Social Media is now an important element in modern social and political life as well as a means of communication and a public platform. Social Media has arguably become the new Public Space, a concept developed by Jurgen Habermas as “a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed” (Coen, 23rd January 2018; Habermas, 1974, p. 49). The impact of global social and political campaigns such as the #MeToo movement, which have been launched and maintained almost completely through social media have shown that social media is becoming a platform for debate.
However, is social media, in becoming the modern public space, slowly changing the way we debate, producing a far more vicious and personal form of interaction as a result of the impact of online disinhibition on individuals in the context of a minimal control by providers.
The Virtual World Effect
John Suler argues that the online world, in which Social Media exists, has a tendency to reduce the inhibitions of its users, either in a benign or a toxic way. In regard to the former, people feel they can share personal details about themselves, reveal their emotions, fears and dreams and can demonstrate acts of kindness and generosity. In contrast, the latter refers to the exposure of users to rude or offensive language, harsh criticism, outbursts of anger and hatred directed at them or others as well as exposure to pornography, crime and violence due to the actions of others (Suler, 2004, p. 321).
In recent months we have seen out working of this benign disinhibition effect particularly on social media with the emergence of the #MeToo Movement, firstly on Twitter before spreading to other social media sites such as Facebook in which women shared their personal stories of sexual violence and harassment. Their voices have drawn attention to the issue of sexual violence and harassment at every level of society (Lawton, 28th October 2017). As a result of disinhibiting effect of the online world, women have felt empowered to hint to and even declare in public, their own experiences forcing society as a whole to face an issue which many have known existed but for one reason or another, have chosen to ignore rather than challenge.
With the benign there has also been the toxic for example the increasing impact of “trolling” in which Social Media users have suffered mockery, threats and abuse. In 2011 a Facebook Memorial Page was hit by users mocking those whose deaths were being commemorated. In 2012 Anita Sarkessian received death and rape threats following her attempts to get funding for a Youtube series on misogyny in video games whilst later that same year, Jonathan Weisman, deputy Washington editor of the New York Times was driven from Twitter by anti-Semitic abuse (Stein, August 18th, 2016). These are just a few examples of a wider problem faced by many ordinary users of Social Media.
Whether benign or toxic, the disinhibiting nature of the online world plays a key role in shaping the manner in which individuals engage with one another and how individuals debate sensitive issues.
John Suler outlines six factors that create what he refers to as the “online Disinhibition Effect”, which I argue is having a significant impact on how individuals debate. These six factors are dissociative anonymity, invisibility, asynchronicity, solipsistic introjection, dissociative imagination, and minimization of authority (Suler, 2004, p. 321).
Dissociative Anonymity refers to the way in which individuals cannot accurately determine who they are conversing with through usernames, email addresses, all of which can be used to hide an individual’s real identity. This is crucial for disinhibition because:
When people have the opportunity to separate their actions online from their inpersonate lifestyle and identity, they feel less vulnerable about self-disclosing and acting out. Whatever they say or do can’t be directly linked to the rest of their lives (Suler, 2004, p. 322)
Invisibility refers to the way in which people cannot “see each other” and thus do not have access to body language, facial expressions or even tone of voice due to a focus on text-based communication through, instant messaging, chats and blogs. In terms of disinhibition this results in individuals playing less attention to these elements but also, they do not have access to these elements when interacting.
People don’t have to worry about how they look or sound when they type a message. They don’t have to worry about how others look or sound in response to what they say. Seeing a frown, a shaking head, a sigh, a bored expression, and many other subtle and not so subtle signs of disapproval or indifference can inhibit what people are willing to express (Suler, 2004, p. 322).
The disinhibition of what individuals are willing to express and how they are willing to express can have a significant impact when debating sensitive issues.
Asynchronicity refers to the way in which individuals do not interact in real-time. Conversations can take place over minutes, hours, days or even weeks which removes individuals having to counter or cope with an immediate reaction whilst the feedback loop still continues. This can result in certain behaviour or, in terms of debating a sensitive subject, certain lines of thinking being reinforced, and others being dismantled which shapes the “ongoing flow of self-disclosure and behavioral expression, usually in the direction of conforming to social norms”. Delays in the interactions between individuals can allow trains of thought to “progress more steadily and quickly towards deeper expressions of benign and toxic disinhibition that avert social norms” (Suler, 2004, pp. 322-323).
Solipsistic Introjection refers to the way in which, absent face-to-face markers combined with text communication, self-boundaries can be altered as can the separation of reality and the online world in which individual can begin to see others as part of themselves (Suler, 2004, p. 323). Dissociative Imagination refers to the way in which individuals can create imaginary characters and can see the online world as having ‘rules and norms that don’t apply to everyday living` in which they don’t have the same responsibilities. This can have a significant impact on how individuals discuss sensitive topics, relate to others and debate with them (Suler, 2004, p. 323).
All of this takes place within the context of a minimization of authority. In the online world, ‘everyone has an equal opportunity to voice him or herself. Everyone—regardless of status, wealth, race, or gender— starts off on a level playing field.` This can be both a positive and a negative in which there is no authority to regulate the way in which individuals engage. Individuals can both speak out in an appropriate manner that respects others or actively communicate with them in a way that they may never consider in real life (Suler, 2004, p. 324). Foul or abusive language, bullying, hate mail and death threats can all take place within the online world.
Traditional philosophy holds that everyone is an equal, that the purpose of the net is to share ideas and resources among peers. The net itself is designed with no centralized control (Suler, 2004, p. 324).
Though social media such as Facebook is increasingly being monitored with the facility for comments to be reported to moderators, it takes time for these reports to be dealt with, if indeed they are dealt with in the manner desired by the reporter. Moderators can only do so much and can only counter the symptoms of a growing problem, with individuals being the focus rather than the culture that is being created.
In my opinion, the impact of Online Disinhibition is fundamentally undermining the way we debate, removing the inhibitions which shape the manner in which we engage with others and the language that we use online that we would think twice about if we were to look them in the face. A culture is thus emerging on social media with different rules and norms to those that govern our face to face interactions. Being aware of the impact online disinhibition can have on the way we interact with others should encourage all of us to be critically aware of our own disinhibition and think about how and what we communicate to others rather than allowing ourselves to say the first thing that comes into our heads. After all, once words have been spoken (or typed!) they cannot easily be taken back.
Coen, Sharon, The Wire (23rd January 2018), “Margaret Atwood: Tried on Social Media, Convicted by the Press” available at: https://thewire.in/culture/margaret-atwood-tried-social-media-convicted-press [Accessed on 6th February 2018]
Habermas, Jurgen (1974) “The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article” translated by Sara and Frank Lennox, New German Critique, 3, pp. 49-55 available at: http://www.socpol.unimi.it/docenti/barisione/documenti/File/2008-09/Habermas%20(1964)%20-%20The%20Public%20Sphere.pdf [Accessed on 6th February 2018]
Lawton, Georgiana, The Guardian, (28th October 2017), “#MeToo is here to stay. We must challenge all men about sexual harassment” available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/oct/28/metoo-hashtag-sexual-harassment-violence-challenge-campaign-women-men [Accessed on 24th March 2018]
Stein, Joel, The Times, (18th August 2016) “How Trolls are Ruining the Internet” http://time.com/4457110/internet-trolls/ [Accessed on 24th March 2018]
Suler, John (2004), “The Online Disinhibition Effect”, Cyberpyschology and Behaviour, Volume 7, Number 3, pp. 321-327 available at: https://www.samblackman.org/Articles/Suler.pdf [Accessed on 24th March 2018]