Our level of connectedness — thanks to the internet — has created some great opportunities, saved us lots of time, entertained us and improved our lives in countless ways. However, there is a dark side to the internet, which seems to bring out the worst in people.
The worst of the internet comes in the form of online comments and it is getting worse each year. People often comment on a news story and it seems that, no matter what the story is, someone will find a way to connect it to politics, a personal attack or a conspiracy theory — and they will have no problem posting it. Why is there so much anger online?
Anger from within
We have heard it before and it holds true online. People who have been bullied or treated poorly have a much greater chance of turning the anger towards others when they eventually get the chance. This can happen in person, but more often it happens behind a computer screen where the person feels safer.
There is a difference between posting online and being obsessed with posting online. Research has shown that those struggling in some way are often obsessed with commenting online, and the posts are almost always hostile and very often contain non-sensible theories or beliefs.
It has also been well documented that people who are angry will comment on stories far more than those that are happy. This gives angry posters a sense of belonging as most of the posts they see agree with them. Truth is though, those angry posts almost always represent a very small fraction of the community.
Anger with protection
People that post angry messages or say horrible things online would likely never say those things to people if they met them face-to-face. The internet provides protection that does not exist in real life.
Studies include countless cases where researchers found the real person behind horribly mean online posts and, more often than not, the angry poster never had even a shred of courage to say any of those things to a real person. A recent study found that those who routinely make hostile posts are three times more likely to hide behind a fake name, protecting them even more.
Other scientific studies show those angry posters don’t believe comments made online have the same impact as a comment made to somebody’s face. Because of this, they feel the need to make the post even more angry and mean so that it stands out and makes more of an impact.
Is there a way to make the internet a nicer place? People are trying, and it is helping some, but it’s unlikely to completely fix the problem. The worst online comments come from news sites. Many news organizations will no longer allow anonymous postings. Most require a poster to first sign up, then have their information verified in some way. Some news organizations have turned off commenting completely and only allow comments on their social media accounts, where there is greater accountability.
Does it work? Sometimes but not always. In 2015, South Korea made it mandatory that online posters registered their full identity before making any online comments. It did reduce the number of online comments, but only by 0.9%. That is not a significant impact. However, other studies have found that even if requiring real names does not reduce the number of angry posts, it does tend to reduce the level of posted anger.
What can you do if you are the target of this anonymous anger? Studies have shown that the most effective help is to remember the science of why such anger is posted in the first place. In most cases, they have the problem — not you. The other option that should be obvious is to put down the computer and do something else. Their problems might also be caused by other people, but that doesn’t mean you have to suffer because of it.
The online social environment can be positive for many, but only if it is balanced with real interactions with people and your environment.
Mike Szydlowski is science coordinator for Columbia Public Schools.