With more time spent online, fewer ways to destress and less time spent being, well… happy and content, there seems to be a serious uptick in angry and aggressive behaviour, particularly online, says Aisling Keenan
Over the course of working in the media for 13 years, I have very much accidentally accrued a relatively small Instagram following of around 18,000 people. Ninety-nine percent of the time, people who follow me tend to be friendly, helpful, balanced – essentially the opposite of what a troll is. The occasional negative DM easily outstripped by hundreds of encouraging and supportive messages.
Lately, though, my experience has changed somewhat. I started getting irrationally angry DMs. People responding to what I considered entirely innocuous Story posts with vitriol I’d never experience on Instagram. I’m not saying I hadn’t witnessed similar being levelled at influencers, celebrities and those with large followers, but I had never experienced it so directly.
Twitter, where I have a moderate following of just over 10,000, is not much different. Recently, I tweeted that I’d love Mother’s Day cards to feature the word ‘mam’ more. I thought it was an innocent tweet. I received literally hundreds of replies and messages telling me the myriad ways I was wrong, HOW DARE I not consider those who call their mothers something else entirely, HOW DARE I discuss Mother’s Day when there are people in the world who are orphaned, etc. One person even DMd me to say “you’re lucky you still have a mother, I’d have killed myself if you were my daughter”. Their spelling and grammar has been upgraded here, but the gist of the message was clear to me. You cannot express even the most gentle opinion on Twitter without receiving a certain amount of abuse. Particularly, but not exclusively, as a woman with a small platform.
I thought maybe it was just me, and maybe it was just an anecdotal “everyone is so ANGRY” thing that people were saying because it sounded like it might make sense. But then I did some polls (god knows I love a poll) and it turns out, it’s a more common shift in behaviour than I thought.
Research psychologist Louise Dolphin specialises in behaviour change. She told me that rolling lockdowns and the Covid pandemic have created a unique environment for online aggression to seed, germinate and before you know it, overwhelm your garden with its prodigious growth.
“I think the current climate has created a perfect storm for an increase of anger and aggression on social media,” says Louise. “People are bored, frustrated and angry both at Covid and at wider issues in the world and many are turning to social media to air these frustrations.”
The perfect storm, indeed. It stands to reason, really. The pandemic has removed so many of the things that keep us all on the mental straight-and-narrow.
Our connections to family and friends have been distant and strained at best, oceans apart and lost at worst. Our ability to decompress over a drink and a rant with our best pal is no longer an option. Going to the cinema, hitting it hard in the gym, outsourcing our children for a playdate midweek… The list of things that potentially curbs our stress and anxiety has evaporated overnight and has not returned for over a year now, and what? We’re expected to be as level-headed and calm as we always were?
It makes no sense. What makes complete sense is an increased need to offload, and when the usual channels for doing that are closed, where do we go?
Online, of course.
Who among us isn’t spending hours online daily, incessantly scrolling, observing, commenting, comparing? I know I am. I’m embarrassed to say that at the start of the pandemic, good old Lockdown #1, my phone time per day was averaging eight hours. EIGHT. I’ve weaned myself off a bit, but I’m still in or around the six-hour mark.
Thankfully, I have managed to control my many urges to enter into furious discussion online about my opinions on how the government are handling Covid. How unfair it is that vaccines are being given out through side doors of privilege instead of to those that deserve and need them more urgently. I’ve avoided countless arguments about Trump, US politics, motherhood, Covid restrictions and so much more because I am able to reason with myself that really, there is NO point.
It will never end well
I have learned from experience that entering what you would like to be a balanced discussion with strangers on the internet will never, ever end up going the route you’d like. Reason, logic and internet arguments don’t cohabit, and Louise Dolphin agrees with that stance.
“I think there’s two things: online discussion about Covid/lockdowns/vaccines, and online discussion in general. And for both, the combination of people spending more time online, experiencing more boredom and frustration, and as you say, losing the “normal channels” they might use discuss their views (over a pint in the pub, with colleagues at lunchtime etc) – has created the perfect storm for using social media to air frustration. In addition, research is showing that (among young adults) – anger and stress is higher than pre-pandemic.
