from the mirror-mirror-on-the-wall dept
A new study published in the American Science Review found that that if you’re an asshole troll online, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re the same way in the brick and mortar world. The researchers used representative surveys and behavioral studies from the U.S. and Denmark to try and figure out if it the novel and relatively new internet was somehow making normal human beings more hostile. But as the researchers point out on Twitter, they found no real evidence for that:
Surprisingly, we found no evidence for this hypothesis. Across four representative samples, we find remarkably high correlations between self-reports of online and offline political hostility. The people hateful on Twitter offend others in face-to-face conversations too. /5 pic.twitter.com/nrw6gU7Zr2
— Alexander Bor (@boralexander1) July 19, 2021
In short if you’re a hostile person online, you’re probably a hostile person offline. And while Facebook has a lot of obvious problems on a wide variety of fronts, it’s not inherently responsible for somehow creating human dysfunction that already existed. The researchers told Engineering and Technology that online debates seem more hostile because the hostile players simply have a bigger bullhorn, and the resulting chaos they create has much broader visibility than it would in the offline world:
“Our research shows that the reason many people feel that online political discussions are so hostile has to do with the visibility of aggressive behaviour online. Online discussions occur in large public networks and the behaviour of an internet troll is much more visible than the behaviour of this same person in an offline setting,? said Michael Bang Petersen, professor of political science at the university.”
Obviously none of this is to say online platforms don’t have responsibility to do a better job protecting users from violence, hostility, racism, or general jackassery. Nor does this mean the ad-based internet ecosystem — be it the press or social media — doesn’t have a problem with amplifying inflammatory bullshit, resulting in numerous business models where inflammatory bullshit is more profitable than boring old factual reality.
But it does suggest that terrible people are inherently terrible, in contrast to the claim on some fronts that the internet is magically creating them. As Gizmodo notes, research fairly consistently suggests “toxic online political discussions are disproportionately driven by malicious individuals taking advantage of the megaphone offered”:
“One study published in the Personality and Individual Differences journal in 2017 found that the most aggressive online trolls may tend to be high in cognitive empathy, which allows them to identify when they?re pushing someone else?s buttons, but low in affective empathy, enabling them to avoid feeling bad or internalizing the suffering they cause. Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard affiliate and data engineer Devin Gaffney wrote for Bennington Magazine that as platforms have ?optimized for connectedness, they have negligently optimized for the growth of mob-like communities connecting around noxious yet identity-defining goals.? One 2018 study in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research found a bleed-over effect in which nasty online comments ?increase perceived bias in a news blog post to which they are connected,? essentially dragging down the whole discussion with them.”
Again, the internet clearly creates a wide swath of new problems we’ll need to overcome through scientific and democratic processes with the hindsight of experience. And it’s abundantly clear that process is going to be downright ugly at times. But again, it’s not the internet mystically creating armies of assholes; it’s just a broader window into — and amplifier for — the parades of assholes that were already there.