Disinhibition in computer-mediated communication is a well-documented trait. Somehow, when we sit behind a computer, we become more aggressive and confrontational. The chief reason everyone can immediately think of is visual anonymity – “Nobody can see me, and I can’t see anyone” - resulting in a reduced sense of responsibility and accountability.
Further, the text-heavy nature of news articles result in a highly reduced social presence, making one feel isolated. We perceive that no one is watching or monitoring us, making us feel that we don’t have to perform any of that politeness that would otherwise be second-nature in a face-to-face interaction.
This is all the more aggravated by the lack of social cues from others. We fail to see the discomfort which manifests in the body language of others, and become more concerned with arguing our point than taking into consideration other factors.
Ironically, the tendency to flame and victimise is strengthened socially. When you see hundreds of other commenters spewing the same hate as you, there is a warm fuzzy feeling of righteous anger, and you feel justified in participating in such antisocial behaviour.
Such behaviour might even be legitimised over time, as a large group of like-minded souls start to think of themselves as the norm, galvanised by peer support. After all, hundreds of other people who think the same as me can’t be wrong, right?
But wait a second, you say. Why aren’t the rational people speaking up to help balance out the discussion, then? Surely there are enough intelligent people out there who can put these irrational people in their place.
One likely explanation is that they succumb to the Spiral of Silence. A political communication theory formulated by German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, the Spiral of Silence states that one will be less likely to voice one’s opinion if one feels that one is in the minority.
Simply put, with the overwhelming amount of negativity on the web, a spiral effect will begin, slowly isolating those with more balanced views, as their views and opinions will not be accepted by the majority group. The two groups will then spiral exponentially in either direction, as one side gets louder and the other side softer.
How then can we combat these subconscious forces at work?
The best way is to cultivate both private and public self-awareness. In private self-awareness, we consciously take stock of our inner motives, values and attitudes. In doing so, we regulate our behaviour through our own standards.
Am I being particularly nasty in this comment, and is there really a need to type in that tone? Is it necessary to leave my caps lock turned on? These are private self-aware questions that we should ask ourselves when interacting with others on the Internet.
In public self-awareness, we remind ourselves that there are other people behind those words, and they could be assessing us through our comments. We keep in mind that interacting on the Internet is still a socially distinctive activity, and there’s nothing to lose in being a polite person while arguing your point.
When disinhibition turns toxic, and people express themselves in socially undesirable, obnoxious, harsh, and even violent behaviour, we really do have to take a step back and start consciously evaluating our actions.
Let’s all make the web a nicer place to stay, and a more conducive arena for debate.
Read also: Cyber harassment.