Why are so many people abusive when they use social media?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll have heard that the presenter for Top Gear, Jeremy Clarkson, has been sacked from the hugely successful show Top Gear. While the fan-men cried, and threw abuse at the BBC, social media dedicated a great deal of effort to predicting who would take his place. Sue Perkins, of baking fame, unfortunately suffered the misfortune of having her name (incorrectly) circulated, which resulted in death threats and other aggressive comments via Twitter. It’s become an unsettling trend on social media to say cruel things about celebrities, from callous commentaries on physical appearance to malicious personal attacks, social media platforms are becoming a breeding ground for a new generation of bullies.

In cyberspace people write things that they wouldn’t ordinarily say or do in real life. They’re less reserved and communicate less guardedly. This has been called the ‘disinhibition effect.’ It can be seen in oversharing on a personal level on social media platforms such as Facebook, posting about their hopes, dreams and worries, and it can also be seen in a much more negative way, such as the belittling and harsh judgements of other people’s lives, achievements and choices.

We find there are several reasons behind the abuse: the idea that celebrities or other internet users won’t know who the offender is which is greatly due to the lack of accountability for their actions. This leads to more rash and often hurtful, offensive behaviour online. That the comments are written from the safety of people’s own homes has some influence on how they project their ‘voice’. People online also do not interact in the way you do in real life, not having to attend with someone’s immediate reaction can be quite freeing. Jealousy leads to the belittlement of others, and online you can, to some degree, assume any persona you desire, so an exaggerated notion of self-worth leads to more malicious attacks on others whom they now believe to be below them.
Another point to consider is that we, as human beings, filter and subvocalise what we read online, our brains projecting the familiarity of our own voice into the other responses online. We in turn tend to judge ourselves more harshly than you would another person, and although this may be unintentional it still affects our responses.

Mycah Halstead, a film and English student who’s specifically interested in gender studies says: “I don’t think they would have reacted like this if [Perkins] were a man and in many ways it seems to echo of Gamergate and the extreme level of harassment and violent threats received, again via Twitter, by Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn. The message seems to be that some media products are ‘boy’s clubs’ and even the mere suggestion of a female presence has the fandom up in arms”.

Top Gear’s fans’ investment in the show is incredible. We as human beings are drawn to something bigger than ourselves. We feel the urge to escape from our daily lives and sometimes this need manifests into shared interests, a kind of camaraderie, which can be both powerful and positive. However, when this fandom turns nasty and obsessive to the point of death threats, we can see it’s time for some measures to be put into place to monitor these kinds of behaviour. If there was a greater accountability for online abuse, this problem may be resolved, because as we’ve all witnessed online people seem to have a lot more ‘courage’ when they are hiding behind a computer screen. Whether they’re online seeking approval or recognition of other ‘fans’ this behaviour is unacceptable.


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May 2022
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