Staying Away from Online Toxicity

2020’s notoriety has probably outdone by now the significance of your birth year or the popularity of 1984.

The pandemic forced us to adjust to new ways of living in order to survive. An essential lifeline was the Internet. In our isolation, the Internet has become the safest way to see the outside world and to connect with people who mean the world to us.

However, we all know that the cyberspace is also littered with junk such as misinformation and disinformation. While we are combating a deadly pandemic in real life, an overwhelming ‘infodemic’ continue to threaten the digital world. We sometimes also have to deal with toxic online behavior.

From all indications, it seems like for the most part of the coming year, we will continue to rely on the Internet for safer interactions. So here is something to make us better understand behavior in cyberspace to protect ourselves from toxicity, disinformation, and misinformation.

The Disinhibition Effect

Psychologist Dr. John Suler (2004) explained that people behave differently online because of the disinhibition effect. This is the tendency ‘to self-disclose or act out more intensely or frequently than they would in person (Suler, 2004).’ Simply put, we lower our guards when interacting via phone or computer than when facing another human being eye to eye. 

Suler (2004) named some characteristics of online communication that enables disinhibition. One is anonymity, or having the choice to hide or modify online identity. This allows a person to dissociate or distance their real world identities from what they do or say online. 

Another is invisibility. For example, this affords a person the convenience to bring up a difficult conversation or launch hostile attacks through public comments, chats, text messaging, or e-mail. This is because we don’t have to worry about how we should act or how we should sound when we say what we wanted to say. We also do not have to deal with the other person’s immediate non-verbal reactions because we don’t see them. Because most communication on the web is also asynchronous or aren’t happening in real time, we can even put off checking our inbox until we are ready to respond, or totally ignore the person’s reply. There is also dissociative imagination, or the perception that cyberspace isn’t real. This makes people do things online that they would never do in person. 

As most of us might have experienced by now, what happens in cyberspace definitely doesn’t just stay there. These have real life consequences. Mean comments can hurt or anger us. Too much social media exposure can add to pressure, or make us feel envious. Toxic online experiences can impact our face-to-face relationships. And on an even larger scale, the proliferation of lies and falsehoods online can poison the life of an entire nation.

Disinhibition: The Good and the Bad

Online disinhibition is not inherently bad. On the upside, it encourages self-disclosure and pro-social behaviors (Lapidot-Lefler & Barak, 2015). For example, we find it easier to share our stories of personal triumphs and challenges by posting them online than telling these in person. We engage in this kind of self-disclosure to seek moral and material support, to inspire or motivate people in a similar situation, and to process our experiences and be able to reflect.  There is nothing wrong with these. 

Pro-social behaviors such as offering assistance, reaching out for help, initiating conversations on current issues, or participating in calls for a more accountable government are also more doable for most online. Social media platforms also give us space to express ourselves. However, on the downside, these spaces can be unsafe. One threat is toxic disinhibition. This includes trash talking, hostile personal attacks against another person (which could include spreading false, malicious gossip), and propagandizing lies. 

Some fraudsters have found ways to take advantage of the peculiar terrain of online communication to spread harmful information. This intentional creation and dissemination of falsehoods is called disinformation. When we fall prey to disinformation, we become misinformed.  We cannot blame the victims because the messages are designed to deceive; they strongly appeal to emotions and specific biases (Wardle, 2017).

Moreover, people are very preoccupied trying to survive the pandemic (and the holiday season) that many of us have very little mental energy left to sift through, let alone keep up, with the overwhelming information that emerge online.  We must remember that an exhausted, emotional mind is easier to manipulate.

So how do we protect ourselves from exhaustion and better deal with online toxicity? Find out in the second part of this article.

References

Suler J. (2004) The online disinhibition effect. Cyberpsychol Behav. Jun;7(3):321-6. doi: 10.1089/1094931041291295. PMID: 15257832. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/8451443_The_Online_Disinhibition_Effect

Lapidot-Lefler, N., & Barak, A. (2015). The benign online disinhibition effect: Could situational factors induce self-disclosure and prosocial behaviors?. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 9(2), Article 3. https://doi.org/10.5817/CP2015-2-3

Wardle, C (2017, February 16). Fake news. It’s complicated. Retrieved from https://firstdraftnews.org/latest/fake-news-complicated/

About the Author

Subselfie - Tricia

Tricia is a news Executive Producer. She runs one of CNN Philippines’ evening primetime newscasts, News.PH Kasama si Pia Hontiveros, and recently produced a two-hour breaking news special coverage on the devastation caused by Typhoon Ulysses (Vamco).

She had an 11-year career as television reporter and anchor, first at RPN 9, and then at GMA 7. Tricia had also worked in the humanitarian sector as Communications Officer for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders).

She’s a vegetarian, painter, scuba diver, and very recently, became a fur parent.

Master’s in Psychology 2020, UP Diliman. Broadcast Journalism 2007 (cum laude), UP Diliman.

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