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Black and White and Read All Over: the Conflict of Internet Conversations

Gillian Roddie explores communication in the digital age and what we lose when the internet filters our conversations.

Actions really do speak louder than words, along with eye movements, body language, personal space boundaries and tone, pitch and speed of voice. About two-thirds of our daily communication is nonverbal, which makes it particularly amusing that we’ve built a global ecosystem of social interaction where conversations are based largely on the written word. 


There’s something deeply ironic about building a digital landscape that requires us to communicate inside it in a way that is fundamentally at odds with human behaviour, and yet we do, in our droves. Three out of four Irish adults use instant messaging regularly, and almost 7 in 10 adults use the internet regularly for social media. It’s the first thing we look at in the morning, the last thing we see at night, and 10% of us even check it in the wee small hours

Our online world has provided us with the opportunity to communicate with people in ways that the elders amongst us could never have anticipated (I was 18 when playing snake on the N3310 was the absolute height of sophistication). In the digital age, we think nothing of having WhatsApp groups chatting with friends spanning multiple time zones, we listen to diverse speakers from around the world on the Clubhouse app and Twitter provides a real-time feed of news and current events in a way that traditional media never has. But, arguably, these successes have arisen despite how being online is facilitating communication, not because of it. 

Advances in digital technologies combined with capitalist motivation have led us to where we find ourselves now: an internet that’s 30 years old but still devoid of any widely accepted rules of engagement for its use. We have an incredibly powerful tool at our disposal that has undoubtedly helped us to effect change in powerful ways but seems to cause at least as much harm as good.  

If you’ve ever used the internet, there’s a very good chance that you’ve had a negative experience with someone while using it. Getting statistics on this has proven frustrating, as the definition of experiencing “harm” varies widely – one person’s hand wringing is another’s banter. But let’s work with the assumption that at some point in time, you have had an experience of communicating with someone online that has negatively impacted you, or you have witnessed it happening to someone else. If you need a case study, open the comments section on literally any website. 

Let’s revisit our verbal vs nonverbal communication for a moment, which is ratioed at about 1:3 for most people. It’s no great leap to surmise that a large reason behind online conflict is the lack of tone and context in messaging. You could argue that emojis go some way towards bridging that gap, but what might look like a laugh-cry emoji to me is the death-knell of cool to Gen Z

There’s also the huge problem of anonymity online. There’s a plethora of research detailing that people are more likely to behave in a dishonest or morally questionable way when they don’t have to reveal who they are; it’s very easy to be a dick to someone when you’re hiding behind a digital cloak of invisibility. Online anonymity quickly gave rise to the troll; although the folklore versions originated in Scandinavia hundreds of years ago, the internet versions first arose in the 1990s on message boards, and they proliferated thanks to the mechanisms of invisibility that the internet afforded them. These days we consider trolls to be users who intentionally try to start conflict, hostility or arguments in online social communities, and they can often be subtle and sophisticated. There are whole TV shows dedicated to helping people hoodwinked by trolls confront their tormentors

But there’s a certain “type” of person who trolls, and it’s not either of us. Right? I mean I can only speak for myself… I kid, let’s you and I assume right now that our use of the internet is an honourable one: we go online to connect with friends and family, to look at photos, to keep abreast of current events and to check the relationship history of the lead in the movies we watch (usually while we’re watching). But if we invited two more people to our little group, one of us will have a history of trolling and will have enjoyed it. Most of us assume the best of our peers (especially the good looking ones, thank you halo effect), but there’s a good chance that a handful of them are being dicks on the internet, exactly the kind of people you don’t want to interact with. Again, there’s no way of knowing who they are thanks to internet anonymity. 

But conflict arises just as easily without anonymity (anyone who has spent any time in a Facebook Mum’s group has the digital war wounds to testify to this). Although users in social media groups can “see” each other, there is still sufficient distance between them to facilitate a more aggressive, black and white approach to tackling tricky topics. And the more nuanced the identity of the group is, the riskier it is that the false consensus effect will take hold – the belief that your individual judgements and beliefs are more widely held in society at large than they are. Coupled with the herd mentality bias that we mentioned earlier, it’s not difficult to understand how extremist groups take hold

And to add further complication, it’s getting harder and harder to discern who’s “real” on the internet. In 2020 a quarter of internet traffic was made up of impersonator bots and previously up to 15% of total active Twitter users were social botsNearly half the Twitter accounts spreading messages about coronavirus were also bots

Our online spaces provide an illusion of community, a place where we assume that the digital connections we frequently overshare with have our best interests at heart when in reality half of them are either AI or assholes. Assholes exist in real life too of course, but our brain has all those nonverbal comms telling our gut that there just isn’t something right and to keep our distance. 

All of this and we haven’t even begun to address cancel culture, and I’m not entirely convinced we should yet. Can we talk about something as nuanced as “cancelling” someone versus “holding them accountable” when so much of the internet audience is a heaving peanut gallery of accounts who could arguably be discredited?

In March 2019 Instagram introduced Marketplace – a prominent shopping facility on the app that none of us asked for. That’s fairly representative of the internet as a whole these days. Where once the internet was a facility for military communication, it has become a vast network for selling us stuff, and as such it is designed to make us feel things because feelings make us buy the stuff that the internet is selling. Assume that half of the interactions you have on that selling site are either bots or trolls and it gets significantly easier to gain perspective on it all. 

An underutilised tool in the internet resilience box is critical thinking’s non-identical twin: critical ignoring. The days of sweeping brush statements about the internet being “good” or “bad” offer little help, the reality is that our relationship with it is complex at best. There are facets of it that work in our favour and parts that don’t. It’s as black and white as that. 


Photo by Adem AY on Unsplash