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The Hyperbole Machine
I scream, you scream, we all scream because of side effects of online disinhibition.
In a new paper about the Exaggeration of emotional responses in online communication Avner Caspi and Shir Etgar from the Open University of Israel found that emotional exaggeration is the norm on social media platforms because “online media filter out communication cues“, which would make social media outrage a side effect of the well documented online disinhibition effect, the “lack of restraint one feels when communicating online in comparison to communicating in-person“.
since paralinguistic cues are filtered out, users need to amplify their emotional statements to convey their feelings. Exaggerated emotional messages receive exaggerated responses that aim to converge type of communication. Consequently, intensified emotional expression becomes the norm, and other users subsequently adhere to these norms.
Interestingly, they also found that users exaggerate more when communicating with friends than with groups or in public statements, and that the level of privacy seems to be correlated positively to that exaggeration — but not on email.
If these results hold up, and i see no reason why they shouldn’t, this has various consequences, especially for a certain brand of political activism and the teenage mental health crisis.
No World On Fire
I write about online outrage since i published a long piece about the shitshow called Gamergate back in 2015 (above illustration by yours truly comes from that piece), in which i portrait this mess not as the straightforward campaign against women in gaming — which was part of it for sure —, but as a multifacetted outbreak of sentiments and a phenomenon that featured many, many factors leading to the eruption of rage, including beforementioned mysoginy, but also generational conflicts, economics, and last but surely not least: psychological effects of the web on human communication which trap us all in an outrage spiral. In the piece, i concluded that the psychology of the web may become a more important factor than the good old netpolitics when it comes to societal impact.
Some time after i wrote said piece, a neighbor went on a half year trip through asia. When he returned, we had a little chat in the backyard and he was just baffled: Following the developments in his home country through social media and the news over there made it look like civil war would be right around the corner, with everybody up in arms about everything. Then he returned home, wondering and amused by the fact that everything was okay and fine and nobody was screaming in the streets.
This is what the hyperbole machine called the internet does to public discourse and it is a long accepted truth that the internet amplifies everything, from virality, speed and audience numbers to emotions, anger, weirdness and cruelty.
Besides the fact that anger about the other is the most viral thing you can do — especially when it comes to fringe politics by the way —, and outrage being a thing online since forever where good old ranting always and always has been a sure click with the audience, i always considered our tendency to rage on the internet to be part of the attention economy: When anger is the most viral thing because of our negativity bias, and we compete about eyeballs on the web, i thought, then it just follows that online spaces become more and more toxic over time, the more people use them.
I did not, however, consider that we may rage online because we try to compensate for lost communication cues, and when you put that psychological effect into our attention economy, then you get the internet we are seeing today: People can’t help but exaggerate their emotions because of the online disinhibition effect, and want to be seen and heard, the digital social world just explodes. And then we go outside, like my neighbor, and wonder why the world does not actually burn in real life.
This emotionalizing side effect of lost communication cues entrails on all sorts of consequences for nearly every aspect of our social online lives and political discourse. (It also explains why libertarians have a laugh about all of this for some years now: They are the least impressed with emotional voodoo, don’t care too much about who they are talking to, about tribalism and all of that.)
Especially activists online seem to be affected by this, here’s just one example of many documented by, where he writes about the leftwing “obsession with magic words“, “throwing emotionally loaded terms around, like when the coffeehouse didn’t have raw sugar and they called it fascism“. The hard lefts tendency to exaggerate and call doom and gloom on everything is an age old joke among more moderates like me, but put this tendency into an online environment where it meets psychological effects that exaggerate that exaggeration, the consequences are a nobrainer. Also a nobrainer: The woke left seems to be among the most vulnerable to this effect, as their activism revolves explicitly around victimhood, which already is highly emotionally connotated.
And while this emotionalizing effect has consequences on leftwing activism, whichs hyperbole you may call even funny if you’re so inclined — I’m not—, the consequences on the right are deadly: Stochastic terrorism and mass shootings by people enraged from cocooning themselves into radicalizing echo chambers.
This is also the reason why, even when woke lefties are surely the moral grandstanders, virtue signalers and new puritans as they are called out, pointing your finger at them like most anti-feminists do, is cheap and it ignores that the underlying psychology affects everyone.
The Dark Triad of online psychology
You see, when we rage online about stuff we don’t like because of negativity bias, especially about people from the other side, and exaggerate our emotional messages because we can’t help it, it makes us feel good.
In a paper from last year about the Neural Mechanisms of Intergroup Exclusion and Retaliatory Aggression researchers found that “participants who were more aggressive against outgroup members (students from a rival university) versus ingroup members (students from their own university) exhibited greater activity in core regions of the brain’s reward circuit“.
Additionally, the paper Dark social media participation and well-being finds that “malicious ‘dark participation’, the spreading of digital offenses, hate speech, fake news, and conspiracy theories (…) indicates positive emotions and specific gratifications resulting from their behavior, in particular when it is fully consistent with their ideologies.“
And it doesn’t stop there: The so called Dark Triad (consisting of Machiavellianism, sub-clinical narcissism, and sub-clinical psychopathy), also refered to as Dark Tetrad which adds sadism to the mix, are correlated to political ideologies and can explain, according to a paper from 2020, “a substantial portion of variance in White Identitarianism and Political Correctness-Authoritarianism, and only a small portion of variance in Political Correctness-Liberalism“.
Adding insult to injury, psychologists also found that raging online about stuff we don’t like is not based in altruism, which you would asume especially for the political correctness folks, but “a function of self-interest, wielded to assuage feelings of personal culpability for societal harms or reinforce (to the self and others) one's own status as a Very Good Person“. Which is to say that virtue signaling is covering for feelings of guilt.
In the paper mention in the intro to this post, the researchers also write that “expressions of negative emotions were considered most unsuitable on Instagram, whereas expressions of positive emotions were perceived as less acceptable on Twitter. Thus, each platform leads to the development of different communication norms.“ If you then consider that the core audience on Instagram are influencers, and journalists and activists on Twitter, then it’s clear to me why Instagram fosters aesthetic sameness, and Twitter became the “hellsite“.
The overall picture emerging from these various psychological mechanisms affected by internet communications is dire. We can’t help but emotionally exaggerate our communication due to a side effect of online disinhibition, and then our brains give us sweet dopamine and oxytocin shots from raging about political enemies, while the majority of people falls silent out of fear of isolation.
This is the outrage spiral in a nutshell.
The problem is Us
As long as i write about online outrage, i was not able to shake the feeling that, despite the myriad of essays pointing at various culprits, from capitalism to platform design to evil people from the other tribe — while all of those surely add fuel to the fire, that the core problem of our raging online tendencies was simple: Human psychology meeting masses of people that easily topple the Dunbar number multiple times — the amount of people in our offline social circles usually hovers around 150 peepz — in a highly visible democratized digital highspeed communication and publishing system. For me, that paper on emotional exaggeration seems to be one of the last missing puzzle pieces.
Maybe, and to close this on a positive note, a publishing system like Substack and other newsletter services using classic email, where according to the emo-hyperbole study this emotional exaggeration seems to be at it’s lowest, is one way to tame that outrage spiral.
So, read and write more newsletters, i guess.
In my writings about these things i also regulary mention that, if anything, then humans are adaptive — and with the culture wars winding down, I’m very sure we will find a way to bring some calm to these realms.
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