A Billion Wicked Thoughts

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A Billion Angry Brains: The Four Types of Online Hostility

Two neuroscientists analyze trolls, scolds, crusaders, flame wars, and mobs.

 

"The Internet will break down national borders and lead to world peace."—Nicholas Negroponte, 1997.

“The Information Revolution is taking us back toward our better social instincts,'' rhapsodized scientist Matt Ridley in 1996. Prognosticators at the dawn of the Internet offered up an abundance of starry-eyed convictions, with a majority predicting that the World Wide Web would foster tolerance, promote empathy, and reduce rancor. “The Internet will break down national borders and lead to world peace,” Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab, wrote in 1997. “In the future, children are not going to know what nationalism is."

Perhaps some Internet-saturated American children grew up to feel as warmly towards the North Koreans as they do towards North Dakotans. Perhaps there are some web-surfing Chinese who do not distinguish a tsunami in Japan from an earthquake in Shanghai. But never in their wildest nightmares did Negroponte and other digital pioneers foresee our discouraging reality: millions of adults attacking one another in the comments sections of news sites, responding to YouTube videos with a taunting “Y U MAD BRO”, or trolling social media with snarky put-downs, offensive jokes, and poorly-punctuated political screeds targeting specific groups.

 Bullies, trolls, hackers, and self-righteous crusaders have entrenched themselves as a permanent feature in the modern online landscape. These digital gargoyles spew a daily dose of hostility: partisan rants, catty insults, ALL CAPS flame wars, sanctimonious boycotts, blistering twitter feuds, Anonymous raids, and endless waves of outraged petitions all clamoring to get rid of something.

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The Internet is so charged with casual nastiness that it can sometimes seem like a free-for-all straight from Lord of the Flies. But did it really have to be this way? Why exactly is there so much cruelty online? Does the Internet simply uncork our inhibitions like drugs or alcohol? Perhaps. But as computational neuroscientists, the more Dr. Sai Gaddam and I began to look into the data, the more we realized that a deeper explanation could be concealed within the design of our social brain.

In this series of articles we serve as the Jane Goodalls of the virtual jungle, venturing into humanity’s new digital habitat and carefully observing the untamed aggression of humankind. Whether it’s a Facebook post, YouTube video, Twitter feed, or lifestyle website comment box, the Internet facilitates social interaction on an unprecedented scale. With almost two billion human beings hooting and growling and clamoring for attention, we can encounter more provocative opinions in a single evening online than our ancestors did in a year. When this many contrarian minds collide, fireworks explode like a digital Fourth of July.

We analyzed millions of insults, taunts, threats, accusations, condemnations, calls to action, and bits of malicious gossip culled from Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Topix, Amazon, Yelp, Wikipedia, Politico, ESPN, Jezebel, and Change.org. We also traced the origins, dynamics, and conclusions of thousands of vigilante mobs, online crusades, and hacker attacks. What we found reveals a new way of understanding human social behavior—both online and off.

Drawing from the fields of Big Data, neuroscience, animal studies, game theory, and anthropology, the central discovery of our investigation is that online hostility can be accounted for by four distinct emotional systems hardwired in our brain, three of which we share with other animals—and one of which is found in humans alone. They are contempt, spite, raiding, and outrage.

  • The testosterone-fueled contempt system (what biologists call intermale aggression) drives individuals to diss and duel online and produces trolls.
  • The oxytocin-modulated spite system drives individuals to target opponents’ social networks.
  • The male raiding system drives groups of raiders to team up to attack enemy installations and gives rise to hacker groups.
  • But the most prevalent and influential form of online hostility is outrage, a uniquely human emotional system in the most evolved part of our social brain that drives us to collectively punish transgressors and gives rise to crusaders. Social media turbo-charges our outrage circuits and generates ever-increasing numbers of online petitions and lynch mobs.

Why do ordinary people become so vicious online? Are certain triggers responsible for most of human hostility? Are certain kinds of people more prone to acting out? How do men and women respond differently to provocation—and which gender is more dangerous online? And perhaps most pressingly, how can we use our hard-won knowledge of the brain to reduce online cruelty and make our new virtual habitat a more harmonious place? We asked these and other questions about our hyperconnected lives in the course of three years of research. Our unexpected answers are shared in this 15-part series of articles which we have titled A Billion Angry Brains.

[ In Part 2: The Laboratory of Slander we explore the simultaneous and spontaneous eruption of name-flaming in every American city on Topix.com. Or you can go back and read the Prologue: What Would A Cave Man Do If He Could Fly?]

 

Ogi Ogas, Ph.D., studies computational neuroscience. He is co-author of A Billion Wicked Thoughts.

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