(Originally written for The Jewish Journal, published on August 16, 2016.)
Why are people so mean on the Internet?
Political polarization is sad, but it’s not the problem. Every day, we encounter people who disagree with us, but we do it without histrionics or name-calling. We probably even count some of them as friends and family.
Nasty people are also not the cause. They exist, but there aren’t enough of them to poison the Internet. And even they restrain themselves most of the time.
However, the Internet is a different environment. We don’t interact with people face to face. We don’t see them. Sometimes, we don’t even know their names, nor they ours. That’s important in a couple of ways.
First, the people we encounter on the Internet seem less real to us than those we meet in person. As a result, we tend to take them less seriously as human beings. We are less inclined to worry about hurting their feelings or treating them unjustly. Quite realistically, we are also less likely to worry about arguments leading to physical confrontation or retribution.
Second, the Internet feels anonymous even if it really isn’t. We are sitting in our homes where nobody can see us. We are less inclined to feel shame if we do something hurtful.
Those two factors combine to bring out the nastiness in many people who are otherwise perfectly normal.
All of us suffer from occasional anger and frustration, but in real life, we might not be able to do anything about them. Our boss might unjustly criticize our work, but we don’t want to get fired so we say nothing. A friend might disappoint us, but we have no recourse. A spouse might infuriate us, but we don’t want to prolong the argument. So we bottle up our rage, until we get on the computer. Then, some of us have a rage-fest.
On the Internet, people often vent their anger at whatever targets are available. Someone who has a different political opinion. A celebrity who did something that made the news. A person who we think made too much money and didn’t deserve it. Someone we just don’t like for no particular reason.
A psychological principle applies both on and off the Internet:
If people’s anger is wildly out of proportion to what they say they’re angry about, then they’re really angry about something else.
If someone on the Internet calls you vile names or makes horrible accusations because you support candidate X or you’re a member of religion Y, then it’s not about X or Y at all. It’s about something in the person’s own life that he or she can’t handle, so the anger gets targeted at you instead. The drama is playing inside the person’s head, and you got cast as the villain.
The same thing is true off the Internet. If your spouse is enraged because of something trivial, it’s not really about the trivial thing. It’s about what happened yesterday, or last week.
Knowing the causes of Internet nastiness doesn’t solve the problem. Sometimes, the results are tragic. Children, especially, are vulnerable to Internet bullying – even to the point of suicide. Adults can suffer depression or job loss because of Internet harassment.
Here’s the part where I’m supposed to offer a reassuring solution. Unfortunately, I don’t have one. The best I can suggest is this:
- Don’t take Internet insults seriously. People who resort to insults, name-calling, and other kinds of online vitriol are either venting anger that has nothing to do with you, or they are deliberately trying to goad you into a screaming match. Ignore them. A long-standing bit of Internet wisdom applies: “Please do not feed the trolls.”
- Remember that even well-meaning comments sometimes don’t come across as the writer intended. In real life, we rely on vocal intonations, facial expressions, and body language to provide context that is completely absent on the Internet. If something can be interpreted in an innocuous way or as an insult, then you should interpret it in the innocuous way.
- When you write things to other people on the Internet, remember that even if you don’t see them, they are still real people. Don’t treat them in ways that you wouldn’t treat them if they were standing in front of you. And be careful to avoid saying things that might be misinterpreted.
American founder Benjamin Franklin had a helpful motto: “I will speak ill of no one, and say all the good I can of everyone.”
It works just as well on the Internet.