‘It’s a bit addictive. If someone puts something bogus up you can go on and prove him wrong and get into a debate. If you win, you think, I’ve got one over on him. Most days I get my point across but if they throw personal stuff it does hit you. Vibrant discussion is great, where someone is losing an argument, but they can resort to personal attacks and all sorts of other things that aren’t relevant. And they do it deliberately. It can be a minefield of mind-games and that’s the bit I hate.”
Gerald Horgan from Dingle, in Co Kerry, is a regular commenter on websites, including the New York Times , the Guardian , the Huffington Post and The Irish Times . He posts a lot, but he is no "internet troll"; indeed his comments tend towards sympathy and level-headedness.
He is also in the minority in using his own name in his many postings. “I prefer to be honest and use my own identity. If you’re open, people will trust you more and will believe what you say.
"I was messing around communicating with people [online] in 1992-3. There were fewer people involved then . . . If I had been introduced to the internet in the past five or six years I’d think, 'Nutters'. I’m out of here.”
The internet isn’t “full” of nutters. But it is full of challenges and loud voices and never-ending discussion. And it’s not a fad. It’s our present and our future. In lieu of robot butlers we got interconnected computers and a rash of existential panics.
This week there was an Oireachtas debate about social media and its regulation. There's an ongoing and important discussion about cyberbullying and a pettier one about what constitutes a "troll"; in the latter discussion, pranksters are wilfully confused with criminals.
There are also recurring worries about how our constant connectivity is eroding the private sphere and compromising our ability to keep cool heads and maintain attention. Even if we just read and don’t even “talk” online, we’re being affected. A recent study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison indicated that nasty comments under an article significantly altered readers’ interpretation of that article.
"Incivility really grabs people's attention," explains Dr Ashley Anderson, one of the authors, a postdoctoral fellow in the centre for climate change at George Mason University, in Virginia.
“There is a phenomenon called negativity bias, which assumes people pay more attention to and respond more strongly to negative information than to positive information. And it appears that uncivil comments resonate with people and they are likely to remember them and respond to them.”
Online is not real
Other studies suggest that online communications are not reflective of real-world opinion. "We do know that the people who are discussing issues online don't necessarily reflect the general population," says Anderson. "[The Pew Research Centre in Washington, DC] just came out with a study showing that opinion reflected in tweets is at odds with overall public opinion. They also found that, overall, negativity is very common on Twitter. "
One of the recurrent controversies is internet anonymity, whereby people adopt inscrutable pseudonyms on the internet, and sometimes criticise others from behind this anonymous cloak.
There are reasons to allow for anonymity. The weak can tackle the strong without fear of reprisal. People can whistle-blow about bad behaviour. David Cochrane, the communities editor at The Irish Times , notes that it can also allow more timid people to discuss topics they might otherwise hesitate to bring up.
However, “anonymity breeds incivility,” according to Anderson. “When people don’t have to see that person face to face or make their identity known, they feel they have a lot more freedom to say whatever they want.”
Simply moving from verbal to textual interaction has an effect on our psychology. “There’s a thing called ‘hyperpersonal communication’,” says Dr Ciaran McMahon, a cyberpsychologist and academic. “When two people communicate on the internet, things move a bit strangely. Originally it was assumed that no one would want to communicate this way because text is so blunt. In fact it was found the opposite was the case. People formed closer bonds on the internet than when they communicated face to face.”
This is because when we communicate with text, in lieu of the tonal cues that come with speech and facial expressions, we project more information on to the conversation than is actually there. This projected information can be positive, for example in the context of online dating, or negative, as in the case of a political argument in which we often assume the worst of our rivals.
“If the information is in any way ambivalent, you fill in the gaps yourself. So communicating on the internet has [potentially more emotional impact] than communicating face to face. This is why people get involved with flame-wars or arguments online. Even when you take the worst, most argumentative people from a message board and put them face to face they will have a normal conversation.”
Cochrane noted this when he ran the political website politics.ie. “There were people who for the most part were using pseudonyms and were quite harsh when debating one another, but when real-world meet-ups were organised they’d have a couple of pints and their tone towards each other would change radically.
