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Why Online Comments Are So Toxic

Online anonymity creates a sense of a culture without consequences.

In the year that I wrote for a blog about Brooklyn real estate, I was regularly plagued by "trolls" -- online commenters who write inflammatory or derisive things in public forums, hoping to provoke an emotional response. These commenters called me, and one another, everything from stupid to racist, or sometimes stupid racists. And that was just when I posted the menu of a new café.

The most infamous and offensive of these commenters was a man (we assumed) who called himself "The What." His remarks ranged from insults to threats. "I know where you live and I'm coming for you and your family," he once wrote. The intrigue around The What's identity warranted a cover story in New York magazine. What kind of person would spend so much time, and so much energy, engaging in virtual hate?

The consensus among sociologists and psychologists who study online behavior is that all kinds of people can become trolls -- not just the unwound, the immature or the irate. See your perfectly pleasant work neighbor, furiously typing next to you? He might be trolling an Internet site right now.

"Most people who troll are people who are just like you and me, but just a bit more intense," says Olivier Morin, a cultural anthropologist who has written about trolling.

One Web site breaks trolls into categories: the hater, the moral crusader, the debunker, the defender. But trolls might not retain those qualities in real life. It's just that the Internet's anonymity makes it impossible for them to resist spewing vitriol from the protective cave of cyberspace. Psychologists call it the "disinhibition effect," in which "the frequency of self-interested unethical behavior increases among anonymous people." Non-academics refer to it as "John Gabriel's Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory": the combination of anonymity and an audience brings out the absolute worst in people.

"Social psychologists have known for decades that, if we reduce our sense of our own identity -- a process called deindividuation -- we are less likely to stick to social norms," wrote Michael Marshall in New Scientist. "The same thing happens with online communication... Psychologically, we are 'distant' from the person we're talking to and less focused on our own identity. As a result we're more prone to aggressive behavior."

Online disinhibition ranges from benign -- oversharing of personal information -- to toxic, virtual hit-and-runs in which you call writers stupid racists, or in which you write, in response to the shootings in Colorado: "What kind of idiot parent brings their 3-month-old to a midnight movie. Morans." Hey, no one ever said you had to be a good speller to be mean.

Only a psychotic person, incapable of empathy, or someone perpetually engulfed by rage, would say such things in public. But people feel alone when they're typing on a computer, even if they're in a public "place," -- a chat room, on Facebook or within the comments section of an article. MIT professor Sherry Turkle calls this "being alone together"; the Internet causes "emotional dislocation," so we forget about the together part.

Anonymous, unethical behavior started way before the Internet, of course: Plato wrote of the ring of Gyges, which bestowed the gift/curse of invisibility, leading men to thieve. Who wouldn't swipe stuff if he knew he couldn't get caught? Well, said Plato: no one.

But we're not talking about thieving anymore. We're talking about cyber bullying that leads to teen suicides, and trolls that leave photographs of nooses on tribute pages to those dead teens. "Trolling normalizes abuse, and that's what's frightening," says Morin.

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