Why does the internet make people so mean?
For this instalment of Therapy For News Junkies, we asked our resident therapist Zoe Krupka to tell us why people behave so badly in online forums. The comments pages of many websites are littered with rage and vitriol — and that’s just the stuff that actually passes through moderation. The rhetoric about online interaction and all its bountiful promise of reasoned, inclusive, constructive debate is undermined by the presence of trolls. Name calling, off-topic blathering, angry agenda-pushing, and more name calling.
Does the lure of anonymity encourage aggression? And why, when serial offenders are excluded from a site do they react so badly? Zoe has listened to everyone in the online forum and is here to tell us all that there’s more to human relationships than being spite buddies.
Like little dogs who bark from a safe distance, we often vent our anger or rage on those who are too far away to hurt us.
Online forums offer more than the protection of anonymity. They also provide people with the opportunity for uninterrupted expression. We are given permission to speak both anonymously and publicly. We can take as much time as we like to craft our missives until we have truly said what we need to say.
Why is this important? Think of the last time someone said something hurtful to you and you couldn’t come up with a response. Online forums are an opportunity to redress innumerable recent slights and more deep-seated and long-standing hurts.
The asynchronous nature of the responses we receive also means that there is a period of satisfaction after our message has been posted, when we’ve had the last word and we’re home safe. We’ve rung the doorbell and run away. This is extremely, extremely satisfying. American movies are full of these moments of uninterrupted expression. They’re the fast food of emotional satisfaction. Mouths hang open and our hero tells it like it is.
It’s necessary to be properly listened to in order to develop the capacity to form relationships and to empathise with others. When we are listened to we can also hear ourselves more clearly. For most of us, the experience of being truly listened to is rare. Listened to without interruption, without defence — and without judgement. As children, when we needed to be listened to most acutely, it was often rarer still. So an off-leash playground where we can really say what we like, uninterrupted and without fear, is priceless. Irresistible.
Problems in online forums may arise because being listened to is only part of what we are looking for when we feel driven to post a vitriolic comment. We also want to be heard. This involves receiving a response that tells us our message has gotten through intact. If we haven’t been heard or listened to adequately, this need will be very strong.
When we do get a response, it is often argumentative, on the other commentator’s pet topic and not our own, or we are misunderstood despite our best efforts. Worse still, rather than really hearing what we are trying to say, someone colludes with us: the "yeah they’re all bastards" response. This feels fantastic in the short term. It’s very soothing. We have a spite buddy, but not really a connection. We both hate the same person but we are not loving each other.
In the effort to be heard, seeking anonymity is both positive and negative because it allows us to have more control. Most of us have had experiences, particularly as children, where we were not able to express ourselves clearly and without fear. I can remember holding up my hand as a child and saying to my mother "Don’t say anything until I’m finished!" because I was afraid I would lose my thoughts in the face of her clearer and more authoritative adult ones.
We are least likely to be heard when we are angry or fearful, so it makes sense that some of the most vocal members of online forums are angry — and sometimes covertly fearful — since these are the emotions that most need expression.
When was the last time you expressed real anger? I don’t mean the last time you lost it, raged or became violent — but simply when you last expressed that you were angry. Most of us rarely express our anger directly and with purpose. By directly, I mean to the person who hurt us. By with purpose, I mean with the intention of setting a clear limit or working things out. For many of us, feelings of anger can be unexpected, puzzling, and can escape the gates without warning.
An online forum, like a fight club, is at least one place where the provocation and opportunity to express our anger is predictable. It’s a safe bet. We can enter into a verbal punch up, feel momentarily satisfied and not suffer any immediate consequences.
Unfortunately, there are no long-term gains either, because we have, metaphorically at least, punched the wrong person in the face. One of the problems with the criticism of abusive behaviour online is that we fail to see that there is in fact a place for angry behaviour — but a virtual forum populated by anonymous entities is not it. We are saying things we would never say in person and in some ways that’s a shame.
So perhaps we are not really speaking as anonymously or as randomly as we think. Maybe our angry diatribes are true expressions delivered to a hidden image of those who have hurt us. That may be why so many commentators who are blocked or moderated respond in a way that sounds a lot like "No way, you’re not dumping ME. I’m dumping YOU." Because we loved and trusted those with whom we are really angry — and they have betrayed us — any further silencing rubs salt into old wounds and cannot be tolerated. It’s our turn to speak and we’re taking it.
If we act from this possibility — that online abuse is an attempt to be heard from a safe distance that most often fails because the person we are really speaking to is not listening — we can respond more directly and more compassionately, but without in any way tolerating the dump of rage.
Of course this rarely happens, because other commentators and forum moderators are in turn triggered by these seemingly unprovoked outbursts. Our own buttons are pushed, quite rightly, and it becomes hard to maintain any connection. So instead we pathologise (What’s wrong with him?), we respond in punishing parental tones (You speak to your mother with that mouth?), and we judge. Because of course they are nothing like us.
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