How great of a disconnect would you need between your opinion and another’s before you felt the need to raise your voice with them? What would it take before you were actually swearing in a stranger’s face?
Picture yourself now, irate and unreasonable, your flared nostrils pressed against theirs, this stranger’s breath warm on your already overheating face, and ask yourself how you came to be promising this otherwise unknown individual of their impending, untimely death.
For most of you, this writer imagines, the picture painted above is alien: an image abstracted from the world of TV dramatizations or revved up reality television. The swearing at, and especially the giving of death threats to, a stranger is a scenario we’d really have to struggle to find ourselves in.
And yet. Read the comments on a vaguely controversial Youtube video, or the replies left on a tweet from politicians, and you’ll find curse words and death threats a plenty.
So, why, when we are online, can we be such f****** a*******?
Being rude online: the anonymity factor
Experts believe that when we get angry online, the lack of visual connectedness we have with the object of our ire allows us to express this anger so easily. And that’s not just because when you’re looking someone in the eye, you also know you’re an arm’s length, and therefore a fist’s swing, away from them.
It’s also because eye contact, and a whole host of other, less easily reducible visual cues, are interpreted by face-to-face conversationalists in such a way that builds connectedness. We may not always make conscious notice of these things or the connectedness itself but as members of the same species, we humans, when faced with one another, are constantly making and remaking interpretations of the other’s expressed emotions. This act of understanding, or at least, the attempt towards understanding, brings us closer together.
[See also, ‘Is There a Psychological Reason for People Being Mean on the Internet?]
If you find yourself unable to put yourself in the shoes of an online antagonist, consider the last time you experienced some road rage (not an impossible thing to do here in Kenya, this writer would wager).
The laptop’s screen is the driver’s rolled up window. The ability to close down a tab is the driver’s turned corner. When we haven’t got the ability to connect with the person we’re irritated by, because we’re separated from one another by glassy screens, plastic panels and hidden mechanics, something instinctive and buried deep within us, forgets that the other person is a human being.
Why we’re so rude online: the abused deserve what they get
We cannot see the results of our rude comments after they’ve been made. We know, in an abstract sense, that a human being sometimes half-way across the planet is reading and reacting to what we’ve said, but we can’t see it. We can’t really, not without the active engagement of our imagination, connect cause and effect
The internet, it is easy to believe, is not the real world.
Is the picture we’ve painted actually correct?
The Avast Foundation – a company now merged with Norton LifeLock who describes itself as committed to ensuring digital freedom by building better technologies and practices for a more inclusive future – conducted a survey in 2021. They looked into the causes of online trolling, asking US and UK participants above the ages of 16 what shaped their behaviour online.
[See also, ‘American Millennials Most Likely to Engage in Trolling Behaviour Finds Avast Foundation’]
The Avast Foundation’s poll found that 28% of people agreed to the fact that they were more likely to be aggressive online than offline. Of course, that means that some 72% of people didn’t agree, or agreed to differently worded answers characterising their behaviour online.
Polls are interesting; they offer up only what those surveyed are willing to give away, and their findings are subject to the nuance in wording that pollsters thought necessary when they crafted the questionnaire.
If the above statistic is to be believed, maybe we aren’t ruder online? Slightly less than a third of us believe that we are.
This writer thinks, however, that the real key to analysing this perception of the online space being a less friendly one than the real-world one comes in the next two statistics.
Firstly, that 37% of respondents believe that social media users are fair game when it comes to trolling. And, secondly, that 33% of respondents believe that anyone on a social media platform deserves any trolling behaviour they experience.
Less than a third of us believe we alter our behaviour for the worse online. More than a third of us believe everyone else out there, sharing this digital space with us, deserves what comes their way. The distinction there is important.
Not included in this survey was any answer to the question ‘Do you agree that you deserve any abusive comments that come your way?’. Obviously, this is speculation but this writer believes that there wouldn’t be any affirmatory response to that question.
Why we are so rude online: the digital world is not the real world
The two, above listed, irreducible elements of the online experience make it as aggressive as it often becomes. For the online abuser, for the troll, they get to distance themselves from the effects of their remarks and the subject affected was fair game anyway.
That’s a sad summation of why the online space so often becomes defined by vitriol and violent imagery. But, asks this writer, should we be surprised?
Inhumanity and depictions of violence? In the space where often we come to play video games or ask for information from an online chatbot? How did it come to this?