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Angry online: The Internet can be a mean, angry place. Here’s why

GRAND FORKS — The internet can be a strange place.

For a world with no physical substance, seemingly populated entirely by cat videos, contentious politics and endless social media preening—and griping—our online interactions have a way of raising some strong emotions in people. At times, our blood boils online in ways seldom seen in the "real" world. Even worse, sometimes we find ourselves getting mean in the comments.

Why is that?

The question of what causes digital aggression in normally placid individuals has interested psychologists since the early days of widespread internet use in the U.S. Most of our basic findings suggest online aggression is rooted in the nature of the web, a bloodless, abstract kind of world a step apart from what most of think of as real. On the internet, identities are fluid, often screened with anonymity and floating in spaces with little to no overt rules. The feeling of unreality on the internet can lower our inhibitions, which isn't always a bad thing. Sometimes we're more honest online, more open than we'd be otherwise. But other times, the way we communicate online leaves out major cues that help us play nicely.

Michael D. Robinson is a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University. Though his work is based in the offline world, Robinson is an expert in the field of social behavior, particularly aggression and how we regulate our emotions.

Robinson said the ways humans communicate face-to-face could explain why certain norms go out the window when we go digital.

"When you're face-to-face with someone, there are potential issues and inhibition properties there," he said. He outlined three mechanisms that help us control ourselves when tempers rise. The first is the basic fact that angry outbursts and personal attacks are just plain hurtful to the one on the receiving end. And when people are being yelled at in real life, they seldom take it with a face as blank as a computer screen.

"As you're saying something hurtful to someone, you're seeing facial expressions that tell you to stop doing that," Robinson said. "So if the person looks distressed as you're saying something mean, then for most people that's a signal to stop being aggressive—you're seeing the other person's face in real-time and how your words are hurting them."

Generally, that's reason enough for most people to shy away from aggressive, in-person "trolling," but these simple body language cues are totally lost with most forms of digital communication. And, since the internet can connect people across vast differences and diverse walks of life, people often find themselves arguing with total strangers they might not have to face in their day-to-day lives. That means online confrontations can continue escalating past trigger points that would stop a face-to-face conflict early.

If the urge to avoid harming others isn't enough, Robinson says digital communications might also lack at least two other mechanisms that typically encourage us to simmer down.

Berating or bullying someone in person can attract the judgement of our peers, especially if we're acting badly in a public or semi-public place. Most people don't wish to appear immature or unkind in front of their peers, so they'll usually take at least superficial steps to avoid that—deciding against, for example, insulting someone's mother or intelligence over a minor political disagreement.

Finally, Robinson said, there's another, almost primal factor that keeps people nice offline.

"I think with face-to-face aggressive behavior, there's some real potential cost to it. You're vulnerable to whatever that person comes back with," he said.

That could mean angry shouting inches away from your nose. But it could mean that your insult is met with the other guy's punch. Robinson said the natural behavioral brakes that are missing from the online world developed in part to avoid opening us up to vulnerability.

"Online would be different that way because you feel safe" even when antagonizing someone else, Robinson said.

After all, even if we're not consciously afraid of getting hit, the implicit knowledge that "some real, potentially physical consequences could follow aggression" often is enough to keep people civil.

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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