Why are we so angry online?
The answer lies in the way the internet and social media have been set up, combined with the interplay of human emotions that emerge uncensored online.
Where to start? Misogyny, racism, homophobia, insults, terrorism, incitements to violence against women, bullying, death threats, the trolling of grieving families, hate campaigns, pile-on’s, rudeness, vitriol, and aggression. These behaviours are now commonplace on social media, in chat rooms and on message boards. If I mention the state of online discourse to anyone, the usual reaction is one of concern, then resignation. When did people become so consistently nasty on their devices? And why is it now just accepted as the cost of interacting online?
You could argue this is who we really are – that the internet and social media just gives us the scope to express ourselves in a way we never could before. But I’m not so sure. My perception is that the online environment created by the internet and social media has given a voice to many people who previously would have gone unnoticed and unheard. Regrettably, it’s turned a large number of these people into angry lunatics – many with scores to settle.
In fact, there’s a scientific explanation for this kind of behaviour, and it all comes down to one word: inhibition – or rather a lack of it.
Think about it this way – you’re walking down a busy street and accidently bump into someone. Usually we reflexively say something like, “I’m so sorry, are you ok?” This kind of polite and reasonable reaction is encouraged in the real world where social norms keep us on the right side of each other. Humans like to fit in and feel part of the group and we know that unreasonable or inconsiderate behaviour will simply make people wary of us.
Now imagine you’re driving along and another motorist cuts dangerously in front of your car, forcing you to brake and swerve. If they don’t apologise, how might you respond? After the initial fright you feel a surge of anger. Your anger feels justified because after all, someone just endangered your life. At least it feels like they did, and your body is now flooded with adrenaline. Encased in a powerful steel and glass machine that goes much faster than people can run, you offer the other driver some choice words or perhaps present your middle finger. This is something you’d be far less likely to do outside your car. But like the anonymous person online, safe inside a protective bubble, your inhibitions melt away.
People actively seek out disinhibition whenever they drink or take drugs. These substances help to break down the barriers and give a rare confidence when we’re out socialising. In the case of dementia, we see disinhibition as a classic symptom of a terrible illness. In such cases the elderly sufferer has no voluntary control over their inappropriate words or uncharacteristic behaviour. But we understand they are unwell.
But online, we cannot assume the uninhibited have the same excuses. So how can we explain their behaviour?
The online disinhibition effect is a psychological explanation for the causes of the anger, violence and inappropriate behaviour displayed online. Psychologist John Seller first used the expression in 2004 when the internet was in its infancy. The explanation still resonates today, and once you understand it, the online world makes more sense.
There are 6 distinct reasons why we behave in a less inhibited way online:
These days anyone can write online anonymously. Indeed, many create false personas just so they can. When the usual rules and social norms of the outside world cease to exist, people have nothing to keep them in check. Anonymity gives people false courage and the feeling they can dispense with caution. While actions have consequences in the real world, in the ‘anything goes’, unregulated online world, there are no standards to adhere to and no sanctions in any case.
It’s not really courage these faceless people have found. They just know they can write unpleasant things without their words ever being directly traced back to them. They don’t have to “own” their behaviour by acknowledging it within the context of who they really are. One of the big criticisms of online discourse is the lack of responsibility and accountability compared to real life. Some of these online anonymous communicators might even convince themselves their behaviours “aren’t me at all”. In psychology this is called “dissociation.”
Online, most communication is written so people conduct their relationships through the medium of words. Because you cannot see the person you are communicating with, this creates further dissociation and causes people to make even less effort to check themselves. The normal audible and visual cues to hurt or disapproval simply don’t exist so there’s nothing to modify your behaviour.
On the internet, many interactions don’t occur in real time and this feedback delay can turn the heat up. If you’ve ever stewed over something someone said, getting more and more angry as you replay their remarks in your head, this is the effect I’m talking about. Combined with the ability to remain anonymous, people’s responses easily become more potent, personal, and darker. This is further turbo charged by the online disinhibition effect – so feelings deepen, harden, and metastasise. The ability to run away from personal responsibility is tempting as the online communication environment supports this kind of behaviour. Asynchronous communication can also reveal our inner coward and anyone who’s ever been dumped by text will tell you.
Characters in a grand play
Is the person you present online really you? Or is the “online you” an improved version? If so, you’re not alone because we all tend to present an enhanced version of ourselves online. You may have noticed how some people’s online personas bear absolutely no resemblance to the person you know. The online people we think we know are rarely accurate representations of the real person. We see extreme examples of this in the online dating world where creating a highly deceptive version of yourself is known as Catfishing.
It’s just a game
Imagination is a powerful thing. Those who spend most of their lives online often lose their grip on reality and disappear down a rabbit hole into a wholly constructed online universe that syncs with their wants and needs. Need a supervillain? I hear Bill Gates is free. Want to believe you have access to secret information that others don’t know? Have I’ve got a conspiracy theory for you! On the internet it’s easy to find algorithmically generated echo chambers that construct self-sealing communities where the like-minded validate who they think they are and what they feel. Here you can let your mind run riot, safe in the knowledge you have little accountability. Alas, occasionally these dreamworlds spill out into the real world. Ask anyone who innocently visited the Capitol in Washington on January 6th, 2021.
Equality for all
Social Media is a great equaliser – or so we’re led to believe. But just like in the real world the internet has a hierarchy, and your ability to reach a large audience will be boosted by your real-world status. On social media, the talented and successful have earned the ability to create huge online followings. Ironically, the social media account creates a level playing field where everyone has the right to stick it to whoever they like. Here people can freely express their bizarre opinions to anyone, and if what they have to say is good or interesting enough, they can even generate huge followings. The online disinhibition effect comes to their aid and anonymity removes all inhibition. Although it should be remembered that what mostly determines your influence over others is your skill at communicating (usually in writing), your persistence, the quality of your ideas, and your technical and factual know-how.
These psychological explanations are useful in helping us to understand why as a society we behave differently online. But the consequences of this behaviour can sometimes be horrific. Cyber bullying is claiming the lives of countless people who in desperation turn to suicide and self-harm. People’s vulnerabilities are exploited both accidentally and deliberately in what can only be described as a Lord of the Flies type environment where, depression, anxiety, loneliness, and feelings of inadequacy have increased aggressively since the invention of the smartphone. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that in 2020, there were 20 million reported incidents of child sexual abuse on Facebook alone. These extremely consequential downsides are really costing society; the only apparent upside being to protect those with a vested interest in freedom of expression at any cost.
What we can do
The libertarian ideas underpinning the online world make it very hard for everyone to have a safe online experience – and this is leading to some very dangerous outcomes. A classic refrain from companies like Facebook is “this does not breech our community standards” or “users have the right to depict the world in which we live”. Well, who is this community, and wouldn’t it be better if those standards could protect the vulnerable? One obvious solution would be to force people to be more accountable (and less inhibited) by mandating ID verification. Of course, there are challenges that would need to be worked out. But the case for user identity verification is now becoming overwhelming.