The People Behind Online Hate

A new study finds online haters show relatively high levels of psychopathy.

Posted Mar 31, 2021 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader

 Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Source: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

Haters will hate

Do you know, right now, what the Internet is saying about you?

Could one careless tweet cost you your job? Are nude photos of you lingering on your ex’s smartphone? Could one angry customer trash your small business?

Will a potential romance cool because of what’s been posted about you online? How likely is it that any of that will happen?

More likely than you think. In today’s digitally driven world, countless people are being electronically embarrassed every day.

Stories of troll attacks revenge porn, sexting scandals, email hacks, webcam hijackings, cyberbullying, and screenshots gone viral fill our newsfeeds.

According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, 66 percent of adult Internet users say they have witnessed online harassment and 67 percent of adult Internet users under the age of 30 have personally experienced it.

Given events like the 2014 Sony Pictures email hack that leaked studio heads’ private messages and the 2015 Ashley Madison breach that revealed the identities of millions of alleged philanderers, it is clear that we are all potentially one click away from being unwillingly thrust into the Internet glare.

And what awaits us there? A nation of finger-wagging vultures who delight in tormenting us and tearing our reputations to shreds or worse—inducting you into the cancel culture.

This culture of attacking people with the simple stroke of a keyboard has become much more than a fad. In a 2014 survey conducted by YouGov, 28 percent of Americans admitted to engaging in malicious online activity directed at somebody they didn’t even know. 

How have we become this Shame Nation, where we are constantly hurling our collective outrage at an endless supply of fresh victims? And is there anything we can do to stop this, before it affects us or the people we love?

Understanding derogatory behavior

As social media grows every day, it also gives people more space to share their ideas and express their opinions. Sadly, this comes with a rise of online hate behavior which seems to be getting more malicious with the trend of the cancel culture.

This is important because more and more employees and colleges are using social media to screen applicants. Online reputation is typically your first impression someone will have of you—if you are being digitally tormented, it can be risky for your future.

A new study published in Frontiers in Psychology explored the psychological profile of people who posted hate comments online during the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. The researchers found that hate commenters demonstrated high levels of one specific Dark Triad trait—psychopathy.

Piotr Sorokowki and his research team say it was surprising that narcissism and Machiavellianism were not related to online hate behavior, given that these traits have been previously linked to both online trolling and cyber-bullying.

“Our research is one of the first to establish a psychological background of online haters,” Sorokowski and colleagues remark, “while setting a clear line between online hating and other derogatory online behaviors (e.g., trolling, cyber-bullying, or hatred speech).”

Developing empathy to defeat hate

Dr. Michele Borba, author of UnSelfie, has been educating students and people of all ages about the importance of developing empathy in our lives—especially in today's world.

"Empathy is not an inborn trait," Borba shares. "Empathy is a quality that can be taught—in fact, it's a quality that must be taught, by parents, by educators and by those in a child's community. And what's more, it's a talent that kids can cultivate and improve, like riding a bike or learning a foreign language."

We're never too old to learn. There is too much digital discourse right now and it's time for adults to start taking action. Empathy is a verb according to Borba, and it can be taught to grown-ups too. 

5 ways to help curb online hate

1. Never perpetuate hate or misinformation. Don’t forward, like, or retweet distasteful comments or images.

2. Report and flag abusive, mean, hateful content to the social platform.

3. Reach out to someone that is struggling. Private message them, even if it’s only a virtual hug. Let them know you are there for them.

4. Kindness is contagious. Talk about it with your kids. Read headlines of people doing good things for other people—then get involved.

5. Lead by example not only for your children, but for your colleagues, friends, and family. 

Always remember, your online behavior is a reflection of your offline character.

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