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4 easy ways to set positive standards in your online world

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Whether we’re taking an online class, catching up with friends, reading the news, checking our favorite Reddit thread, or watching videos of baby pandas sneezing, we all spend a lot of time online. Our online communities are full of opportunities for connection, sharing, and positivity, but sometimes we may encounter negativity and downright nastiness, to put it mildly.

We can all play a role in shaping online communities in which everyone can thrive. Disrespect and harassment are less likely when digital spaces reflect our values. For example, building supportive communities makes sexual harassment and violence less likely. Creating respectful spaces online is a critical part of these efforts. So how do we make the online communities we participate in feel more positive, especially in an era where we might feel particularly divided? And how do we respond when we see negative posts in a group page we’re in charge of? Or when we notice a hurtful comment in a community we participate in?

Whether you have a leadership role in an online space or you’re just a casual participant, there’s plenty you can do to help keep things positive.

Here’s how to use your role to create the online space you want

If you create, manage, or moderate an online space, you have a key role to play in building a supportive community. But being a member matters just as much. You get to model and shape the online community you participate in. Here’s a four-step guide to making it work—no matter your role.

1. Define your goals

For leaders

Whether you’re starting a new group or taking over an existing one, start by reflecting on your goals.

Consider the following questions:

  • If this group is new, why are you starting it? If you’re taking over an existing page, what are the group’s shared goals?
  • How do you want members to experience the group?
  • What would be the best possible version of this group?

It’s essential to define your goals even if your group is small and informal. For example: Imagine that you create a GroupMe for the people living on your res hall floor. The following goals could take the group in three very different directions and would call for different leadership:

  • Planning large parties for everyone in the hall
  • Upholding community standards (e.g., reminding people to be quiet during finals)
  • Meeting new people

For members

Goals matter for members too. In fact, knowing what they are and communicating them effectively sets the tone for the rest of the group. This doesn’t have to be formal. It’s about having a shared purpose.

Think about this: If you share a group chat with your friends from high school, what’s your purpose for doing so? How can you make sure others are on board? Your personal goal might be to stay in touch while building stronger connections with everyone. What are some small steps you can take to reach this goal?

  • Model what you’re looking for by offering it first: Share updates about your life and ask others to do the same.
  • Open participation: Invite other people to participate and pull quiet, shy, or disengaged people into the conversation.
  • Make concrete plans: Suggest group activities or meet-ups.

By actively engaging in the group in a positive way, you’re setting an example for other members. A significant body of research shows that when we believe our peers expect us to behave a certain way, we’re more likely to behave that way (this is called social norms theory). This means that when we’re positive and don’t tolerate harmful behavior in an online setting, it sets the tone for others to follow suit.

work station with laptop and devices

2. Create & communicate guidelines

For leaders

Explicitly communicate your expectations. People are surprisingly attentive to group guidelines. A 2016 analysis of the Reddit thread r/science (which has more than 13 million subscribers) found that posting page rules increased users’ compliance with the rules and even increased the number of comments made by newcomers on certain posts.

“It’s important that the standard be set right from the beginning that mistreatment of any kind will not be tolerated,” says Dr. Justin Patchin, professor of criminal science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and codirector of the Cyberbullying Research Center.

How you can put this into practice

Let’s say you take over the Facebook page of a campus multicultural center with several hundred members. How might you create guidelines for the group?

HEADING: Sample group guidelines. 1) focus on your goals: we can use this group to share information about events in the multicultural center, to welcome first-year students, and to stay in touch with alumni. 2) Explain what content is acceptable: please use respectful language and stay on topic comments 3) Say how you will handle rule violations: comments in violation of these policies will be deleted 4) Choose other moderators to share the moderation process: if you have concerns about group content, message a moderator. FOOTER: Make your guidelines visible by posting them prominently. Facebook's "pinning" feature is useful for this.

It’s also important to create guidelines for informal groups. If you created a small Facebook group for your friends in the multicultural center, you could casually communicate your expectations. Try statements like:

  • “Let’s use this group to stay in touch over the summer!”
  • “If anyone has questions about this group, I’m happy to help out.”

