Article | 6 min read

Why does hate thrive online?

By Sid Lipsey

Last updated March 15, 2021

Suppose you get an invitation to a popular club where you’re promised stimulating conversation (about things you are passionate about) with a massive and diverse group of people. The debate is lively, the topics relevant, and you have an attentive audience hanging on your every word.

The downside: there’s a chance you’ll be called R-rated names for even the most trivial disagreements, threatened with bodily harm, or, in extreme cases, stalked and harassed long after the discussion is over.

You may hesitate to join such a group intentionally, but in reality, you passively join one every time you post online. Whenever you leave a comment on an online article, post on social media, or even play a multiplayer video game, there’s a small chance that could be the opening salvo in an ugly battle of online harassment.

Whenever you leave a comment about an online article, post on social media, or even play a multiplayer video game, there’s a small chance that could be the opening salvo in an ugly battle of online harassment.

Harassment is dangerous for all; harassment is worse for women

Just about every public figure has stories about routinely receiving online death threats for such offenses as dating Justin Bieber, playing a disliked TV character, and even writing a Spider-Man comic. And like we saw in the 2014 headline-grabbing Gamergate—where female video game industry figures and journalists were targeted with systemic online harassment—women can face a particularly ugly strain of abuse.

It’s not just public people who face online hate. At this year’s SXSW, panelist Andrea Weckerle of CiviliNation revealed the results of the anti-cyberbullying group’s latest Harassment Barometer—a 1,900-person quarterly survey that tracks online harassment in the United States. The results were eye-opening:

  • 1 out of 3 adults either witnessed or was personally targeted by online harassment
  • The most prevalent form of harassment is name-calling, which 34 percent of both men and women experience
  • 40 percent of victims said they knew their harasser
  • Almost 13 percent said they’ve been or seen someone physically threatened online, and
  • 23 percent of women have been sexually harassed online.

“When it comes to name-calling, context does matter,” Weckerle told the audience. “I can call my friend ‘bitch,’ but we are on good terms, and it’s in fun. But if someone who I don’t know calls me ‘the bitch’ in response to some opinion I post, then that is probably harassment.”

Another panelist, Maeve Duggan of Pew Research Center, agreed. “Name calling and embarrassment [are] so prevalent that many people simply ignore it,” she said. “There are layers of harassment. It builds. People who have experienced the more severe types have almost always experienced the more benign, like name-calling. It often always starts with speech.”

Some panelists blamed the online hate on the anonymity a keyboard and screen can provide to an ill-intentioned online user. “People feel free to do online what they wouldn’t feel permitted to do offline,” said Susan Benesch of the Dangerous Speech Project.

Is Anonymity to blame?

Not everyone agrees that anonymity should be blamed for online hate.

“Everyone loves to blame awful discourse on anonymity, but it’s just not so,” says Annemarie Dooling, head of growth for the news site, Vocativ. Dooling, who has worked on reader commenting platforms for CosmoGirl, The Huffington Post, Yahoo, and Salon, has witnessed her fair share of online abuses—even on social media, where you’re far from anonymous. “Look at Facebook, where people are screaming and yelling at each other while holding their baby in their [profile] picture. And they’re cursing at you!”

“It’s posting first and asking questions later. And the person will [later] say, ‘I ruined my life in one moment of rage.’” – Dr. Ramani Durvasula

In fact, it often seems like the less anonymous the online forum, the more hateful people can be online. How often have we seen a news story about someone getting fired for an ill-advised tweet or Facebook post and ask ourselves, “How could someone be that stupid?”

Perhaps it’s not so much a matter of stupidity as it is psychology. “I think the subset of people that are doing this so offhandedly are likely struggling with issues around anger management and emotional regulation,” says California psychologist Ramani Durvasula, author of the book, Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving A Relationship With a Narcissist. “People with those kinds of issues don’t think through the consequences. It’s posting first and asking questions later. And the person will [later] say, ‘I ruined my life in one moment of rage.’ I think a lot of people online are ruining their lives in one moment of rage.”

How to fight online hatred

As a veteran online community advisor, Dooling recommends an arsenal of weapons that community managers can employ against online hatred, including word filters and services like Disqus or Livefyre. Another tactic: engaging with commenters, a lesson Dooling learned at one of her past websites. “We got a lot of really awful comments [from readers],” she remembers. “With commenting sections in general, people don’t really expect anyone to be listening, so they think they’re just sort of screaming out into the ether.”

Dooling says that all changed when the site’s editors started participating in the discussions. “It changed the whole tone and tenor of the conversation,” she says.

Then there’s shaming, a tactic perhaps employed most effectively by Australian video game reviewer Alanah Pearce in 2014. After receiving online rape threats from adolescent and teen boys, she reportedly started contacting the mothers, many of whom brought their sons’ cyberbullying to as swift end.

This approach too can be controversial, as there’s a cautionary tale to shaming, even when used to point out mistakes, or to take back the power of a situation. This is “bullying in the name of righteousness” says author, Jon Ronson. “We’re still finding ways to police each other and use very potent social forces, like shame, to shape behavior,” admits Dr. Durvasula. “That tends to work better when we’re all sitting in the same room together.”

Online hatred: all you need is [online] love?

Just like all forms of bullying, Dr. Durvasula feels cyberbullying says more about the perpetrator than the victim. “Whenever I see Twitter and comment board insults, my first question as a psychologist is, ‘What is so unhappy in their lives that lead them to do that?'” she says. “Because I think people who are content and whole and grounded do not feel the need to degrade other people and throw a public tantrum.”

So if cyberbullies are unhappy, maybe the cure to online hatred is happiness—, especially in these divisive times.

“I think Twitter and Facebook have just gone off the deep end this election season, and everyone has just lost their minds,” says Dooling, who has taken to beautifying her own little corner of the social media community. “I’ve been trying to put up a lot of cats and babies doing dances and just other stuff. There’s so much [online hatred], and you can’t get rid of it. But you can add other stuff, so you don’t see it as much.”

“I think Twitter and Facebook have just gone off the deep end this election season and everyone has just lost their minds.” – Annemarie Dooling

Drowning out online hatred with video clips of cute cats and babies? Sounds iffy. But the fact two such disparate offerings exist in the same place probably explains better than anything why, even at the risk of online harassment, this virtual discussion group is one we’ll continue to attend.

Sid Lipsey is a freelance writer who currently makes his home in Los Angeles. A travel, entertainment and pop culture junkie, Sid is a former producer for CNN. Find him on Twitter: @SidLipsey