The internet doesn’t turn people into assholes so much as it acts as a massive megaphone for existing ones, according to work by researchers at Aarhus University.
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In a study published in the American Political Science Review, the researchers used representative surveys and behavioral studies from the U.S. and Denmark to establish the reason why people broadly perceive the online environment as more hostile than offline interaction. A pre-print version of the article is available here.
The team considered the mismatch hypothesis, which in the context of online behavior refers to the theory that there is a conflict between human adaptation for face-to-face interpersonal interaction and the newer, impersonal online environment. That hypothesis more or less amounts to the idea that humans who would be nicer to each other in person might feel more inclined to get nasty when interacting with other pseudonymous internet users. The researchers found little evidence for that.
Instead, their data pointed to online interactions largely mirroring offline behavior, with people predisposed to aggressive, status-seeking behavior just as unpleasant in person as behind a veil of online anonymity, and choosing to be jerks as part of a deliberate strategy rather than as a consequence of the format involved. They also found some evidence that less hostile people simply aren’t as interested in talking about politics on the internet. These results were similar in both the U.S. and Denmark, even though the two countries have very different political cultures with differing levels of polarization. (For example, a hostile far-right mob organized on social media didn’t recently storm the Danish Parliament.)
“We found that people are not more hostile online than offline; that hostile individuals do not preferentially select into online (vs. offline) political discussions; and that people do not over-perceive hostility in online messages,” the researchers wrote. “We did find some evidence for another selection effect: Non-hostile individuals select out from all, hostile as well as non-hostile, online political discussions.”
Alexander Bor, a post-doc at the Aarhus University Political Science Department and co-author of the study, told Engineering & Technology there are “many psychological reasons” to get angry online, including that users “do not see the faces of those we are arguing with and the fast-paced written form of communication can easily lead to misunderstandings.”
“Yet, we also know from psychological research that not everyone has a personality that is equally disposed to aggression,” Bor told the site. “In the end, these personality differences turn out to be a much stronger driver of online hostility.”
Michael Bang Petersen, a professor of political science at the university and study co-author, told Engineering & Technology that the study suggested the reason online political debates are widely perceived as hellholes has to do with the “visibility of aggressive behaviour online.” For example, the study indicated that people don’t often feel personally attacked in either offline or online settings, but thanks to the public nature of the internet, they are far likelier to see trolls harassing and attacking others online than in person.
“Online discussions occur in large public networks and the behaviour of an internet troll is much more visible than the behaviour of this same person in an offline setting,” Petersen told the site.
The finding that individuals aren’t necessarily more or less prone to toxic behavior on the internet dovetails with some prior research and reporting emphasizing that toxic online political discussions are disproportionately driven by malicious individuals taking advantage of the megaphone offered. One study published in the Personality and Individual Differences journal in 2017 found that the most aggressive online trolls may tend to be high in cognitive empathy, which allows them to identify when they’re pushing someone else’s buttons, but low in affective empathy, enabling them to avoid feeling bad or internalizing the suffering they cause. Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard affiliate and data engineer Devin Gaffney wrote for Bennington Magazine that as platforms have “optimized for connectedness, they have negligently optimized for the growth of mob-like communities connecting around noxious yet identity-defining goals.” One 2018 study in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research found a bleed-over effect in which nasty online comments “increase perceived bias in a news blog post to which they are connected,” essentially dragging down the whole discussion with them.
Bor told Engineering & Technology that the results supported stricter enforcement of rules against hate speech, as it is “not born out of ignorance” and aggressive people are fully aware of how disruptive and harmful their actions are. “This is a democratic problem, given that social media plays a larger and larger role in political processes,” he added.