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Online ethics is crucial to living our values


  • Picture of Olga Ivannikova FRSA
    Olga Ivannikova FRSA
  • Behaviour change

While clicking ‘post’ is easy, getting positive social interactions online is not straightforward and requires a little thought. Olga Ivannikova FRSA believes that while there is no one easy solution to cancel-proof your reputation we can begin by considering online ethics. 

As RSA fellows we are united by our values. We demonstrate them in the work that we do and in the way that we serve our communities. Yet, if someone were to look at our last 10 Twitter posts or Insta comments, would they be able to identify our values?

More and more people form an opinion about others purely on the basis of their daily social media presence. As RSA Fellows, if our comments fall short of our values, problems may arise not just for our reputation, but also for that of the companies we represent, or even the Society itself.

I am focusing on ethics, rather than etiquette (or netiquette) because ethics is a study of how to do and say the right thing for yourself and others. The value of ethics is that it is not certain and removes the kind of arrogance of thinking ‘I know the absolute truth, and that’s it.’ Ethics is about more than just being polite and avoiding trouble; it involves considering what it means to be a good online citizen.

Empathy in every interaction

We often think that online ethics is for someone else. We are all nice! Yet, even within niceness, there is a debate to be had whether we communicate with compassion or empathy.

The main difference is that compassion is an emotion of ‘suffering with’ or ‘feeling with’ (as in Russian and Ancient Greek), while empathy is about action – actively listening being one of the most difficult actions of all. In 2016 Chris Voss the American businessman and academic defined empathy as an act of: “paying attention to another human being, making a commitment to understand their world”.

If in our interactions online, we all made a commitment to understand somebody’s point of view before judging them, together we would create a more inclusive and productive environment for everyone. I am a proponent of empathy in all interactions, rather than selective compassion as I believe that people want to be understood more than they want others to feel pity or sympathy for them.   

Courage to be an enabling optimist

While I would never encourage someone to be silent in the face of injustice, it can be wise to pick our battles. Some things do need calling out (for example, racism) but if you argue with people about a whole range of issues all the time, the risk is that when you do raise a serious point it might not get the attention it deserves.

Also, let us consider the reason why we post and be honest about this. Sometimes it is just to show off how clever and enlightened we are. While this is not a terrible thing on its own, posting to show how others are stupid is not very impressive. A better way to use social media to fight for social justice is to amplify the voices of others and be passionate and optimistic about change, rather than simply calling people out when they are wrong. As Dave Willis said “be an encourager, the world has plenty of critics already”. This is a great mantra for the age of social media.


We are living through a global pandemic and a recession. While we all need to hear good news and inspiring stories, let us be careful not to show off too much. We have all seen problematic posts that boast about how much someone has earned last month or suggest that if you have not written a book or failed to turbo-charge your business during lockdown, you didn’t lack time, you lacked discipline.

This kind of tone fails to consider the fact that everyone’s journey is different and shows a lack of awareness of current issues and zero empathy to the challenges faced by others.  Sharing success stories and positive news may be is important in this time but try to make them helpful to others by sharing the full journey, including the ups and downs, and lessons learnt.

As the British philosopher Bertrand Russell said: “Those who are to lead the world out of its troubles will need courage, hope and love”. I believe that these qualities can be learnt and taught and that we can never stop applying them whether off or online.

With this in mind, I am starting a new book club to discuss books on ethics, diversity and activism with the aim of enabling people to apply what we learn in our interactions online. You can find out more here. In the meantime, if you have any tips for living our values online, please do not hesitate to let me know.

Olga Ivannikova FRSA is the founder of  Private Goodness, a London-based corporate responsibility and online ethics company. She also manages a project called Networking Gone Wrong where people share social media networking mistakes and tips for building better relationships online.

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