Jorge Manrubia

July 2, 2023

Social media evilness (II)


Back in the day, I wrote some notes on the puzzling question of why so many people act so maliciously toward others on social media. A book introduced me to the concept of moral outrage, which brought some answers to my questions.

A recent tweet by Dr. Jonathan Shedler referred an article that suggests a pretty different angle: the primary driver for people participating in public shaming is not justice but primarily hedonic – it makes participants feel good. A sense of justice plays a role, though: it increases the pleasure of witnessing the offender receiving punishment. I also learned a term for this form of malicious pleasure at another's misfortune: schadenfreude. This article states that the main driver for online shaming is schadenfreude.

As a completely ignorant regarding social psychology, I can't assess how well-conducted the three studies cited in the article were or how solid their conclusions are. But this article resonated with my anecdotal observation of these public shaming episodes. 

I can't think of a more energy-draining activity than spending your days insulting and canceling others. My Occam's razor explanation for such people was that they somehow got their energy that way. Imagine my interest – and confirmation bias – when I found a scientific paper articulating precisely this.

You can argue that any victim can attack an aggressor in self-defense, which is obviously fair. The problem is when you have to perform several intellectual jumps to assign the victim and aggressor roles. Then you enter a slippery slope: anyone can qualify as a victim with the right to shame whoever disagrees with their beliefs, and, in the same way, anyone can become an aggressor deserving an exemplary punishment. You just need the right intellectual contortions. The irony is that, not so long ago, people used to make fun of such illogicality in online discussions.
Feelings are personal and unquestionable, but everyone is responsible for their actions. Considering your feelings a wildcard to treat others awfully is a manifestation of narcissism which, again, is aligned with what the article states.

If moral outrage was the only reason for public shaming, the outlook would be more optimistic. After all, we can fight our tribal instincts with education and civility. But this article puts a more concerning ingredient on the table: some cruel people thrive with an excuse to project their bitterness and resentment towards others, so they do. I still believe civility will play a significant factor in isolating such actors and dramatically reducing their reach. Hopefully, we'll see that happening in the coming years.

If you are interested, I recommend you to check this thread by Dr. Jonathan Shedler with a deeper psychological dive on this subject. Some food for thought there:

The most toxic and hateful people in the world are 100% convinced they fight for what is true and right.

About Jorge Manrubia

A programmer who writes about software development and many other topics. I work at 37signals.