Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Understanding Our Online Dumpster Fire

How group identities contribute to dunking, harassment, and misinformation.

Key points

  • Our groups and social identities are key to understanding, and ultimately solving, the problems of the attention economy and online ecosystem.
  • Negativity thrives in online spaces, but negativity directed at out-groups is especially potent.
  • Online harassment often piggybacks on the psychology of blame that is triggered when someone is perceived to have violated a group norm.
  • Not all disinformation is equal. Which fake facts are spread and believed depends on the light they cast on our in-groups and out-groups.

In a prescient 1999 interview, David Bowie foresaw the revolutionary impact the internet was about to have on the world. “I think the potential of what the internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable. I think we’re actually on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying."

“It’s just a tool though, isn’t it?" asked the interviewer.

No, it’s not, no. It’s an alien life form!” Bowie replied.

Now, 20-odd years later, many people would agree that the influence of the internet has tilted more toward the terrifying than the exhilarating. Consider, for example, three findings from recent research:

  • Steve Rathje, Jay Van Bavel (co-author of this very blog), and Sander van der Linden examined more than 800,000 posts by conservative and liberal media outlets on Twitter and Facebook to see what sort of content was more likely to go viral. Replicating past research, they found that posts with more negative emotional words were generally shared and retweeted more frequently, while more positive words were associated with less sharing. More powerful than this, however, was the effect of words related to the political out-group. Every word referencing the out-group in a post increased sharing and retweeting by 35 to 57 percent, and this was true for both conservatives who responded enthusiastically to tweets like, “Every American needs to see Joe Biden’s latest brain freeze,” and liberals who loved posts like, “Trump has lied more than 3,000 times since taking office but Republicans refuse to say Trump is a liar. What’s going on?” This kind of harsh rhetoric targeting the out-group also elicited much angrier reactions as people responded to these posts.
  • Based on interviews with people who have suffered online harassment and safety workers at social media platforms, Alice Marwick developed a model to explain “morally motivated network harassment.” She finds that online harassment often follows a predictable progression. The cycle is triggered when a member of an online community or network accuses someone of violating an important social norm. This triggers moral outrage in others, who then send harassing messages to the apparent transgressor, reinforcing the social norm and publicly signaling their social identity to the community. This online harassment often leads to self-censorship, both by its victims and people who observe it happening.
  • Andreas Pereira, Elizabeth Harris, and Jay ran experiments in which they showed fake news stories about Democrats and Republicans to supporters of both parties. Some of the stories were positive, others were negative, and in each case, participants were asked how much they believed the stories to be true. Had Trump enacted a law restricting minorities to have only one child? Had Hillary Clinton really worn an ear-piece during the political debates? The research team found that people were more likely to believe stories about the in-group when they were positive and more likely to believe stories about the out-group when they were negative, and these beliefs were associated with a greater desire to share the stories (remember that they were fake news) on social media.

There are many contributors to the dumpster fire that is our contemporary online ecosystem. As the evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson put it:

“The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. And it is terrifically dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall.”

But the three findings above show that groups and the social identities we derive from them are central to understanding, and ultimately solving, many of the problems in our online worlds. Negativity thrives in online spaces, yes. But negativity directed at out-groups is especially potent. Online harassment has become depressingly common, creating toxic environments, especially for people with minority or marginalized identities. Much of this harassment piggybacks on the psychology of outrage and blame that is triggered when someone is perceived to have violated a group norm. This helps to explain why some of the worst bullying online comes from people in the same groups and communities as their victims. And not all disinformation is equal. Which fake facts are spread and believed depends on the light they cast, for good or ill, on our in-groups and out-groups.

The internet revolution has vastly increased the amount of information available to ordinary citizens. But our level of engagement with this information is often sadly lackluster. By some accounts, people scroll through the equivalent of 300 feet on their social media feeds every day—and only a few things pop out enough to capture attention. People have learned that invoking or threatening a group identity can cut through the noise and trigger an immediate defensive response.

This was beautifully illustrated by an April’s Fools prank executed by NPR in 2014. They posted an article with the provocative headline: “Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?

If you clicked the link and read the article, you saw this: “We sometimes get the sense that some people are commenting on NPR stories that they haven't actually read. If you are reading this, please like this post and do not comment on it. Then let's see what people have to say about this ‘story’."

Before long, their comments section was full of strenuous opinions from people who hadn’t bothered to read enough text to realize it was a gag. One person angrily wrote: “Speak for yourself. My husband, myself, family, friends, read books all. the. time.”

This norm toward rapid reactions and combative postures can affect everyone, even—as it turns out—the most analytical among us. This might be why Nate Silver (founder of the data-driven news site FiveThirtyEight) dunked on one of our recent papers with a contrarian hot-take, arguing that the paper wasn't written by enough interdisciplinary experts.

Ironically, the contested paper in question had, in fact, been written by an interdisciplinary group of scholars in an attempt to better understand the crisis in collective behavior that social media platforms and the attention economy have wrought, along with what might be done about it.

The consequences of our online future that David Bowie foresaw in 1999 are no longer unimaginable. And it is important to note that there has, as he predicted, been much good alongside the bad. As our paper on our collective crisis noted, the internet has produced many "positive developments, such as transnational and transdisciplinary collaborations, the rapid spread of scientific ideas, direct citizen engagement in science and politics, and overcoming the isolation of individuals who do not fit in their local communities because of their beliefs and preferences."

Alien no longer, the question is: How do we continue to increase this life form's exhilarating elements while reducing its more terrifying aspects?


If you want to get smarter about groups and help build smarter groups, join our weekly newsletter about 'The Power of Us'.

More from Psychology Today

More from Dominic Packer, Ph.D. and Jay Van Bavel Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today