For members

Point out behaviors that positively reinforce your group standards and support the community guidelines—you can keep it casual. This sets the expectation that people will interact in positive ways. Try out statements such as, “It’s awesome how we can disagree without things getting ugly.”

3. Respond if people fall short of your expectations

For leaders

It’s easiest to take action at the first sign of disrespect or someone behaving outside of the group guidelines. Don’t wait for problems to escalate before you step in.

Just like in social situations or in the classroom, you can practice bystander intervention by stepping in to address disrespect and prevent harm. In a 2015 study of adolescents and young adults, bystanders stepped in at similar rates when someone was being harassed online as they did when an incident happened in person (Journal of Youth and Adolescence). In fact, bystanders were most likely to step in when someone was being harassed both in person and online.

What this might look like

Imagine that you’re the moderator of an online study group. You all use the group to share study tips, ask questions, and set up times to work together. One day, the posts start to stray from the class material to people complaining about the course and insulting the professor’s looks. How do you handle it?

Try privately messaging the people involved, or leave a comment of your own. Assuming good intent can make these conversations easier. For example:

Private messages

  • “You probably don’t mean any harm, but your comments came off negatively.”
  • “Please refer to the community guidelines.”

Comments to redirect the group

  • “We have that big test coming up, so let’s focus and be prepared.”
  • “Let’s stick to the focus of this group.”

For members

It’s not just the leader’s responsibility to uphold community standards; it’s on you as a community member to redirect group members who fall short of your goals. It can be as easy as asking a different question.

Here’s how you might step in as a community member in the study group scenario:

  • Distract the group with a question that relates to the original goal (e.g., post a question about the homework).
  • Redirect the group: “We have to get through this critical analysis, so let’s focus and be prepared.”
  • Find an ally: Talk to a friend in the group about the behavior and come up with a plan for approaching it as a team.
  • Go undercover: Anonymously post a comment saying the behavior is unacceptable.
  • Ask for help: Ask a moderator to reiterate the group values—or establish them if there aren’t any.

serious woman using tablet

4. Intervene if the situation escalates

For leaders

What can you do if serious disrespect, harassment, or hateful behavior emerges in an online space that you manage?

For example, imagine you’re managing a student publication’s website. Debate in the comments section is usually respectful. One day, a regular commenter calls another a slur. Here are four options for how to intervene:

1) Delete the harmful content, and consider banning the commenter.

“Delete the person whose posts are negative. By proactively doing this, [you show] that [you] have had enough and will not engage in their negative and hurtful behaviors.”
—Ross Ellis, founder and CEO of STOMP Out Bullying, a national bullying and harassment prevention organization

“If [people] see hurtful posts quickly removed and frequent violators banned, this will set the tone that online abuse is not allowed here.”
—Dr. Patchin

2) Reach out to the people who were targeted.

Write to the targeted commenter. Let them know that you have deleted the content, you support them, and offer to direct them to university resources.

3) Report the incident—if the targeted person wishes that you do so.

Consider reporting the behavior to a campus official, such as a dean. Check with the person who was targeted to ask for their permission first.

4) Reiterate your group expectations.

After you have dealt with the harm, work with other members of the publication team to refocus on your core goals.

For members

What if you see this happening in an online community you’re a part of? As an active member of the community, stepping in reinforces the standards of the whole group and sends the message that this behavior isn’t tolerated here. Here’s how to do it:

  • If the behavior affects someone you know, privately reach out and express support. Try language such as, “That was messed up. Is there anything I can do?”
  • Consider contributing some positive words. Offering encouragement and support is a simple way to mitigate the effect of online harassment. Manners (good and bad) are contagious. Modeling civility and constructive commentary online can potentially dissuade others from trolling, according to a 2017 study by researchers at Cornell University.
  • Ask before you act on someone else’s behalf. If you want to confront the aggressor or request an apology on behalf of the person who has been wronged, this isn’t a decision to make alone. Work with the targeted person and respect their wishes about how to proceed. They might prefer to not confront the aggressor or to report the issue to the relevant site directly. Except for situations of acute danger, don’t take action on their behalf if you haven’t been asked to do so.

