Recently there has been a sharp increase in the amount of abusive language on the New Scientist website. No, it's not because our writers have become degenerates, it's because we rolled out a new commenting facility on all articles, giving people the chance to share their thoughts and opinions across the site.
I am particularly conscious of this trend because, as the moderator, I keep an eye on all comments and have to remove any that break our House Rules. This means I read a lot of comments (826 last week) and while most of them are perfectly polite, there's a stubborn minority that are rude, intentionally provocative, or just plain abusive. It seems people will say things online that they would never say face-to-face.
My pet theory about why people behave so rudely is that online commenting is treated, by most people, like a pub conversation ??? they don't necessarily expect to be taken seriously and the social rules are fairly relaxed. And yet, because comments appear in cold text without important cues like friendly body language, they can easily seem more offensive than if they would otherwise. As a result some people get annoyed, and the flaming and trolling begin.
After being described a few weeks ago as "a self-lobotomised liberal who can't face the facts", I decided to look into the psychology of online behaviour a bit further. Much of the research on online communication has looked at email, but it seems that many of the results can be generalised to apply to chat rooms and forums too.
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. For example, in the 1960s Leon Mann studied a nasty phenomenon called "suicide baiting" ??? when someone threatening to jump from a high building is encouraged to do so by bystanders. Mann found that people were more likely to do this if they were part of a large crowd, if the jumper was above the 7th floor, and if it was dark. These are all factors that allowed the observers to lose their own individuality.
Social psychologist Nicholas Epley argues that much the same thing happens with online communication such as email. 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 behaviour, he says.
Another factor influencing online communication, according to Epley, is simply the risk of miscommunication involved with text-based messages, which are inherently more ambiguous. At the same time, he notes, email "has the feel of informality ??? we just fire something off", even though we probably ought to treat it with the same care as a written letter. And, as most people probably know, this can cause problems for both the sender and the receiver.
Epley explains further: "If I send a joke in an email, it'll be ambiguous when it gets to you. That's hard for me to detect: the joke is funny, and I use that knowledge to judge how you'll interpret it." But the receiver may not realise that the email is meant as a joke ??? particularly if they are in a bad mood to start with ??? and that can lead to horrified responses like "I can't believe you just said that" and to an unnecessary argument.
In 2005, Epley showed that people can vastly overestimate their ability to communicate unambiguously by email. He suggests that we find it hard to take another person's perspective when communicating electronically. Similarly, a forthcoming study by Kristin Byron found that people tend to interpret emails more negatively than other forms of communication (Academy of Management Review, volume 33, issue 2), making them even more likely to respond aggressively.
Another obvious factor is that, if you insult someone online, it's unlikely you'll face any physical retaliation for it. Epley compares the resulting psychological distance to being isolated inside a car ??? another situation that seems to make people more prone to abusiveness.
I'm not sure what we can do to minimise miscommunication and abuse online. But being aware that we're not as good at communication online as we'd like to think seems like a good start. I know I often have to restrain myself from joining in.
Michael Marshall, online editorial assistant