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Does Social Media Make Us Nasty?

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The morality of technology is one of the oldest debates around - see Socrates moaning about how paper would ruin young people's memories. Most recently optimists and pessimists have argued over whether Twitter is turning us into attention-deficient narcissists, or networked freedom fighters. Faced with dueling anecdotes, it has become a common conceit to simply conclude that technology is neither good nor bad: it depends on how we use it. Nothing new under sun et cetera.

But technology can and frequently does change our relationship with the each other and society. It can disrupt and unsettle quite finely balanced moral decisions that we make, and not always for the better. It is neither good nor bad, but it is not exactly neutral, either.

Let us take a topical example. There is growing evidence that 'hate speech' online is growing quickly: including sustained, targeted attacks on individuals and groups. A number of UK charities have started recording speech online - most recently the 'Tell MAMA' initiative. I've experienced some myself, particularly when I debated the US shock jock conspiracy theorist Alex Jones about 9/11. This is my favourite:

"This guy, Jamie Bartlett, is a DICK! I'm ashamed to say he is British. His kind are not popular in this country - he is what we call a twat. The fact that his twat-ism is funded makes it even worse. I'm the calmest, most chilled out person ever, but I feel an overwhelming urge to KICK THE SHIT OUT OF HIM IF HE EVER SHOWS HIS FACE AROUND MY ENDS. C*NT." (Asterix added by me)

That has 16 'thumbs up', by the way.

Of course, hate speech has always existed: but there is a growing branch of psychologists who specialize in 'cyber psychology', and believe that the technology itself might be partly causing this sort of thing: not because it gives a platform for views people already have, but because the anonymity, physical distance and speed of communication of social media encourages us to behave in ways we would not do offline. They call this 'online disinhibition effect', and would say that the chap above - the 'most chilled out person ever' remember - is displaying it. This disinhibition effect was first put forward in 1995, when the psychologist John Suler studied the behaviour of participants in chat rooms and found they tended to be aggressive and angry, ignoring social rules and norms at play offline.

Pretty simple stuff, and no doubt confirms a thousand hunches. But many think online disinibition is important is understanding trolling, cyberbullying, and online racism. I have no doubt there will be a lot of bunk and bluster in this new discipline, and plenty of groundless claims based on anecdotes gleaned from Comment is Free threads. But this phenomenon is obviously important. The comment from my new friend above is fairly harmless: for some other people, such as the 15 year old Canadian girl who committed suicide following a sustained campaign of online harassment it is tragically serious, and deserves serious academic attention.

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