By Michael Edmonds 08/11/2015

Social media has become an integral part of many peoples lives and provide many benefits – wider access to information, an introduction  to those with similar interests, and exposure to new ideas.

However, it also has a dark side which can be seen in the vicious and cruel comments which appear on Twitter as well as platforms such as Facebook and Youtube. Many such comments are those few would dare to say face to face, so what is it about social media that brings out our dark side? Is it simply that anonymity makes us “braver” or is there more to it?

On TV3’s the Nation yesterday there was a fascinating interview by Jon Ronson, a journalist and documentary maker who was at the forefront of some examples of Twitter “shaming” where Twitter was used to bludgeon those who were perceived to make racist, sexist or other privileged comments on Twitter, or in public after which the comments were distributed (and amplified) via Twitter. I use the word “bludgeon” because I can’t think of a more appropriate term when the recipient of such shaming receives thousands if not hundreds of thousands of messages attacking them, often with messages that are so vile they make the recipients original comment seem innocuous by comparison.

Recently Mr Ronson has finding out what has happened to those who have been shamed and has been finding that for many it has had quite a devastating affect on their lives.

A link to the Nation interview can be found here

This interview got me thinking about why so many seemingly nice people in real life can utter the cruellest comments via social media. Here are some of my own thoughts, mixed in with those of Mr Ronson

  1. For most of our history interactions have been face to face, allowing us to understand each other not only through verbal but also through body language. Over time we have developed the ability to recognise and empathise with the feeling of others. This allows us to temper our behaviour towards others. Also, in real life if someone gets too offensive physical violence is a potential response. On line not only are we unable to read body language, or adjust for cultural differences, we are making a snap judgement on what someone else’s intention is (And on Twitter this is done using 140 characters or less). And of course there is little chance of physical retaliation if we offend someone
  2. Mob mentality. It would be nice to think that the modern human being has evolved enough to understand and avoid mob mentality, however, there are many examples on social media and in real life which show this is not the case. We still seek validation from our social peers, and in the Twittersphere we have a potential pool of millions of them, who can encourage us to cross boundaries we wouldn’t normally cross.
  3. Competing for recognition. If thousands of other people are deriding someone, how do you stand out from the crowd? Raise the ante by getting mean? Shaming on Twitter can delve into depths where most normal people normally won’t go – yet the people who make such comments are often surprisingly normal.
  4. Failure to see the person. When the object of our offence or disgust is a screen name it is easy to forget that there is a living, breathing, fallible human being behind it. Someone who may be very similar to your sibling, father, best friend or grandmother.
  5. Diffusion of responsibility. When you are one voice in many, you may feel little responsibility for how that person feels in response to your comments. Unfortunately this is not true, as part of an online mob, the accumulated abuse potentially has a synergetic effect. One insult can be dismissed, one hundred or one thousand is far more devastating.

It is my belief that as we come to understand the benefits and dangers of online social media, we will evolve (and where necessary regulate and legislate) to make better use of such media. In the meantime, those who choose to use social media to pile abuse on or attack someone else should be very wary as he (or she) who lives by the sword can easily find themselves facing the pointy end. It only takes one mistake to go from being one of thousands of baying hounds to being the desperate fox.

A fascinating TED Talk by Jon Ronson can also be found here.