Online Haters: Small Bullies Grow and Evolve?

Online Haters: Small Bullies Grow and Evolve?

Once upon a time, it was necessary to confront face-to-face the targeted person. At least it was needed that you expose yourself. Today, thanks to blogs, forums, and online platforms, as well as social media, spreading hatred seems to be more and more a national popular sport in all countries.

The victims are always the same, nothing new in respect to the past. According to the graphs drawn up by Vox in collaboration with La Sapienza University of Rome, the main targets of web hatred are women, victims of 63% of the negative tweets analyzed, followed by homosexuals 10.8%, by migrants 10%, and then disabled (6.4%) and Jewish people (2.2%).

The Haters, on the other hand, are ever less the “typical bully” in appearance, but are meaner than ever before. They create fake profiles, expelling their anger by mocking and offending but only from behind a screen. Modern bullies live in digital isolation, far from real group dynamics and their lifeblood is given by likes and shares. Increasingly impelled, they no longer use their hands and physical violence; they use harsh words, sharp comments and find strength in their supporters. They feel they are really somebody in that world made of bits and bytes, but often lead a life in captivity. They are misfits, often unemployed, who have to occupy their time and waste it online. Usually men, they live on the edges of small local areas and have a low level of schooling. This data comes from surveys that focus in on the net and analyze millions of tweets and posts in circulation, in all European and non-European countries.

Whatever country you go, haters you find: effect of no inhibition on the web

Factors such as anonymity, invisibility and no real-time communication bring out the worst in people, psychologists call this phenomenon the effect of lack of inhibition on the web . A guaranteed "effect" of mediation through new technologies, which allows ignoring social rules and inhibitions that instead are present in a face-to-face interaction.

That in in itself is not always negative. The phenomenon, in fact, can also have positive effects, so it is good to make a distinction between benign and malignant lack of inhibition.

The effect of benign lack of inhibition: in front of a screen it is possible to be oneself. For timid or those who do not have good self-esteem, technology allows one to let go and communicate in an open, sincere way, even on very personal matters. The greater ease in communicating one's feelings and emotions seems to be a cure-all.

The effect of a toxic lack of inhibition: the other side of lack of inhibition is represented by the greater tendency to act in an unpleasant or socially sanctioned manner, by putting forth aggressive, sexually explicit or generally unconventional behaviors.

Today the net is filled with people who have turned the web into a den of hostility and violence; a Hatred Consortium, typical of the clans that are united against a common enemy. And if it is true that online attacks often fade within hours or days, it is equally true that the net does not forget and its echo can take on the contours of a persecution that can lead to dramatic conclusions such as the victim’s own suicide. Unfortunately, the news tell more and more often of degenerate incidents that have brought an end to a life of a young adolescent. Already heightened because they are the most vulnerable: awaiting recognition by society and suffering the exclusion and the judgment of the others. The web is mean, much more than some peers, and many have not been able to give the right weight to those waves of shitstorms.

John Suler: the effect of online lack of inhibition

John Suler, Professor of Psychology at Rider University described very well in his famous article in 2004 and later in his Psychology Of The Digital Age: Humans Become Electric (Cambridge University Press 2015), the online behavior of people, and identified the six principle factors that facilitate the breaking down of psychological barriers and the increase of uninhibited behavior in the virtual world, with its positive and negative effects.

1. You don’t know who I am (dissociate anonymity)

Online you have the feeling that you can do anything because things said or done online cannot be directly connected to the rest of your life. A sort of dissociation that allows you to justify any action, of which the consequences are not taken into consideration. Both for good and for bad.

2. You can’t see me (invisibility)

The impossibility of seeing the commenters face-to-face causes a lowering of inhibition thresholds. The absence of all the elements of non-verbal communication (facial expression, posture and tone of voice) makes the counterpart not real, so we must not strive to modify behavior on the basis of the reactions we observe.

3. See you later (lack of synchronicity)

The lack of synchronicity of communications allows, on the one hand, the possibility of expressing one's own opinion without necessarily having to listen to the response of one's debaters, sometimes increasing the tendency to criticize and let off steam in an aggressive manner. On the other hand, having the possibility of postponing your response allows you to reflect more carefully, avoiding acting on one’s initial impulse, an excellent opportunity especially for those people who have more difficulty in expressing themselves effectively. Also, in this case, it is necessary to observe how behavior can be improved or worsened based on the subject.

4. It’s all in my head (solipsistic introjection)

Solipsist Introjection: People tend to interpret ambiguous messages based on their own hopes or fears. So it could be that a joke is interpreted as an insult, or on the contrary a mild interest seen as a sign of listening and support.

5. It’s just a game (dissociative imagination)

The dissociative imagination allows us to justify any action because we mistakenly think that everything that happens online remains online, and that the consequences do not have an effect on everyday life.

6. We are equal (minimize authority)

The web has also modified the possibility of identifying social status in the traditional manner, thus bringing back class differences to known elements to which people had become accustomed to such as wealth, belonging to a social class or country of origin, etc. In online world, on the other hand, there is a change in the factors that determine social status. On the Internet the ability to communicate or those techniques that allow the full utilization of technological tools are more relevant.

The professor concludes that such changes in online thinking and attitudes – and the effect of lack of inhibition weakened in various facets – will then interact with personality variables, in some cases bringing about a small deviation in the basic behavior of the person (offline), while in other cases will cause dramatic changes. In short, online life continues to change the relationships between people, both online and offline and the effects are becoming ever more tangible.

Law enforcement is needed

That of hate speech, or the spiral of insults that self-feed and infest from within on the Internet, has become an ungovernable phenomenon. We really need precise ad hoc legislation that allows the definition of today’s crimes that are rampant and often go unpunished, to defend our children and to protect the youth.

Putting and end to the efforts of haters and trolls or the existence of victims of shitstorms and cyberbullying is easier than it may seem. We are sacrificing the Internet and its potential to the culture of hate, scattering it about everywhere. The web has changed and as Time magazine also underlines, even its "personality has changed: first it was "geeky" and spread its infinite flow of information, today if you talk about fighting with depression it will only try to push you to suicide."

Unfortunately, one aspect often underestimated is that these dynamics involve not only the youth but also adults, especially those belonging to groups. And here we are witnessing the struggle between members of different groups such as vegans vs. carnivores, beautiful vs. ugly, fans vs. non-fans.

The Theory of Social Identity conceptualized the group as the place of origin of social identity. In man, the spontaneous tendency to form groups, to feel a part of them and to distinguish one's belonging to a group (in-group) from those of non-belonging (out-group), triggers a mechanism of favoritism for one's group (and the inverse for out-groups).

The real problem, today, is that thanks to the new models of interaction that is non-physical and direct, but mediated by technology, this last bulwark also springs up and seems to assist more and more groups that feed the hatred against the out-group. This could also seem “natural,” but even regarding the behaviors in one’s own groups at times, disagreement could be found within itself.

A fight between everyone versus everyone, where not even the theories of the "herd" seem to be the master, a battle which rather takes the features of twisted, and unbridled individualism without rules. That seems to be the new “rule” for future generations.