Owen Jones has quit social media; a platform that has the power to bring out the worst in us all. What’s going wrong? The psychology of anonymity could help us to understand.
Gone are the days when social media was a place of vibrant discussion with huge potential. It has become a hotbed of close-minded, short-tempered, reactionaries, with a sole purpose: to berate the opposition into submission. It’s Saturday the 11th of March and Guardian columnist Owen Jones has just announced that he will be taking time off from social media. He wrote a detailed explanation, but perhaps the most important part is as follows:
“On a daily basis I have angry strangers yelling at me, on the one hand, that I’m responsible for the destruction of the Labour Party, and on the other, I’m a right-wing sellout careerist who’s allied to Tony Blair and possibly in the pay of the Israeli government (and that I’m a Blairite cunt who needs to go fuck myself).”
A man, who in my opinion, provides an intellectual and balanced view of our time’s most important issues. Obviously Jones is left-leaning, but he does not ram this down your throats as much as so many of his kind do. It is understandable that those on the extreme right would get their rocks off threatening to kill the man, but should he not be a poster boy of the left-wing resistance? Apparently not!
In the age of technology, we have become very fast at typing. Faster, it seems, than we are at thinking. I too, fall victim to this trap, and have to work hard to slow myself down to avoid charging blindly into battle before I have actually assessed the situation. But when we are taught to be both fiercely independent, and deeply ashamed of failure, it is easy to see why ‘guns-blazing’ is such a popular option when faced with disagreement.
We are taught to be terrified of our mistakes, and as such, refuse wholeheartedly to ever change our minds, regardless of any new information we are provided with. This problem is further exacerbated by our, now regular, internet based communication. When face-to-face with someone you disagree with you will generally take the time to let them finish, consider their point, and make a response. To only listen until the first matter of disagreement before screaming in their face would be insane. Online, these same rules don’t apply, and I fear our social norms are adapting. This aggressive behaviour is bleeding into our everyday interactions.
As humans we base our self-image on a wide variety of influences. Interestingly, we lose many of these influences when communicating online due to its anonymous nature. What we do instead is to move towards, what we perceive to be, the social norms of the most easily identifiable ‘ingroup’. For example, in 1979 a study by Johnson and Downing tested the effects of anonymity on participants’ likelihood to increase or decrease the strength of electric shocks given to others. They found that those dressed in KKK uniforms were more likely to increase the shocks, while those dressed in nurses uniforms would reduce them. Participants conformed to the most readily available group identifier, their outfits. We push ourselves to the extremes. Our behaviour quickly becomes defined by our group identity to a much greater extent.
Applying this to one of the most common sources of division on the internet - our political views - it is easy to see how we are quickly drawn into the extremes of whichever wing we identify with most. For the left this is proving particularly disastrous - you cannot get people on-side when you take such a high path of moral and intellectual superiority that the Gods of Mt. Olympus must strain their necks upwards to see you.
That being said, this problem transcends the left/right divide. It has, understandably, resulted from a sudden and enormous technological advance. Natural adaption is slow, so we must make a conscious effort to identify and counteract our default settings. It’s time to slow down, sit back, and take a breath. We aren’t winning any battles this way, just blackballing any chances of cooperation faster than ever before in the history of our race.