The terrible events that took place in Christchurch last Friday showed once again that social media can provide a breeding ground for extremism, and yet more calls have been made for the biggest social media companies to take more proactive measures to root out hate speech.
Their stated aim has always been to connect people, and their assumption is that the act of bringing the world closer together is inherently utopian – but there’s growing concern that these services are developing a structural negativity that pits people against each other. Meanwhile, acts of genuine kindness seem to be drowned out by conflict, argument and retribution.
Bringing together the good
There are exceptions. A couple of weeks ago, Satharith By, a Cambodian man living on the outskirts of Houston, Texas, opened his own doughnut shop, Billy’s Donuts. With business extremely quiet, his son posted a photo on Twitter, accompanied by a plaintive plea: “My dad is sad because no one is coming to his new doughnut shop.”
In a heartwarming surge of social media activity, the tweet was shared by celebrities and anonymous users alike, all urging people in the area to support their new local business. The following day, a news station visited the shop and found it besieged by customers. By's son, Billy, tweeted his emotional thanks. "This means so much to my family," he wrote. Twitter also issued a statement, praising how it had "sparked an outpouring of love and support around the world".
But such incidents feel rare, and the common perception is that social media fails to adequately reflect good nature that exists in the "real" world. "You can certainly find a lot of kindness among friends on social media," says Karen North, an expert on social media psychology and a director at the University of Southern California. "And there are websites and accounts that dedicate themselves to posting positive messages. But there's something more intriguing and engaging about negative events.
So why the hate?
“People find negative reviews more fun to read than positive ones. People get excited by scandal. Social media provides limitless opportunity to participate in negative and shocking discussions – and in terms of kindness to strangers, unless it’s a stranger who is experiencing adversity, it simply isn’t shocking or interesting enough to garner attention.”
It's telling that while countless spats happen every day online, it's a struggle to compile a long list of kindnesses that have gained equal interest. There are certainly some touching examples: the Michigan policeman who used his own money to buy a tankful of petrol for a widow struggling to pay; the Singapore bus captain who, while getting drenched himself, used his umbrella to shield passengers boarding the bus from the rain; the autistic British boy who received about 20,000 birthday cards from people all over the world; free haircuts, donations of food; and acts of generosity on an otherwise competitive sports field.
But these incidents also provoke a cynical backlash from those who are suspicious of people's motives and who question their authenticity. Such cynicism has certainly affected the popularity of the website Upworthy, which dedicated itself to the sharing of positive stories. Six years ago it was one of the fastest-growing sites on the web, but its click-hungry business model led to its audience quickly becoming jaded.
Our doubts over authenticity manifest themselves in other negative ways, says North. "It's now part of the culture to enjoy attacking heroes, bringing down idols and finding the Achilles heel of people who have celebrity. People love to expose the fact that somebody isn't what you thought, and social media gives the opportunity to dig deeper to find evidence of something bad."
It's just human impulse
That impulse is exacerbated by two other human traits; firstly that we find ourselves very easily bonded against a common enemy, and secondly that unpleasant behaviour has intrinsically viral qualities. "We are hardwired to copy the behaviour of those around us and to follow thought leaders," says North. "When high-profile individuals make [unpleasant] signals, that effectively says this is an acceptable way to behave against people you don't like."
Social media has often been described as a benign platform to which we merely bring our various human failings, but social media's celebration of the self seems inherently incompatible with acts of selflessness. If you're rewarded for drawing attention to yourself, why bother to be quietly kind?
"Social media companies talk about their platforms as an extension of our physical world, but the social cues and social norms are not the same," says North. "In the physical world, there are social norms involved in real-time interaction, and people feel the social cues of eye contact and body language. But when people post on social media there isn't that full range of social reaction; people are speaking to an audience rather than truly interacting."
Unpleasant behaviour on social media will continue to grow as those who feel unfairly treated seek revenge. People even wistfully refer to the "glory days" of social media, where friendly, frivolous behaviour seemed commonplace and where you sought pleasure rather than deriving a kind of morbid curiosity. The burning question is why, given the beneficial effects of kindness not just on others but on ourselves, does negativity run so rampant?
"Researchers have looked into the idea that misery loves company, and what they found is that misery loves miserable company," says North. "People might be happy and share something positive, but for someone who's unhappy, that's not a positive experience. It makes them feel worse. So they are more likely to be drawn to the miserable."
The snowball effect seems to be contributing to a harshening of discourse that feels impossible to roll back. But we can at least try, by making a generous gesture, leaving a pleasant comment, and, above all, listening.