Studies have found that when we use social media, our brains release an amount of the feel-good chemical dopamine that is on par with gambling and recreational drug use. Receiving likes and reactions to posts feeds into our very human need for validation and affirmation. This causes us to curate our lives and personalities, and in some cases, even create wholly false identities.
The Conditioning Effect of Social Media
Social Media can be a wonderful tool to help express yourself, but there’s no getting around the fact that it’s also a popularity contest. It takes no time at all to learn which of your posts get attention and which don’t. We all want to be respected and admired by our peers and loved ones, so many of us change our posting habits to show more of the things that receive the likes and shares, and less of those that don’t.
This manifests in a variety of ways, bringing out the best in some people, and the worst in others.
Finding Identity through Community
Studies show that real-world social groups, organisations and clubs are on the decline, while online communities are rapidly increasing. These communities allow for easier connection and a sense of belonging, without the exclusion of being unable to attend events not located within acceptable travelling distance.
In an online community you are more likely to find people who are like you, who share the same interests and have similar self identities. This encourages more meaningful conversations, that many users have judged to be more respectful, allowing them to feel more secure in being themselves and respect others in turn.
Types of online communities:
- Interest communities that focus on a specific hobby, passion or brand
- Professional communities that provide networking opportunities
- Action communities who find their unity in a shared value and campaign to bring about social change
- Local communities that offer neighbours the ability to share information and news
Why Some Create a False Identity
A sockpuppet is a false online identity or “a phony name made up by a user in order to masquerade as someone else on the Internet”. This is often done to create false praise (many authors have been accused of artificially inflating their book reviews using sockpuppets), support third parties or organisations, to circumvent a ban from a website, or to gain some kind of advantage i.e. membership rewards.
A catfish is another false identity used to mislead others. They tend to be more elaborate than a sockpuppet, with rich history and commonly using stolen or edited photos, usually taken from an unwitting third party. The catfish uses this persona to lure in unsuspecting individuals with whom to start relationships that can last for multiple years before they are found out.
Interviews done with 27 self-identified catfish list their motivations as follows:
- Dissatisfaction with their physical appearance
- To explore their sexuality or gender identity
- A desire to escape their own realities
What Creates Trolls and Keyboard Warriors
An internet troll is someone who starts arguments or makes offensive comments with the sole purpose of making users angry and derailing the topic. They range from people who make off-hand comments to those who threaten violence.
Anonymity is seen as the main culprit that makes people aggressive, rude and hurtful online because there is no immediate consequence.
Psychologist John Suller wrote a paper where he explored six factors that trolls think justify their actions:
- Dissociative anonymity (“my actions can’t be attributed to my person”)
- Invisibility (“nobody can tell what I look like, or judge my tone”)
- Asynchronicity (“my actions do not occur in real-time”)
- Solipsistic Introjection (“I can’t see these people, I have to guess at who they are and their intent”)
- Dissociative imagination (“this is not the real world, these are not real people”)
- Minimising authority (“there are no authority figures here, I can act freely”)
The combination of any number of these leads to people behaving in ways they wouldn’t when away from the screen, often positively — being more open, or honest — but sometimes negatively, abusing their fellow internet users in ways they wouldn’t dream of offline.
Trolls are bad for communities as they can disrupt discussions, spread bad advice, and damage the trust in the community.
The Rise of Cyberbullying
Cyberbullying is any form of aggressive online communication aimed at hurting or embarrassing someone. According to TurboFuture, it has the following characteristics:
- In order for harassment to be considered bullying, there must be an apparent imbalance of power between the victim and the perpetrator (or perpetrators) and occur over an extended period of time
- Bullying is characterized by the repetition of the abusive behaviour—the harassment happens more than once or has the potential to happen again in order to be considered bullying
Behaviours that are considered to be cyberbullying include, but are not limited, to:
- Flaming – obscenity, profanity, bigotry, racism and any hatred designed to hurt someone’s feelings
- Doxing – searching for and publishing identifying information on another individual
- Encouraging your followers to do any of the above on a target of your choice
- Dopamine, Smartphones & You – Trevor Haynes, Harvard University, May 2018
- Why Do Trolls Troll: The Psychology of Trolling, Science Class, Tyler Porter, March 2017
- The Online Disinhibition Effect, John Suler, June 2004
- We asked catfish why they create fake personas to trick people online, Sunday Times, Eric Vanman, August 2018
- Cyberbullying and Social Media, TurboFuture, JP Morgan, September 2019
- Cyber-Harassment Victimization Among South African LGBTQIA+ Youth, Kayla Hendricks, Pitso Tsibolane, Jean-Paul van Belle, April 2020
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