If you’ve been reading the news lately, you might feel that by going online you’ll be subjecting yourself to all sorts of danger. Is the phenomenon of Internet trolling and cyber-bullying all media hype or is there substance to the charges? In my last post I discussed with the Web Psychologist Nathalie Nahai the psychology of trolling in the wake of the death of Brenda Leyland, who was publicly exposed for her Twitter rants towards the McCann family. Her death provoked some necessary public soul searching. In response to this tragedy, it was no longer easy to see Ms. Leyland as some sort of awful monster but rather more of a misguided soul who happened to use the McCanns and Twitter as a way of dealing with her own vulnerability.
By seeing trolls as “nasty others” we actually get to protect ourselves from admitting that we can be nasty too. As it happens, online social networks may do something to encourage this nastiness in all of us. Long ago Freud taught us that our unconscious was full of not-very-nice aggressive thoughts, and that our egos and super-egos have to work quite hard to keep them at bay in the name of civilisation.
In my book The Psychodynamics of Social Networking: connected-up instantaneous culture and the self I show that online social networks enable some parts of the psyche a place to perform to the exclusion of others – and the more anonymous that social network, the more likely it is that our anti-social parts (like the “id” and the “shadow“) will outwit our egos. In a freshly released article in the journal Personality and Individual Differences entitled “Trolls just want to have fun,” the authors argue, with some compelling research to back them, that those with a certain constellation personality traits are both more likely to be nasty online and to be online more so than others. This is a bad combination! It means that those being nasty online may be taking up more space than those who aren’t.
To add insult to injury, the dynamics of the online world may make it easier for the rest of us to be nastier online than we are in real life.
Research out this week by Maeve Duggan at the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project goes to show how while the media may indeed be running with the hype, being harassed on the Internet is not happening to just a minority of people. As the graphic below shows, forty percent of internet users have experienced some kind of online harassment, and for half of them, it was described as severe.
Of those who experienced harassment 27% had been called offensive names and 22% had someone try to purposefully embarrass them. At the scarier end, 8% had been physically threatened, 8% had been stalked, 7% had been harassed over a sustained period of time, and 6% had been sexually harassed (Pew).
As you might expect, younger people are experiencing the highest levels of harassment with 65% of 18-29 jumping to a frightening 70% of 18 – 24 year olds. As we have already learned from famous cases of trolling involving Caroline Criado-Perez, Mary Beard, and most recently Anita Sarkeesian that women can be especially vulnerable to this kind of behaviour. According to the Pew pole, young women (18-24) had significantly higher levels of both stalking and sexual harassment.
Whatever your gender, this kind of harassment is upsetting. Fortunately, about 3/4 of those harassed were somewhat upset to not at all upset by it – contrarily , 28% found it extremely or very upsetting, and when you put all the numbers together, this is a worrying finding.
So, are online environments really so bad?
All in, while 92% of respondents agreed that the online environment “allows people to be more critical of each other” – 68% also agreed that they might enable people to be more supportive of each other. Just as I’ve argued in my book, part of this is down to personality, part of it is down to the kind of online environment you are on, and the rest is due to the culture of that environment. Not only do different social networks enable different expressions of self, but there are also different cultures across those social networks.
In everyday life you will find social networks of individuals who are generally nasty to each other and others who are mutually supportive. You will find the same online. Some Facebook cultures are safe and trust building, while others will encourage one-upmanship, rancour, and conflict.
It should not come as a surprise that younger people are experiencing more harassment, simply because more younger people are online. However, the finding about women experiencing more harassment and even more severe harassment does provide some concerning thoughts. We are finding that in some online spaces, there seems to be permission, if not encouragement to express attack in hateful and misogynistic ways. This gives further evidence that a great deal of what is going on here is projection – which is a psychological phenomenon – but one that is also clearly culturally influenced. While I don’t think this kind of misogynistic trolling is representative of culture as a whole (primarily since those likely to voice this rubbish are disproportionately represented online), it does suggest that there’s a lot of work to done in managing these sorts of cultural themes.
Online cultures are still cultures and can be amenable to change. It takes a critical mass of individuals to shift a culture and make these sorts of outbursts unacceptable. On the more prosaic level, the task is to create online spaces that are generally respectful, safe, and humane rather than disrespectful, unsafe and inhumane. This will take time, but can be accomplished through education and example. We will never be able to eradicate bad behaviour online, no more than we can do in real life. However, we can come to better understand what this bad behaviour is, why people are expressing themselves this way, and how to build resilience for the many people who are subjected to it.
More from me in my book, The Psychodynamics of Social Networking: connected-up instantaneous culture and the self.
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