Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Opinion | Social media is turning us into nasty people

Social media has many positives, but it has also allowed people to vent in public like never before in the history of civilization

I have a Twitter account, but I rarely check the feeds, unless I get a mail that there are some notifications waiting for me. The main reason for this is that there is too much anger out there. Insult, abuse, fury, outrage—it’s a war zone (and I am not talking about #MeToo at all).

Social media has many positives, but it has also allowed people to vent in public like never before in the history of civilization. Vent rabidly, pass cruel judgements on people you don’t know at all, be malicious just for the heck of it. Civility is being killed on social media. Nastiness is winning.

Virtual communication has a depersonalizing effect. It is not a natural social setting, where some basic norms apply, most of the time. Here, there is greater anonymity.

So you are less inhibited in your behaviour. Person A posts a comment and, within minutes, dozens have jumped on her, many of them not even arguing against her, but making personal attacks (some would not have even bothered to take time to figure out what she meant in her post). It must be terrible for A the first time this happens to her. Yet it is highly probable that over time, she will also become just like her abusers and start indulging in ad hominem attacks on perfect strangers, without knowing their history or the context of their comments. Such is the overpowering world of social media.

The disturbing aspect of this is that the giant social media companies may be quite happy about this. What is the primary objective of a social media company? Engagement. It works both ways.

Facebook wants to keep the user engaged for as long as possible and, because a social network creates its own pressures, the user, consciously or unconsciously, feels compelled to be more engaging. He wants as many likes and retweets as he can get, he wants the comment thread to be longer and longer.

Negative emotions like anger are triggered more easily and stay with us longer than positive ones. Here is an environment where you are not bound by meatspace social rules and you are more or less anonymous. You can get away with saying whatever you want, stuff that you won’t have the guts or be ashamed to tell someone face to face. Maybe you have had a bad day at work and you have a drink, log on to Twitter and find a post you don’t agree with from someone you’ve never heard of. You blast that person and feel “good".

And the funny thing is that you get noticed, which makes you feel even better! All the reward you can get from a social network is attention, and it is a proven fact that the nastier you are, the more attention you get. You may not even realise what’s happening, but you will keep posting nasty stuff and get “happier" and “happier", because your number of followers will definitely increase. That’s greater engagement, which pleases the social network company too.

A study on uncouth behaviour on the internet by researchers in Stanford and Cornell Universities concluded: “Negative traits or events tend to dominate positive ones. Negative entities are more contagious than positive ones, and bad impressions are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation. Thus, we expect antisocial behaviour is particularly likely to be influential and likely to persist."

Tristan Harris, a former “product philosopher" at Google, is today an influential activist against how Silicon Valley designs products that can get us addicted to them.

In an interview with Vox.com in February, he said: “Outrage just spreads faster than something that’s not outrage. When you open up the Facebook icon, you’re activating the AI, which tries to figure out the perfect thing it can show you that’ll engage you. It doesn’t have any intelligence, except figuring out what gets the most clicks. The outrage stuff gets the most clicks, so it puts that at the top."

Harris says we are living in the “attention economy" and social media tells us that nastiness gets the most attention. We are becoming an uncivil species, always itching for a fight, with whoever, whenever.

Sandipan Deb is an independent writer and editor.

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