How students are putting there practices into action

“At the beginning of the year, we have a discussion about what’s appropriate to post and what isn’t. If something negative is posted, it’s removed, and we have a discussion with the person who posted.”
—Jeanette A., fourth-year undergraduate, Kutztown University, Pennsylvania

“It’s not a controversial forum. We have rules, but we’re relaxed and work together in a group rather than talk about conflicting ideas.”
—Eliot A., recent graduate, Metropolitan State University of Denver

“I create a safe and open space where anyone is willing to make complaints, share their words, or explain their situation. I make it a place where anyone can feel at home.” —Luke M., third-year undergraduate, Northern Illinois University“I monitor the page though my manager app that I’ve installed on my phone. I posted guidelines and must approve all comments and posts before they’re allowed to be posted. If someone complains about harassment or being messaged, I’ll check out the situation, take proper steps to stop it, and prevent it in the future.”
—Angel P., fourth-year undergraduate, Governors State University, Illinois

“Anything that’s posted that’s disrespectful is deleted and that person is warned through a personal message. If they continue, they’re removed from the page.”
—Leah H., third-year undergraduate, Northern Illinois University

Strategies developed by the Communication and Consent Educator program at Yale University.

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Article sources

Ross Ellis, founder and CEO of STOMP Out Bullying, a national bullying and harassment prevention organization.

Justin Patchin, PhD, professor of criminal science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and codirector of the Cyberbullying Research Center.

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Bazelon, E. (2013). Sticks and stones: Defeating the culture of bullying and rediscovering the power of character and empathy. Random House Incorporated.

Brody, N., & Vangelisti, A. L. (2016). Bystander intervention in cyberbullying. Communication Monographs83(1), 94–119.

Cheng, J., Bernstein, M., Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, C., & Lescovec, J. (2017). Anyone can become a troll: Causes of trolling behavior in online discussions. CSCW ’17: Proceedings of the 2017 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing, 1217–1230. Retrieved from https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?doid=2998181.2998213

Cialdini, R. B., Kallgren, C. A., & Reno, R. R. (1991). A focus theory of normative conduct: A theoretical refinement and reevaluation of the role of norms in human behavior. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 24, 201–234.

Jones, L. M., Mitchell, K. J., & Turner, H. A. (2015). Victim reports of bystander reactions to in-person and online peer harassment: A national survey of adolescents. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 44(12), 2308–2320.

LaMorte, W. W. (2016). Social norms theory. Boston University. Retrieved from https://sphweb.bumc.bu.edu/otlt/MPH-Modules/SB/BehavioralChangeTheories/BehavioralChangeTheories7.html

Lenhart, A., Madden, M., Smith, A., Purcell, K., et al. (2011). Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites: How American teens navigate the new world of “digital citizenship.” Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Matias, J. N. (2016, October 8). Posting rules in online discussions prevents problems and increases participation. Civil Servant. Retrieved from https://civilservant.io/moderation_experiment_r_science_rule_posting.html

Perkins, H. W., Craig, D. W., & Perkins, J. M. (2011). Using social norms to reduce bullying: A research intervention among adolescents in five middle schools. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations14(5), 703–722.

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Virtual abuse? How to build a positive online community

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Most of us have witnessed online harassment. For that matter, most of us report that we’ve experienced it, according to surveys. Young adults are the most likely to be abused online. That experience can make it harder for students to attend class or concentrate on learning, according to a survey by Hollaback!, a coalition to prevent harassment. Online harassment can raise the risk of suicide in adults who are already experiencing emotional or situational stress, according to a 2011 study in Educational Leadership.

How can you respond if you or a friend is harassed online? How can you make sure your own online presence is positive? The prevalence of trolling, roasting, stalking, and other forms of harassment gives us all opportunities to intervene. Online behavior is contagious, studies show. We are all well positioned to model respectful behavior on social networks, influence a comment thread that’s veering toward abuse, and help build more positive online spaces in which everyone can participate freely. Leaders in the tech industry have our backs on this as they work to make online spaces more accommodating for all. For six steps to keeping the cyber-peace, see below. For resources and tools, see Get help or find out more. For guidance on how to argue constructively online and off, see Tame the tension: Science-backed ways to talk it out in this issue.

