Why are people so mean on the Internet? It’s a question we have been trying to answer for more than a decade, but the matter seems to be reaching a cultural boiling point.
Listen to episode No. 545 of “This American Life,” entitled “If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS,” about the pain people can cause online. Watch Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk, “The Price of Shame,” in which she pleads that “public shaming as a blood sport has to stop.” Read the new book by Jon Ronson, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” chronicling people whose lives have been obliterated by Twitter mobs. And listen to Louis CK, the comedian who recently quit Twitter, saying, “It didn’t make me feel good.”
Sure, the topic of cyberbullying is not new, but it feels different this time. The debate is happening everywhere: on radio shows, movies, books, talks, TV shows, blogs, book reviews and especially on social media.
“I think this conversation has been going on for awhile, but it’s getting this particular kind of attention now because it’s coming to the fore that anyone can be a victim of that kind of shaming,” said Jacqui Shine, a writer in Chicago who has written about online shaming and minorities. “Women of color online, especially on Twitter, have dealt with harassment and bullying for years.”
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Women, Shine said, are often ridiculed on social media in ways that most men do not experience, sometimes being threatened with rape, having their addresses and Social Security numbers posted publicly, being sent death threats, having intimate photos uploaded and being called ghastly names.
One notorious incident that alludes to this, and one of the main through lines of Ronson’s book, is the now well-known story of Justine Sacco, a former public relations executive who has become a poster child for public shaming. (Sacco tweeted a racist joke about a trip to Africa that resulted in a cataclysmic mob of hundreds of thousands of people demanding her head.)
“I wanted to write a nonfiction horror movie, where you’re feeling the dread as if you’re the one being torn apart by people like us,” Ronson said in a phone interview. “The only way to give this subject service is to feel what it’s like to be torn apart like Justine Sacco. On the Internet we forget that people are dimensional.”
The main obstacle is the lack of empathy. Psychologists say that empathy is learned two ways. The first is by seeing, hearing or even smelling how your action has hurt someone else – something that is not available to those behind a screen and keyboard. The second is to experience something painful yourself.
The latter may explain why this issue is coming to the fore, as more and more people have felt what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a caustic mob.
In the early days of Twitter, I jumped into the fray a few times myself. But since then, having been on the receiving end of several Internet mobs, I think twice before piling on.
Some people I know who were once attacked by a mob now reach out to whomever is the Internet’s pinata of the week, telling them to hang tough, to look the other way and that this, too, shall pass.
And I’ve come to the realization that most people do not join these online mobs with the intention of being mean.
Whether it’s an online army of one or millions, people often believe they are doing the right thing by joining the mob.
“You show your proof of membership in a community by criticizing the most erratically,” said Anil Dash, a tech entrepreneur and blogger who has been on the receiving end of racially charged Twitter mobs. “There’s a social dynamic that says ‘Let me show that I belong.’ And there is a reward structure for being even more inflammatory.”
Dash noted that online mobs can sometimes serve a public good, as in cases when the powerless are given a voice to hold the ruling class accountable.
But the next time we want to provide justice from behind a keyboard, we should remember that there is a nuanced human being on the other side of that screen.