Staff Writer

What possesses people to act that way online?

You know what we mean. The constant need to argue. The spreading of conspiracy theories. The outright hatred.

Why do people do this? And is there anything the rest of us can do to help keep the internet from becoming a toxic place?

“Hiding behind a screen” offers a sense of protection, so people might say things they never would say in person, said Alisa Agozzino, associate professor of public relations at Ohio Northern University, where she teaches on social media. Even when people are rude or toxic using their own name, they may assume no one will follow up, she said.

Megan Clegg-Kraynok, a professor of psychology at ONU, said research shows that we as human beings engage in behaviors we wouldn’t normally if we feel a sense of anonymity.

You aren’t physically sitting next to the person you’re communicating with on Facebook, agreed Robert Carrothers, a sociology professor at ONU. You don’t see the hurt come across their face, don’t see them start to cry.

He said you may go online and have a nasty interaction with someone and think “the whole world is nasty.” In fact, the majority of the time, “the world is benign,” he said. It’s just that there are spaces online where “rudeness is celebrated,” and that starts to seep into other online spaces. It becomes a situation where the expectation is that, if you’re going to post about politics, “then I get to yell at you.”

“It’s kind of a great equalizer online, too,” Carrothers said. “Every opinion, almost, gets treated the same.”

Agozzino said when we are online, just like when we are texting, we don’t have nonverbal cues for context. The simple word “whatever” might be shared with a breezy emotion behind it, but the other person may read it in a grouchier tone of voice.

Carrothers said sarcasm doesn’t come across well online, and neither does “gentle teasing.” If people are already fired up, they might react aggressively. And if you’re nasty and aggressive, people will be nasty back. If instead you react by saying “that’s inappropriate” or “this isn’t what we’re supposed to be doing here,” you can hope “shame kicks in.”

For a business or organization, Agozzino said the typical advice for social media is that the first time, you can respond to someone behaving badly if it’s relevant to the conversation. But then you try to take it into a face-to-face conversation. If you go back and forth three times, by that point “it’s a fight.”

Carrothers said how to respond also depends on the person and why they’re being rude. If you respond with something like “You seem to be having a bad day — I feel bad for you,” then “that kind of short-circuits the conversation.”

What about if you have someone in your personal life who is difficult to deal with on Facebook?

“We all have Uncle Mike that we’re like, ‘Hoo, boy,'” Agozzino said, pointing out that you can hide people for 30 days using the snooze feature. And, she said, if you have a relationship with this person and can talk with them, you can voice your concerns. This might lead to your unfollowing them, but at least they will know why.

Clegg-Kraynok said when it comes to how to respond to people online, she thinks about “how we respond to toddlers when they’re throwing a tantrum.” If you know they’re in a place where they’re not going to hurt themselves, maybe you just let them have their tantrum and step back. She believes in deleting comments and blocking people “as judiciously as you need to, to maintain your own mental health.”

Looking at social class, Carrothers said it may be people who aren’t “in a powerful position” in their own life or who are the subject of other people’s rudeness who then “turn around and create this version of themselves online” in which they are the ones delivering the rudeness.

Then there are the people who bring up topics that aren’t even related to what is being discussed. Agozzino said on social media, “They have a platform. And they’re just looking for any outlet that will listen.” If they can get one person to interact, “then they have an engaged audience,” so they “rant about whatever it is they’re ranting about.”

Another issue is people who share something not knowing all the facts — perhaps commenting on the headline of a news story rather than reading the article, or sharing information that’s outdated.

One example might be sharing a post about a missing child. “The initial gut reaction is, ‘I want to help,'” but if you did further research you would learn that the child was missing in a different state and was found two weeks ago, Agozzino said.

Carrothers said some people, especially in relation to emotional topics such as vaccines, are “so hard to argue with.” In sociology, he said, there’s something known as the Thomas theorem — that if someone believes something is real, it is real to them. Once they’ve cemented these beliefs, “you can argue with them all day long and it’s not going to make a difference.” In fact, research indicates that when something is shown to be factually incorrect, a person may double down on their belief.

Carrothers said the sociologist Erving Goffman said all interaction in social life is performance. “You’re just putting on a character when you’re online.” You might choose to be “the troll” or the “defender of truth,” and you try to make people believe you are that person.

While the way people behave online can be a mere annoyance to some of us, it can take a darker turn.

Agozzino brought up cyberbullying of youths, and grown men posing as someone else to meet an underage girl. She encourages youth to block and report any person cyberbullying them, and to find a trusted adult to report it to. Back when children could only bully one another in person, it was easier to walk away, but now you can be exposed to the bullying through your screen and it is constant, she said.

As to the people who are not predatory, but who are just being a jerk, “I feel like it stems from your upbringing and what kind of person you want to be. … I don’t know how to make them not jerks,” Agozzino said.

Clegg-Kraynok said in the 1990s, she found sending emails to be a novelty. Now, we send emails and texts all the time. She compared it to going into a new workplace on your first day, where you’re “dressed perfectly and you’re well behaved.” But as you become more comfortable there, you also become “maybe subsequently less polite.”

Carrothers agreed people were nicer to each other when we first began communicating online. But another piece of it is that back then, if you went into a “chat room to talk about Led Zeppelin,” you just assumed there were a lot of other Led Zeppelin fans there. Everybody in that space “has a common interest … and they want to talk about it. So everybody’s kind of friendly, immediately.” It’s a different experience than seeing someone’s random Facebook feed.

Can online discourse be saved?

Clegg-Kraynok said in our culture as a whole, if people are rude and get rewarded for it, the behavior will continue. But then, she works with college students.

“Even on my worst days, they give me a lot of hope,” she said. “Hopefully, we’ll be a more kind society.”

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