Taking the high road

5 ways to respond to negative comments on social media

If we know that those reading and creating social media content have negativity bias, then it is no wonder that criticism sometimes occurs.

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It’s hard to remember the world without social media. This innovative tool meant to help you keep in contact with family and friends has evolved into many other uses that we depend on daily. Many industries have become dependent on using social media platforms. 

For example, social media has become one of the main sources of marketing for businesses. Another use case is the news industry, which is now largely delivered to the public over social media apps, often in real time, which enables consumers to watch and comment on the news stories with others. So, it is no surprise that the medical industry has also evolved to communicate online as well.

Coming across negative comments

Social media connects our thoughts – that means that we can get feedback from those who consume our content, and sometimes that feedback is negative. How can you deal with this negative feedback? 

There is no one clear “right” way. It really depends on your personal style and desired outcome. No matter what you choose to do, it is important to recognize that receiving negative feedback is normal and expected. Psychologists state that our brains are wired for negativity to protect ourselves from any situation that may be perceived as harmful. If we know that those reading and creating social media content have negativity bias, then it is no wonder that criticism sometimes occurs.

Not all negative comments received on social media are necessarily “bad.” Constructive criticism can be meant to improve communication skills or knowledge about a subject matter. Social media communication is different than conversations happening in real time, where tone and context can be taken into consideration. It is normal to become defensive and possibly miss an opportunity to learn from an unintended mistake.

Reacting with an impact

Although singer and songwriter Lizzo is not a physician, I want to highlight how she reacted to feedback to her new song titled “Grrrls,” which had an ableist slur in its initial recording. A lyric in her new song included a term that was hurtful for many patients with cerebral palsy and other movement disorders and many brought this to her attention publicly.

Lizzo took to social media and stated that she was unaware of the harmful use of the term and that she is committed to inclusivity; although unintentional, she understood the impact she had on people with disabilities. She then re-recorded her song, changed the lyric and released the song again within a few days. This example highlights the importance of objectively analyzing feedback and realizing that intent doesn’t always match impact.

Complaints, trolling, online harassments, cyberstalking and defamation are commonly feared interactions that health care professionals have about being online. I will always advocate for safety as the priority; if anyone is stalking or threatening you online, please involve your local police, hire a lawyer and report their comments to the platform, as they may go against community guidelines. 

Often the most uncomfortable feedback comes in the form of a complaint or disagreement in your comment section. The first decision you need to make after objectively analyzing the feedback is whether you want to respond. Basketball superstar Lebron James says he does not read any comments (good or bad) on his social media. He terms comments as “noise,” and that he posts from a place of passion without worrying on how many likes, follows or comments he gets. He describes that this method allows him to show up authentically without the influence of any reactions. Although this isn’t possible for every social media user, it’s important to take frequent breaks from focusing in on the backlash if it’s something you often come across.

Choosing a careful response

While you can choose to not react to any comments, how does one respond if they choose to? Below are five strategies you can take into consideration; you should respond in the manner you find the most respectful and the best for you.

1. Acknowledge the commenter’s concern

Often those commenting on social media want to be seen and heard just as much as the content creators. Many people are suffering, and that pain can fuel actions of taking it to social media posts. As physicians, we are trained to solve problems and sometimes there are no solutions for the problem the commenter has made. However, we can acknowledge someone’s experience, thoughts and feelings without compromising our own points or diminishing theirs.

An example of this is interacting with a commenter who has had a bad experience in health care or lost a family member due to a preventable disease. Often this can be diffused by acknowledging their loss, trauma, anger and/or sadness.

2. Humor does have its perks, but empathy will always win

Sometimes laughter is the best medicine; I am not suggesting to laugh at commenters and definitely not to make fun of patients or illnesses, but if you post light-hearted content or have a great sense of humor, this tool can come in handy. Critics online often use bullying tactics that target your character, looks, profession or lifestyle. An example of this is Dr. Dustin Portela’s response on his TikTok account to a commenter who wrote, “So did you become a dermatologist because you couldn’t get into a real medical school?” His witty response outlines his path to becoming an osteopathic board-certified dermatologist, which mocks just how “easy” it was. 

Although this post was a bit cheeky, if you read the comments there is a lot of empathy from other physicians who also often encounter those who don’t understand their path or experience. Dr. Portela was able to show empathy to the entire health care workforce and his response wasn’t insulting toward anyone.

3. Show them the data

As physicians, we are trained in evidence-based solutions, so it is no wonder that copying and pasting articles and studies may be a comfortable way of having discussions online. This tactic is helpful if the commenter wants the data, can analyze the data and is likely to read the study you are directing them to with respect.

Even if the negative commenter does not care for the data you are sharing, it can serve to educate others reading who may not be commenting or engaged in the discussion. With the rise of misinformation online, physicians can put forth data to back up their stance for those trying to seek evidence-based information.

4. Discuss the issue privately

This may be the option content creators use if you represent a business or offer a product or service. Brands and creators that do this will often reply to the negative comment publicly stating their interest in discussing the issue with them directly and inviting them to a private message, call or email. This makes them feel heard, while showing your genuine interest in working out the potential issue.

Presenting yourself as a leader willing to host difficult conversations may resolve the issue and stop the negative commentor. It will also show others that you are willing to engage and are confident in doing so even without an audience. 

5. Apologize

You are bound to make mistakes. This is the nature of communication: We are all constantly learning and evolving. A genuine, concise apology focusing on your impact rather than your intent is recommended. Doing this timely coupled with a change of behavior to not repeat that mistake in the future not only shows that you lead with honesty and integrity, but you can also be an example to others of how to “fail forward” with grace and compassion.  

Experiencing a mistake on social media can feel big because of the public nature of social platforms. However, mistakes are normal, and apologizing is a sign of maturity and growth. Once you have apologized, move forward and do not let this deter you from posting again in the future.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

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