The distinction frequently made between the online world and real life doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, says cyberpsychologist Mary Aiken. What we do in the real world reflects online, and what happens online invariably seeps into our daily life, if not overwhelming it from time to time. This plasma membrane, which separates online and real life, is mediated in one direction by what is called “cyber migration,” i.e. the transaction in which what we do on the Internet affects our real lives.
So how has the dampening, or completely destruction, of civic discourse in online comment forums changed the way we act in normal life? For starters, more and more websites are removing their comments section, so filled have they become with vitriol and every kind of offense imaginable. National Public Radio recently made headlines by removing its comments sections; Big Think removed ours several months prior.
Still, extremely offensive discourse IRL has been normalized by rude behavior online, says Aiken. And while we may disagree with the use of such language now as we did before, we no longer find it shocking, and our disapprobation of it has been overwhelmed by its frequency. That shift in our civic tone has, via cyber migration, made its way into the highest level of our political arena. Yes, the race to become the next President of the United States of America is infected with stinging insults and crude insinuation like never before.
Here Aiken discusses an influential study into the psychology of Internet trolls — titled Trolls Just Want to Have Fun — in which rude commenters were found to have personality characteristics similar to psychopaths and Machiavellian individuals. What is frightening is how widespread a phenomenon trolling has become. And the more it spreads, the more it becomes normalized, and the less likely we are to object to it. When uncivil discourse is accepted online, it is difficult to partition real life as a place where that level of malice is unacceptable.
Mary Aiken’s most recent book is The Cyber Effect: A Pioneering Cyberpsychologist Explains How Human Behavior Changes Online.