The internet is public, which means anything that is shared online should be considered to be in the public domain and can potentially remain visible for the rest of our lives. Whilst social media has tremendous power to do good, the problems it can cause are well documented. Addiction, suspicion, argumentation and being a general ground for fitnah - social discord - means we should be on our guard against contributing to it in a negative way. However, by following the guidelines below and maintaining good conduct, we can become a source of light and, in-sha-Allah, inspire others to do likewise.
1. What is your intention?
The first question we should ask ourselves before beginning any and every task. Your intention defines your goal and course of action. As Imam al-Haddad (rh) said ‘Intentions are the basis of deeds and according to them your deeds will either be good or ugly, sound or unsound’. With this in mind, even a post or tweet can become an act that earns Allah’s reward or His anger.
Are you trying to inform and educate, or trying to cause shock and anger? Are you trying to draw attention to yourself and, quite simply, show off to others? Our minds can play tricks on us and even fall into delusion. Whilst we can consciously lie to others as to what our intention is, we can also fall into the more dangerous delusion of lying to ourselves. No matter what we say to others and ourselves, it’s impossible to lie to Allah as He knows our true intention in detail.
2. Is your post Islamically sound?
'So ask those who possess knowledge if you do not know.' [The Noble Qur’an 16:43]
As well as adhering to basic Islamic social etiquettes, such as not using foul language, not mocking others, not lying or backbiting, is your post acceptable within the Sharia? As in, are you about to say something that could contravene the commonly accepted opinions of Islamic law? This means, in the first instance, knowing what the correct ruling on a matter is and falls in line with point 4 - is what you’re about to say true and accurate from an Islamic perspective? If your opinion is less common, are you prepared to defend it if challenged? If the opinion is a heterodox one, what are the ramifications of sharing it?
3. Is it your business?
The Prophet (saw) said ‘Part of the perfection of one’s Islam is his leaving that which does not concern him’. [Tirmidhi]
Assess how much this issue concerns you personally and avoid commenting on matters which you know very little about. This includes guessing people’s intentions, peering into someone’s private life or trying to expose a fault. In a world of instantaneous mass media, it’s extremely easy to receive news about an event on the other side of the world, or even in the same city we live in. This is when knowing when something is your business or not becomes valuable. If that matter does not affect you personally, that’s a good sign you should leave it.
And no, the sheer fact it made you angry or shocked does not make it your business, but if you make it your business, then you will become accountable for it. Meaning, what was the part you played in solving or adding to the issue?
4. Is it true?
'Do not follow whatever you have no knowledge about; indeed, hearing, sight and the heart—all of these you will be questioned about'. [The Noble Qur’an 17:36]
Has your post been fact-checked from a reliable source or are you just making the assumption that it is accurate? Sharing fake news and misconceptions only confuses and misguides others. It dilutes and sabotages the point you’re trying to make, as well as damages your reputation. Someone who continually shares misinformation will quickly lose the trust of his followers. Don’t be that person.
'Believers, if a troublemaker brings you news, check it first, in case you wrong others unwittingly and later regret what you have done' [The Noble Qur’an 49:6]. If a person or news source has built a reputation of sensationalism, exaggeration or simply misrepresenting the truth, extends the harm caused beyond the original post. Break the chain, check and double-check before you post.
And remember, Google is free.
5. It is beneficial?
‘Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should speak a good word or remain silent’. [Al-Bukhari]
So you’ve checked your intention is correct, confirmed that it’s your business and double-checked the facts, but is there a benefit? Is your opinion on a matter going to change the situation or highlight a key point everyone has missed? Does the world really need to know what you had for breakfast? If what you want to say does not have a benefit then it’s most likely just a waste of time that others could do without. This takes us back to point 1 - are you posting for your benefit or for the benefit of others?
6. Who is the original author?
Copy and pasting other people’s words and images without attributing it to the original author is unethical and something none of us would like done to us. By quoting recognised academics or studies, you support the point you’re trying to make and increase your own credibility.
7. To cancel or not to cancel?
‘Do not go out and search for the fault of others’. [Sunan al-Dawood]
Cancel culture has become an unfortunate norm. Any and every crime is exposed, discussed and judgement passed in the court of social media, leading to the cancelling of the accused. Whilst there is benefit in warning others in a general sense of potential dangers in society, naming names often turns into a witch hunt and smear campaign. Serious crimes should be reported and dealt with by the authorities and we should avoid looking for the wrongdoings of others. Do you have all of the facts? Have you approached the person in question for clarification? Have you given them the benefit of the doubt? Have they been tried and found guilty in a fair trial? If you just latch on to the latest online lynching yet haven’t taken the steps to check or clarify the facts, you could become guilty of the sin of slander.
If you are going to cancel people online, then know that you are also obligated to avoid dissimulation in your offline life. What does this mean in practice? Remaining silent against the crimes or wrongdoings of someone who you gain benefit from, such as an employer. This is in itself a crime. It’s easy to see that you have an obligation to speak against wrongdoing in your personal, offline life, and have no obligation to do so online when it involves people you’ve never met or know personally, especially if their wrongdoing was done in private and out of the public space.
8. Will it cause harm if it is said?
‘When you received it with your tongues and said with your mouths that of which you had no knowledge and thought it was insignificant while it was, in the sight of Allah, tremendous’. [The Noble Qur’an, 24:15]
How many times have we said something that we think is insignificant but with Allah it is something major? Unless we’re careful, it becomes far more likely that we’ll say something that will harm us in this life and the next. Mocking, insulting and backbiting others have almost become online spectator sports, but there is absolutely no excuse for someone to do so. Freedom of speech does not include the freedom to offend, which we can conclude based on the Islamic principle of protecting a person’s honour.
The Prophet (saw) said 'Do not harm yourself or others' [al-Muwatta]. Harming others opens the door to the reciprocation of harm, whether in this life or the next.
9. Is this a true representation of your opinion?
Or are you just following the crowd? It’s very easy to fall into mob-like behaviour and just repeat the opinion of others because we don’t want to appear strange. Alternatively, some people go out of their way to say outlandish things just so they can rock the boat and get a reaction. Before you post, check that you truly believe what you’re about to say and try to make a judgement call on the implications. Are you really ready to stand and defend your opinion if it is attacked or questioned?