Is online abuse increasing, or are we just less tolerant of it?

A thought that follows on from yesterday’s post about Twitter and freedom of speech: it’s easy, I think, to see all the anger and distress caused by online abuse and come to the conclusion that it’s a growing problem. That social spaces online are increasingly hostile to women and other minorities, and that such incidents are increasing in both frequency and severity. In short, it’s easy to think that things are getting worse.

But I don’t believe that’s true. Social spaces online have historically always been fairly unpleasant places to be a visible minority, with notable exceptions. Usenet wasn’t a fun place to be openly female. Neither were early IRC channels (a/s/l and all). Parts of 4chan and Reddit still aren’t. But as online space has become easier to enter, easier to use, more important and less socially obscure, a broader section of society has colonised it. I learned when I was about 12 that you don’t admit your gender online, if you’re female; it’s less than three months since I first felt comfortable using a real picture of my face as my avatar, knowing what that can open you up to.

The evolution over the last couple of years has been that more women and other minorities feel safe enough online to be visible at all, rather than hiding behind the default masculine assumption that comes with anonymity and some pseudonymity. The target pool for abuse is larger, because more people are unafraid to simply be in public.

At the same time, the backlash to such behaviour is more visible and more outspoken. Abuse and threats are increasingly seen as unacceptable. That means more visibility for particularly reprehensible abuse, where a decade ago it would have been more hidden and harder to speak out against. The availability heuristic means people are more likely to overestimate the frequency of abuse now as opposed to abuse years ago, because they can think of more recent visible examples – not necessarily because it’s more frequent, but because it’s more frequently spoken of. It also means that social norms are changing for the better.

Maybe this is too optimistic a take. But I’d like to believe so.

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Mary Hamilton

I'm an operations specialist, analytics nerd, recovering journalist, consultant, writer, game designer, company founder, and highly efficient pedant.

One thought on “Is online abuse increasing, or are we just less tolerant of it?”

  1. Hi Mary

    Hope you are right – perhaps social media can be a civilising influence – after all, good conversation (the exchange of ideas) is the basis of most healthy societies.

    There are obviously some very sad people out there who think that shouting abuse is an example of freedom of expression – but don’t realise that freedom of expression is never unfettered, that it comes with responsibilities (and that threatening someone – whether on or off line – goes beyond merely expressing an obnoxious opinion and as such is a criminal matter).

    Perhaps it’s not going too far to suggest that many of those abusers appear mentally ill – torn apart by their own neuroses, the overriding sense of inadequacy, and their inability to formulate a coherent argument.

    Perhaps (like many bullies – for that is what they are) they have been abused too. Perhaps they have grown up in dysfunctional environments where they have failed to learn the basics of civilised behaviour. Or simply see the anonymity of the net as an excuse to give way to their baser instincts.

    I am not sure what the answer is – beyond standing up and saying it is unacceptable. Blocking is obviously useful in limited circumstance – naming and shaming can also work – and the Police should get involved when the abuse turns to threats.

    Perhaps a double-check reporting system might work for more sustained assualts. Rather than having a simple ‘report abuse’ button (like block which requires no further comment) – you would have to either select a reason (nature of abuse) from a drop down list – or post a copy of the abusive tweet as a record.

    I know this seems fiddly and puts the onus on those being abused – but it would enable more people to report the same tweet. If most of the reports tallied, it would be easier for an automated system to identify genuine abuse (rather than just someone complaining about a tweet they don’t like) – the same way Google algorithms identify relevant answers based on similar searches.

    Thank you for the interesting posts (sorry I don’t always get a chance to comment).

    Best wishes


    PS: Glad we can now see the real you.

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