One of the most prominent features of online platforms is that they allow individuals to comment on media content. Media users jump at the opportunity to share their thoughts and opinions about online newspaper articles, blogs, and other online content. However, this regularly leads to sections full of hateful messages in which commenters insult not only the creator(s) of the content and the people that are discussed in it, but also each other. Keeping comments sections free from offensive content requires a lot of work, and it has even led platforms to close down their comments sections. Why do some people tend to be so mean when they comment on things online? Could it be that people ignore social norms and become inconsiderate and rude as soon as they open their web browsers? Does the internet create a world without empathy and kindness?
A popular explanation for rude online behavior is that we are anonymous when we communicate online, which makes us feel like our behavior will not bear the same consequences as our offline behavior. Does this make us more inclined to ignore the social norms that we do follow when we are offline?
For a better understanding of rudeness online, we can refer to the literature on group behavior that is based on Henri Tajfel’s concept of social identity. This literature suggests that we do not lose track of all social norms when we are online. Instead, it suggests that offline social norms even play an essential role in online communication. When we operate in groups, we can infer norms from the behavior of others and apply them to our own behavior. If individuals have a strong sense of belonging to the same group as the people with whom they interact, anonymity can strengthen the process of inferring norms: the absence of personal information or individual identity markers makes people more inclined to follow the group. Although anonymity may strengthen individuals’ tendency to copy the behavior of others, it is not the main determinant of online behavior according to this research. Moreover, this theory states that anonymity does not necessarily cause people to behave rudely. It can only make people more likely to follow the group norm – regardless of whether this norm is positive or negative.
So, what does this all mean? Applied to online comments, it means that when individuals see an online post and its comments, they can use those comments to acquire an understanding of how others typically comment on the post and whether or not that behavior is accepted by the group. This gives them a sense of the social norms that apply in that specific situation, which they can use when adding their own comments. For example, if someone sees that others use offensive language in their comments, they can infer from this that negativity is the norm and thus, that negative behavior is acceptable in this context. This shows that norms are not fixed concepts. Instead, they are flexible and we redefine and reinterpret them every time we communicate with others. These shifting norms have an important implication for what we write in our own comments in response to media content: through our own online behavior, we can contribute to setting the norm for others. By avoiding disrespectful language in our own comments, and by disapproving of others’ offensive comments, we can show new commenters which behavior is appropriate and which is not. However, when we engage in ill-tempered online behaviors through rude and offensive comments, it is not the internet that creates a world without empathy and kindness – it is us.
Note that this is a rather basic explanation of a complex theory. The role of social norms in group communication was studied and explained by Henri Tajfel and John C. Turner in their work on social identity and the Social Categorization Theory. To learn more about this theory, this article by Henri Tajfel (1974) and the book Rediscovering the Social Group: A Self-Categorization Theory by John C. Turner and his colleagues (1987) are good places to start. The role of anonymity is presented in the Social Identity Model of Deindividuation (SIDE) by Stephen D. Reicher, Russell Spears, and Tom Postmes (1995). While a large body of research on the SIDE model is available, I recommend to start with this article where the authors explain the model.