“Regarding covid, a large study in the UK found that more than half (56%) of participants reported having had arguments, feeling angry or fallen out with others because of Covid. Twenty-two percent of participants reported that they had confronted or reported someone.
“There’s no doubt that the restrictions have caused strain and a lot of people are very vocal both online and off about their opinions relating to Covid. However, there’s definitely some cultural differences with this. A really interesting study compared people’s online views about covid in America (Twitter posts) versus China (Weibo posts) using algorithms to identify emotions expressed in posts from Jan – May 2020 (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise). For me the interesting one is anger. In the Weibo posts (China), anger spikes at the start of the outbreak, but then drops off. However, on Twitter (America) anger keeps going up after the outbreak in March 2020, and no drop-off is observed,” says Louise.
America? Angry? Brand new information.
In the polls I took, over 3,500 people participated. Fifty-one percent admitted to feeling generally angrier during the pandemic, and 70% said they have found people to be meaner and more aggressive online lately.
Louise Dolphin says that a combination of the upheaval the pandemic has caused, the wider societal issues we’re all being faced with daily and the tendency towards cancel culture have merged to make a particularly anger-inducing environment – and the scary thing is that we’re all kind of stuck in it.
Covid is the tip of the iceberg
“Covid aside, it has been an incredibly emotive year,” she says.
“The second wave of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Trump/Biden stand-off, the alarm bells getting louder around the climate crisis, the Harvey Weinstein trial, Jeffrey Epstein revelations and the discussions around #metoo… Even in recent days and weeks, the Sarah Everard case and the Atlanta shootings. It’s a tense time in the world on so many fronts and some of what we are seeing on social media is mirroring that tension and panic and anger people are feeling on multiple issues,” Louise continues.
“It doesn’t help that trolls can still hide behind fake accounts (in my opinion you should need to register your ID to set up a Twitter account and put your name against your posts, but that’s for another day). And it doesn’t help that cancel culture and people’s secret delight at watching the kangaroo courts of Twitter play out and publicly shame people for certain views is at an all time high.
Louise recommends Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which she says “captures this so well”.
It’s an incredibly trying time to exist in an online space right now, whether your follower number is small, medium or large. People projecting their own feelings of stress, inadequacy, panic and despair on to the nearest available source – often someone they don’t know or don’t care to see as a fellow human – is inevitable.
I’ve taken to making some simple changes to my online behaviours, as a method of self-protection and self-preservation if nothing else – feel free to try them, by all means.
I have started to use the block function WILLY NILLY. I no longer feel guilty for taking the power back and muting the voice of someone who comes for me – I used to argue that people are entitled to their opinions… But I’ve since learned there’s a massive difference between someone expressing an opposing view and someone spouting pure bile in your direction. Block, block, block, baby.
I’ve also started to limit my access to news and Twitter. Twitter, first of all, can be a dangerous echo chamber. So keeping off there for the most part has helped me avoid being dragged into discussions I didn’t want to be in.
I’ve asked my husband to deliver me the most essential, top-line news that I need, and thanks to my gorgeous pal Cassie (you may know Cassie from such brilliant sites as rogue) I’ve been using News Fix to access the stories I need.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I’ve taken a few minutes a day to try to understand and empathise with those whose lives have been turned so upside down, who mightn’t have been in a place of comfort and safety even pre-pandemic and who have so much internalised pain that they’d send someone a horrible message or turn to trolling as an outlet for their own struggles.
I don’t have to engage with trolls, I don’t have to simply accept abusive messages – and neither do you. But understanding that most of the time, when a nasty DM pings into your life, it’s a reflection of someone else’s issues and not yours, is vital and important. It’s incredibly hard to show compassion or understanding in some instances, I know.
But we’re all angry. We’re all outlet-less. We’re all struggling.
Be patient. Be kind. Use that block button. We’ll get through it.
Image from smithsonianmag.com[/restrict]