Would you confront a stranger in the street who you overheard saying they didn’t like your religion or political party? If you confronted them, would you insult them and try to humiliate them? Most people wouldn’t. You might disagree with someone’s comments, but you would be more likely to shake your head in dismay or mutter to your spouse your disagreement. There aren’t many people who would walk up to a perfect stranger and call them out on their opinion. But this is what happens every single minute, every single day online. The more well known the individual and potentially more polarizing their offline or online comments are, the more likely they are to invoke a reaction.
You might think politicians are easy prey for this type of abuse, after all their political premise is based upon a definite opinion – e.g. for gun control/against gun control. They receive votes for and against and some of those against are likely to take to social media to disagree. Fair enough you say? Fair enough to disagree but wishing assassination or death for a policy strays beyond the bounds of normal.
What about when it’s an actor or a blogger or a journalist? The actress Daisy Ridley of Star Wars, posted comments about her views for the support of the victims of gun violence on her Instagram account. She naturally received support for this but also a wave of critical comments. She has since quit social media citing concerns for young people’s mental health whilst engaging with it. Leslie Jones, one of the stars of the remake Ghostbusters, quit Twitter last year after a tirade of abuse, mostly racist. Jennifer Lawrence has said, following the hacking of her personal images and furor on social media, that she will never sign up to any of the platforms,
“It’s so beyond me. I just can’t imagine being that detached from humanity. I can’t imagine being that thoughtless and careless and so empty inside.”
We know then that those with a high profile are targeted but what about everyone else? In 2016 the think tank Demos found that over a three week period, 200,000 aggressive tweets using the terms slut or whore were sent to 80,000 people. That’s the equivalent of 7 abusive tweets per minute. Abuse, aggression and humiliation are becoming normalized on social media. In the age of Trump we see an acceptance of bad behaviour online by our leaders. If its ok for Trump to abuse, insult and act unfiltered, it must be ok for us too – right?
So why do people feel it is ok to be abusive online? This news article provides a fascinating and at times disturbing insight into why internet trolls post and comment in the way that they do;
There appears to be several factors that drive this behaviour;
If it’s tolerated and accepted by the platforms, then it must be ok for me too. As long as the platforms continue to allow this type of content to stay on social media unfiltered, unmoderated and accepted, then this type of behaviour will continue. Similarly, if our leaders and those with high profiles go unchecked in their abusive behaviour, they signal it is ok for everyone else to behave like that.
Most abusers use a pseudonym, by masking their identity, they are able to shirk accountability and disassociate their offline persona from their online persona.
Lack of Social Feedback
In real life situations, aggressive behaviour triggers an immediate reaction from a victim – a change in facial expression, tone of voice, body language, perhaps even violence. This is missing or delayed online. Missing the cues ensures the victim is faceless and undeserving of empathy to the abuser.
Blaming someone for a problem makes us feel better. Attacking a politician because we haven’t got a job helps us displace our own problems. We preserve our self-esteem and push accountability on someone else. Social media has become the go to place to attack and blame
The abuser may be jealous or threatened by its victim. A successful entrepreneur attracts the scorn of their competitor who tries to undermine their good name by attacking them online
When individuals get together in a group e.g. online comment threads, online blogs and forums, they lose their sense of self and responsibility for their individual actions. The collective can become hysterical, almost baying for blood
Will the internet always host such bad behaviour?
The online world is still such a relatively new place, think of it like the days of the Wild West. There aren’t really any sheriffs in town yet! It was conceived to be a place for all, to communicate and share data. Its growth and the consequences on behaviour have been exponential. Our ability to ensure that bad behaviours are dealt with hasn’t kept up with this growth. Jack Dorsant, the CEO of Twitter has said;
“We love instant, public, global messaging and conversation. It’s what Twitter is and it’s why we‘re here. But we didn’t fully predict or understand the real-world negative consequences. We acknowledge that now and are determined to find holistic and fair solutions.”
Those that own the spaces which bad behaviour exists in, have to ultimately take responsibility for what is published on their platforms. Until people know that the same consequences occur online as they do offline there will continue to be abuse. Governments, corporations, the legal profession and the education profession must all work together if online abuse is to be eradicated, or at the very least adequately moderated.