Online harassment includes one-time incidents as well as cases of cyberbullying that unfold over months or years. It includes attacks based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, appearance, and more. Severe harassment online has been linked to notorious controversies, such as “GamerGate,” when harassers targeted women in the video game industry. In a polarized political environment that has seen documented increases in hate crimes, online harassment has made for alarming headlines, as when the writer Milo Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter for inciting racist abuse.

Online harassment takes various forms:

  • Trolling (sometimes called flaming) means posting comments with the intention of triggering distress in others.
  • Roasting is a direct attack on another person’s view or position.
  • Exclusion involves singling out someone and not letting them participate in group chats or threads, and/or making negative comments toward them.
  • Harassment means repeatedly attacking a person, often by insulting their racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, or religious identity.
  • Cyberstalking involves repeated, unwanted online contact with the purpose of tracking, threatening, or harassing someone.
  • Doxing means using online sources to trace someone’s identity and gather information about them, then using that information to harm or harass the person.
  • Outing involves the malicious release of personal and private information about a person.
  • Masquerading means creating a fake identity in order to harass someone anonymously or impersonate someone else.

Quiz: Is it cyberbullying? (Affordable Colleges Online)

Some communities are targeted by cyberbullying more frequently than others. Young people, women, and LGBT youth report especially high rates of harassment online. Here’s what that looks like:

  • Two in three (65 percent) of young adult internet users (aged 18–29) have been the target of at least one of six identified types of online harassment, according to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center.
  • 10–28 percent of college students experience cyberbullying, according to an analysis of seven recent studies (Sage Open, 2014).
  • Men seem more likely than women to report online harassment overall (44 percent versus 37 percent), especially name-calling, being purposefully embarrassed, and physical threats, according to the Pew study.
  • Young women aged 18–24 seem more likely than other demographics to experience certain severe types of harassment. In the Pew survey, one in four young women had been stalked online, and the same proportion had been sexually harassed online.
  • Sexual harassment in general is often targeted at women who are perceived to violate stereotypical gender norms, according to “The Sexual Harassment of Uppity Women,” a study in the Journal of Applied Psychology (2007). This finding helps explain the later “GamerGate” online abuse directed at women in the video game industry.
  • LGBT youth are cyberbullied at significantly higher rates than their heterosexual peers, with 54 percent experiencing it within the past three months, according to a national study in the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy (2010).
  • Disabled people are targeted for online abuse, though the current research is slight. A 2016 study involving 19 disabled people concluded that harassers targeted people with disabilities and the impact was more severe for reasons relating to the disabilities (Disability and Society). Grade-school students receiving special education services are more likely than their peers to report being victimized online, according to the Journal of Special Education (2013).

Online harassment and cyberbullying have widespread and well-documented consequences. For example:

  • Distress More than one in four people who’d experienced online harassment found it “extremely upsetting” or “very upsetting,” in the 2014 Pew survey.
  • Isolation Students who experience online abuse report higher rates of isolation. One in four people harassed online withdrew from social media, the internet, or their phones as a result, according to a 2016 report by the Data & Society Research Institute.
  • Emotional and behavioral health risks Children and teenagers who are cyberbullied or harassed online are nearly twice as likely as their peers to experience depression and substance abuse, a 2007 study in Child Maltreatment found. Cyberbullying negatively affects grade-school students’ school attendance and academic achievement, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of School Violence.
  • Suicide risk Online harassment can raise adults’ suicide risk by exacerbating loneliness and hopelessness among those with preexisting stressors, according to Educational Leadership (2011). Among young teens, both the perpetrators and targets of cyberbullying are more likely than their peers to attempt suicide, the same study found.
  • Censorship Online harassment appears to curtail free speech. One in four Americans censor themselves online out of fear of online harassment, Hack Harassment reports.

