We’ve seen a rash of high profile Twitter-gone-wrong cases, from Donald Trump unleashing his “beautiful Twitter account” on FOX News anchor Megyn Kelly to Leslie Jones quitting Twitter after receiving a stream of racist and hate speech after the debut of her remake of the movie “Ghostbusters.” 
What’s going on here?

Twitter’s mission statement: 

At the best of times, Twitter allows anyone to share an idea or information, with anyone (who reads their tweet) anywhere across the world. That’s a pretty powerful platform.  If we have a good idea, we can share it.  If we see something newsworthy, with the simple click of a button, we can spread the word. And occasionally, we win the lottery when we tweet to a celebrity AND THEY TWEET BACK. So why do we get obsessed with checking our twitter feeds, even while sitting on the toilet at 3 am?

From a psychological standpoint, Twitter taps into our natural reward-based learning processes: trigger, behavior, reward (for more on this see this TED.com talk). We have a great idea or think of something funny (trigger), tweet it out (behavior), and receive likes and retweets (reward). And the more we do this, the more this behavior gets reinforced. We can even track our own “relevance” by the number of followers we have. 

copyright 2016 Judson Brewer
Source: copyright 2016 Judson Brewer

The less-than-shiny side of Twitter comes in the same form. We get angry at someone’s tweet, and instantly send a rage-filled tweet to that person. Same learning process, yet the reward comes in the form of self-righteous vindication. “Yeah, I got that guy!” we smugly think as we put our phone back in our pocket. Or worse, if we have a bunch of followers (who often share our particular view of the world, hence following us), and we want to target a particular person, we can send out a nasty tweet that’s just under the threshold of getting ourselves kicked off Twitter, and then we sit back and gleefully watch as our “trolls” descend, feeding off each other in the frenzy to wipe our intended victim into oblivion.

My wife (a Bible scholar), has been asking these sobering and haunting questions about the “troll” side of Twitter: as humans, why is it so attractive to be so hateful?  And deep down, are we all like this?   

Looking at these questions from a purely scientific standpoint, we know that reward-based learning is one of the oldest learning processes that we know of. With only 20,000 neurons, sea slugs learn the same way as we do: the same positive and negative reinforcement loops are at play. Yet, with Twitter, there’s a critical part of this feedback loop that goes missing (or is easy to ignore): negative feedback.

I think the comedian Louis CK put it well when he was describing how kids interact with each other via text messaging (watch the first 20 seconds of this interview on Conan):

What is he describing? Negative feedback! When we’re face to face with someone, we see the results of our actions. Putting it simply, if what we did feels bad, we stop doing it. With Twitter (and texting), we can’t see the immediate results of our actions, so the feedback we get is only from ourselves (and perhaps others around us who may be egging us on), which tends to be positive. And through these skewed feedback loops some of us have even learned to associate hurting others with pleasure. As Louis CK put it, “Yum, that was fun, I like that.” 

We may even ignore or have a skewed interpretation of the tweets that come back to us that tell us our actions are harmful. Why? Because it simply feels better to focus on the likes and the retweets as “proof” that what we’re doing is a good thing. Having a world view that doesn't have shades of grey becomes unassailable when constantly reinforced by likes and retweets –all fueled by our Twitter ‘in-group’ of followers. That level of certainty feels much better than having to deal with the nuances of real world dynamics. To our brains, it's a no brainer!

So what can we do if we find ourselves firing off angry tweets, or ruminating over something someone tweeted ‘at’ us? Understanding the process is half the battle. Knowing how our brains work can help us identify the habit loops we’ve fostered, so that we can step out of them.

Developing awareness practices, such as mindfulness, can also be instrumental in paying attention to the results of our actions, even putting ourselves in the shoes of the person we’re about to, or have just tweeted at. How would I receive this tweet? What would this feel like to me? This helps with the lack of feedback inherent in Twitter. This opens the space not to feed those moments when we have a seemingly uncontrollable urge to unleash our “beautiful Twitter account” on someone. It might even change the reward dynamics. Instead of feeling that excited, self-righteous “I-showed-her” reward, we might even be able to notice what it feels like to hold back (hint: being nice is not overrated).

For more examples of the extent to which twitter trolling can be destructive, see NPR's Fresh Air interview by Terry Gross with National Review writer David French and with Megyn Kelly.

For more on reward-based learning and mindfulness see The Craving Mind: from cigarettes to smartphones to love - why we get hooked and how we can break bad habits.

About the Author

Judson Brewer, MD, Ph.D.

Judson Brewer MD, Ph.D. is the Director of Research at the Center for Mindfulness and associate professor in medicine and psychiatry at University of Massachusetts Medical School.

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