Turn Bad Online. Retrieved April 05, 2018, from
[6] Vince, G. (2018, April 2). Why Good People Turn Bad Online. Retrieved April 05, 2018, from
[7] Del Vicario, M., et al. (2017) The spreading of misinformation online. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(3):554–559.
[8] Crockett, M. J. (2017). Moral outrage in the digital age. Nature Human Behaviour, 1(11), 769-771. doi:10.1038/s41562-017-0213-3
[9] We need a survival guide for thinking because we're bad at it. CBC Radio. (December 31, 2017). Retrieved April 05, 2018, from
[10] Modeling Cognitive Response to Wireless Emergency Alerts to Inform Emergency Response Interventions: FInal Report (Rep.). (2016). Richland, WA: Pacific Northwest National Library.
[11] Vince, G. (2018, April 2). Why Good People Turn Bad Online. Retrieved April 05, 2018, from