Not all online harassers have antisocial traits such as lacking empathy. Even ordinary people (who don’t have personality issues) can be induced to troll in certain circumstances, researchers from Cornell University, New York, found. Here’s what can drive us to trolling:

  • We’re in a bad mood (this helps explain why trolling intensifies late at night and on Mondays).
  • We’re participating in a thread or conversation that started with a “troll comment” or in which trolling is already underway (the more trolling is happening already, the more likely we will troll too).

In the online environment, we can choose to be anonymous, a factor that lowers the behavioral bar. That can make it easier for even those of us who are generally well- intentioned to dish out sarcasm or insults, and disconnect from others’ feelings. In our survey, many students acknowledged that they’d done this and regretted it.

The research paints a predictably unflattering picture of some habitual online harassers. Perpetrators may be motivated by the following:

  • A perceived way to stay popular Harassing others online may make the perpetrator feel powerful, and may be their response to low self-esteem, according to Delete Cyberbullying, a project aimed at parents and grade-school students.
  • A sense of failure or threat In a 2010 study, men who harassed women players during a video game appeared to be less skilled at the game than their peers, according to a 2010 study in PLOS One.
  • Low empathy In a 2014 study of college students, lower empathy toward others was associated with a higher likelihood of cyberbullying, according to Computers in Human Behavior.
  • Other personality disorder traits Persistent trolling is associated with narcissism, a willingness to inflict harm, and a willingness to manipulate and deceive others, according to a 2014 study in Personality and Individual Differences.
  • Anger toward victims Online stalking tends to be associated with the perpetrators’ distress and anger toward their targets (though personality issues can be a factor), a 2000 study in Aggression and Violent Behavior suggests.

8 ways to build better online spaces

1. Set a respectful and considerate tone and standard

The majority of our online presence is communal. Every contribution we make adds to the overall tone of the online space. Kindness is contagious. By engaging respectfully with others, you reinforce the expectation that others do the same.

2. Practice engaging constructively on difficult or contentious topics

Disagreeing with a friend’s opinion or disputing someone’s argument is all well and good—depending on how we go about it. For a guide to constructive arguing and how to influence someone’s opinion, see Tame the tension: Science-backed ways to talk it out in this issue of SH101.

3. Apologize when it’s merited, even if your slight was unintentional

If you hear that you have hurt someone, apologize. Communicating digitally can sometimes obscure the very real three-dimensional people who are reading and hearing our words. It’s important to remember that, even in the midst of heated or highly charged conversations. If the platform allows you to delete, retract, or qualify a contentious comment, do so.

4. Ask for clarification if you need it

If you don’t know why what you said was hurtful, you can ask for clarification. To the best of your ability, do so with respect and compassion. You could say something like, “I’m sorry that I upset you with my comment. Could you tell me why that word is hurtful? I want to be sure I don’t make the same mistake again.”

5. Stay chill when you feel misunderstood

Resist calling people out personally with inflammatory and divisive terms. If you think a comment has racist or sexist implications, try assuming those were unintentional and pointing them out gently. By the same token, if you see yourself as a fair person and someone says that your comment was discriminatory, try to resist getting defensive. We are all coming from our own complex places. If you’ve asked for clarification and didn’t get it, reiterate that your intention was positive, and let it go.

6. Use the reporting tools

Platforms and sites rely on their users to report abusive or disrespectful behavior that violates community standards. You can help create a safer environment by reporting harassment and abuse when you see or experience it.

7. Use your moderator powers for good

If you’re the administrator or moderator of an online group, forum, or list, take initiative to set the tone for positive, respectful interactions. You can do so by:

  • Establishing community standards or guidelines (pinning a post about rules to the top of a page helps reduce trolling, according to a 2016 experiment by r/science, a Reddit community)
  • Creating a clear reporting structure for harassment or abuse
  • Reaching out for help and support if you run into trouble
  • Being open to feedback from your community and others

8. Support people and platforms doing good work

In recent years, the tech industry has been taking a more active approach to preventing and addressing cyberbullying and harassment. There are several great initiatives you can learn from and support, including:

Facebook’s Bullying Prevention Hub
This online resource, developed in partnership with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, offers information on and strategies for addressing cyberbullying. It includes detailed and practical conversation starters and step-by-step plans for students, parents, and educators looking to address a bullying incident, whether they are speaking with the person being bullied or the person inflicting the bullying. This resource also offers concrete strategies for proactively preventing online harassment and cyberbullying.

