- It appears that we have become more hostile online over the years.
- But the perception of hostility may not match the reality.
- Research indicates that it is a subset of people who provide the aggressive talk, and the rest avoid engaging in hostile communication.
Online communication has changed who we are. Every day we see disparaging remarks, hostility toward political and ethnic groups, and the latest bad behavior from around the world online. Could it be that we are all becoming less restrained and showing the worst sides of ourselves?
Two researchers have studied the changes that seem to be occurring. Jonathan Haidt recently wrote in The Atlantic:
“Research by the political scientists Alexander Bor and Michael Bang Petersen found that a small subset of people on social media platforms are highly concerned with gaining status and are willing to use aggression to do so... Across eight studies, Bor and Petersen found that being online did not make most people more aggressive or hostile; rather, it allowed a small number of aggressive people to attack a much larger set of victims. Even a small number of jerks were able to dominate discussion forums, Bor and Petersen found, because non-jerks are easily turned off from online discussions of politics.”1
Bor and Petersen themselves write in their research:
“Why are online discussions about politics more hostile than offline discussions? A popular answer argues that human psychology is tailored for face-to-face interaction and people’s behavior therefore changes for the worse in impersonal online discussions… Across eight studies, leveraging cross-national surveys and behavioral experiments (total N = 8,434), we test the mismatch hypothesis but only find evidence for limited selection effects. Instead, hostile political discussions are the result of status-driven individuals who are drawn to politics and are equally hostile both online and offline. Finally, we offer initial evidence that online discussions feel more hostile, in part, because the behavior of such individuals is more visible online than offline.”2
It appears that not all of us are becoming more hostile, but that the people who are get more exposure online, making the perception of hostility outsized. In a sense, it is reassuring that most people have not become more hostile. It also tells us that we need to learn how to put more restraints on this subset of difficult people so that our overall atmosphere isn’t poisoned further.
1. Haidt, Jonathan, “How Social Media Dissolved the Mortar of Society and Made America Stupid,” The Atlantic, May 2022, 54-66, 59.
2. Bor, Alexander, and Michael Bang Peterson, "The Psychology of Online Political Hostility: A Comprehensive, Cross-National Test of the Mismatch Hypothesis," American Political Science Review, August 30, 2021. 1-48.
3. American Psychiatric Association (APA): Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Association, 2022, 734.