“When people are just a pseudonym talking about a topic it’s hard for people to see the pseudonym as a person rather than the single idea they are arguing.”
Dr Irene Connolly, who lectures in cyberpsychology at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Dún Laoghaire and is running a conference, Dealing with Cyberbullying: A Practical Approach, on March 23rd, says one of the issues with online communication is "disinhibition." "Social inhibition is what makes us polite to each other. If someone came in to work with a funny haircut, a few people might comment but most wouldn't. If I posted a picture online, however, there might be a lot of vicious comments made about it. That's disinhibition. Online, people feel free to act with no repercussions."
Online conflicts are further exacerbated by the fact we often don’t digest the information we consume online before reacting to it. McMahon worries about the way the internet encourages us to live in a neverending stream of information.
“There’s a thing called the recency effect, which is based on our preference for new information,” he says. “It’s a normal reaction but not necessarily a good thing. It can mess with all kinds of decision-making processes because we’re constantly distracted by new information. When making a proper decision you need to collect information and then stop.
The Shallows , Nicholas Carr says we're going to get stupid because we're trying to do too many things at once. "There's also research that suggests that those who think they're good at multitasking are actually quite bad at multitasking and get less good at it the more they do it."
All these things lead to two extremes of internet interactivity. On the one side you get people who enjoy combative interaction – “Some people just enjoy flying off the handle,” says McMahon – and on the other you get those who use websites and social media that reaffirm their own opinions. Of course, there are people who do both.
“This is called cyber-Balkanisation,” says McMahon. “While there is this idea of great meetings of minds and rational debate, there’s also a phenomenon where people are going in several directions and forming separate little communities.
“This can have very positive effects, as in the case of isolated LGBT teenagers, but it can also reinforce people in their own opinions and, in extreme cases, bring people to more malign sites, such as hate-crime sites or pro-anorexia sites.”
Complicating matters further, antisocial, psychologically suspect behaviours that are difficult to engage in offline are temptingly easy online. “Some people feel they have an unexciting life and the internet allows them to play a part online and meet more people than maybe they would have otherwise,” says McMahon.
"For people who are geographically isolated, in a loveless marriage or bedbound, the internet can be liberating. On the other hand there are complete fantasists, and an affordance of th$$$$$DDDe technology might allow an escalation of suspect behaviour. So you get people setting up multiple Facebook or Twitter accounts and arguing using different personae on a comment thread."
The internet has many positive effects on society. Formerly disempowered people have a voice and can speak truth to power. Geographical distances are shrunk and people are brought together. The digital world has already affected the real.
“Look at Occupy, and at Anonymous,” says McMahon. “There’s a lot of talk about citizen democracy and citizen participation and that’s a direct result of the effect of online discussions. Then there’s the Pirate Party, a political party that developed online.”
Masses of data
But as well as talking about the web's utopian potential, we need to reckon with actual human behaviour. We consume masses of data but don't stop to process it correctly. Arguments are constantly based on misunderstandings and cursory misreadings.
It’s not clear what the answers are. We need to empower the disempowered without being unduly influenced by the ill-informed. We need to discourage pseudonymous trolling while facilitating the anonymous speaking of truth to power. We need to parse the difference between bullying and fair comment. We need to be kind.
Some of this will come from enforcement of existing laws about harassment and libel. Some of it may come from unworkably draconian legislation. Pat Rabbitte observed at the Oireachtas committee that there might be a gap in the legislation when it came to online harassment.
Dr Irene Connolly believes people, particularly young people, need to be educated about online behaviour. Dr Ashley Anderson says we need to start training ourselves to be influenced by content rather than tone.
McMahon believes that neither techno-evangelists nor Luddites appreciate how much these technologies affect us. “There’s a school of thought that assumes the internet isn’t going to change people. I think that’s incredibly naive. It’s almost inevitable that this kind of technology is going to change basic things such as attention spans and cognitive processing and even how we think of ourselves.”
McMahon feels users of all ages need to learn when to switch off, to apply more discipline to their use of the net. (He is off Twitter for Lent.) He thinks these issues are all beginning to come to a head. “I think we’re coming to the end of the golden age, the wild, wild west of the internet, when you could do almost anything,” he says. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing.”