Hack Harassment
This coalition, led by Intel, Vox Media, and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, aims to build a more inclusive and supportive online community. You can get involved and commit to building that more inclusive and supportive online community through the Hack Harassment website. There, you can sign up to be a Campus Ambassador, host a #HackHarassment hackathon, or apply for a grant to fund your own harassment-hacking project.

6 steps to intervening constructively

People who are harassed online tend to turn to trusted friends, teachers, and family members for help, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of School Violence. Receiving support, both online and off, can have a tremendously positive impact on how someone copes with and responds to online harassment. Here’s how to go about it:

1. Think about what you can potentially accomplish

“Your goal might be to approach a friend involved in a bullying incident, but you don’t know how to approach them or what to say. Or you might choose to report something that you see online that seems unsafe for one of the people involved,” says Dr. Robin Stern, associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence at Yale University, Connecticut.

2. Reach out and offer support

You can reach out directly to the person experiencing harassment. Express your alarm at what’s happened and ask what you can do to help. Bear in mind that responding with emojis or “likes” can sometimes be misleading.

3.Add positive comments to a negative thread

If you see insults or attacks online—for example, against a writer discussing sexual violence—consider contributing some positive words. Offering encouragement and support is a simple way to mitigate the effect of online harassment. Manners (good and bad) are contagious. Modeling civility and constructive commentary online can potentially dissuade others from trolling, according to a 2017 study by researchers at Cornell University. That said…

4. Ask before you act on someone else’s behalf

If you want to confront the aggressor or request an apology on behalf of the person who’s been wronged, this is not a decision to make alone. Work with the targeted person and respect their wishes about how to proceed. They might prefer to not confront the aggressor, or to report the issue to the relevant site directly. Except for situations of acute danger, do not take action on their behalf if you have not been asked to do so.

5. Check in with your own feelings

“It is important to reflect on your own feelings before talking with someone affected by a bullying incident because you want to make sure that you are in a place where you can have that conversation,” says Dr. Stern. “If you yourself are emotionally activated, which is understandable and may well be the case, then you won’t be able to have that conversation from a place of calm. If you lower your own emotional activation, you are going to be able to more effectively help the person in the interaction regulate their own emotions.”

6. Seek support, off-line and on

“It is important to talk it through with someone you trust and who you believe is wise about this sort of thing. You might turn to a trusted peer or RA or dean who can help you think about how to approach the incident, depending on your goal,” says Dr. Stern. Tell someone you trust and who is in a position to help. Alternatively, you might report the incident to the site or platform, group administrator, or moderator. If someone is being harmed, about to be harmed, or threatening harm, take that seriously and get help immediately.

Most online platforms give you tools to curate what content you see and with whom you interact online. Explore the options available to you and decide what you share online and who can see it. These approaches can help:

Take advantage of customization tools

Online platforms frequently give you control over the level of connection you want to have with someone. You can choose to block content or people whose content you don’t want to see. On some platforms, this decision can be separate from whether you remain friends with those users (e.g., on Facebook you can unfollow a person’s posts without unfriending the person).

Pick your friends

There is a lot to be said for trying to work through differences with people who hold varying opinions and making sure we’re exposed to viewpoints that are not the same as ours. However, if you are experiencing harassment from a user online, especially someone you don’t know or don’t have a strong relationship with off-line, you can choose to prevent that user from contacting you.

Protect your privacy

Review your privacy settings on all social media. You have control over who sees your posts and what online activity is viewable to others.

Consider making online magic

Several free software options and plugins allow you to make more customized and creative choices about what you see online. For example, Sweary mary is a Chrome Extension that replaces swear words with witty alternatives.

Be aware that not all sites are created equal

Some platforms do a better job than others of giving their users the tools and support they need to have a safe and fulfilling online experience. As an informed user, you can decide which sites you want to trust with your time and information, and which you’d rather pass on.

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