Psychologically distressed individuals are more likely to engage in online hate

New research provides evidence that personal factors and group behavior are both related to sending hateful messages on social media. The findings have been published in PLOS One.

“I believe that the online hate and aggression are among the most critical current social problems and they challenge the well-being and safety of individuals and communities but also functioning of our societies and democratic processes. Online aggression should be seen as an emerging form of violence rather than as a problem limited to social media,” said corresponding author Markus Kaakinen, a postdoctoral researcher at University of Helsinki’s Institute of Criminology and Legal Policy.

A survey of 1,200 Finnish adolescents and young adults found that impulsivity and internalizing symptoms — such as anxiety and depression — were associated with sending social media messages with the intent to offend or threaten other users. The researchers also found that Twitter and Instagram use were positively associated with online hate, while the use of YouTube and instant messaging apps were negatively associated with online hate.

“Hateful communication is, like offline violence, associated with personal and social risk factors. For example, psychologically distressed individuals who prefer similar-minded social contacts online are more likely to threaten or degrade others in social media. Similarly to traditional violence, online hate offending is also more likely among impulsive individuals,” Kaakinen told PsyPost.

“However, hostile online behavior is also associated with group processes within social media. We found that individuals who had threatened or degraded others online were more likely to rely on in-group stereotypes (i.e. self-stereotype) in simulated anonymous online interaction scenarios. This suggests that individuals with aggressive online communication tend to base their behavior and evaluations on perceived group memberships and stereotypes.”

But like all research, the study includes some limitations.

“This was a correlational study. More experimental evidence on determinants of aggressive online behavior is needed for causal inferences. In addition, consequences of social identification and deindividuation online are extensively studied yet we would need more research on individual differences in social identification and depersonalisation in online interaction. In our study we found evidence that individuals differ in their propensity to self-stereotype in anonymous online communication,” Kaakinen explained.

“Most of the current social media-related challenges such as online hate, social polarization and ‘echo chambers’, or the spread of fake news can be understood through the lens of personal and social identities. Currently, research on these issues is driven by information science, however. We need more psychological and social psychological conceptualization and inquiry on identity driven online group processes. One attempt to contribute to social psychological understanding is Identity Bubble Reinforcement model.”

The study, “Impulsivity, internalizing symptoms, and online group behavior as determinants of online hate“, was authored by Markus Kaakinen, Anu Sirola, Iina Savolainen, and Atte Oksanen.


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