The internet can undermine one’s faith in humanity

In general, I tend to be optimistic about the human condition but on occasion, I come across stories that shake that sense of positivity. The radio program The World had a segment on December 12th about the trauma suffered by content moderators tasked by Facebook with viewing videos on the site to see if they should be removed. Having to watch video after video of the most appalling things in rapid succession resulted in many of them suffering psychologically and Facebook did not seem to have in place sufficient resources to help them deal with it. Some of the moderators, who are contractors and not Facebook employees, are now suing Facebook. One of them Chris Gray, who worked in its Dublin office, was interviewed on the program.

Gray started working as a content moderator in July 2017. He was one of the thousands hired to moderate flagged content on Facebook following a series of high-profile incidents. In April 2017, a Cleveland, Ohio man uploaded a video of himself gunning down an elderly stranger on the street. It stayed on Facebook for hours. Within days, a man in Thailand livestreamed the murder of his baby daughter on Facebook Live.

At first, Gray’s job was to keep pornography off the site. When a user or Facebook’s technology flagged a post that seemed to be in violation of Facebook’s “Community Standards,” it would go to Gray, or to someone else on his team who would review the video, photo or text and decide what to do with it — take it down, mark it with a warning or leave it up.

“After a few months, I was moved to the high-priority queue, which is hate speech, graphic violence, bullying. Really all the nasty stuff you want to act on very quickly,” Gray said. “I really don’t like to talk in detail about [the things I was reviewing, but it included] executions. Terrorists beheading people. Ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. Bestiality. I mean, you name it. All the worst of humanity, really.”

On busy days, Gray would walk into work to find 800 of these posts waiting in his queue. On good days, it was closer to 200. He had to sift through quickly, but also carefully because Facebook was auditing the decisions he was making — and keeping a score. Gray was working 37.5 hours a week, making about $14 per hour.

There was much about this story that was depressing. That Facebook is an evil company goes without saying. That people have been committing the most atrocious acts of violence from time immemorial is also sadly familiar. What really gets to me is the conjunction of these two things, that this social media platform enables people to make these horrible videos available online and that there seem to be enough people who want to watch them. For me, listening to this radio report describing clinically some of the videos was sickening enough. I cannot imagine watching them, let along actively seeking them out. And yet, it seems that people do want to see such things and there are people willing to meet that need.

Psychologist John Suler identifies six factors of this Online Disinhibition Effect that he says may explain why online behavior seems to be much worse that in the physical world. He says that “people self-disclose or act out more frequently or intensely than they would in person” and that these online disinhibition effects are due to dissociative anonymity, invisibility, asynchronicity, solipsistic introjection, dissociative imagination, and minimization of authority.

It’s well known that people say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn’t ordinarily say or do in the face-to-face world. They loosen up, feel more uninhibited, express themselves more openly. Researchers call this the “disinhibition effect.” It’s a double-edged sword. Sometimes people share very personal things about themselves. They reveal secret emotions, fears, wishes. Or they show unusual acts of kindness and generosity. We may call this benign disinhibition.

On the other hand, the disinhibition effect may not be so benign. Out spills rude language and harsh criticisms, anger, hatred, even threats. Or people explore the dark underworld of the internet, places of pornography and violence, places they would never visit in the real world. We might call this toxic disinhibition.

On the benign side, the disinhibition indicates an attempt to understand and explore oneself, to work through problems and find new ways of being. And sometimes, in toxic disinhibition, it is simply a blind catharsis, an acting out of unsavory needs and wishes without any personal growth at all.

In the January 2020 issue of Harper’s Magazine (p. 23-30), in an article titled Click Here to Kill Brian Merchant suggests that this might play a role in the coming into being of online murder markets that can be found on the dark web where people can anonymously take out contracts on other people and pay with cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. Many of these sites are frauds that simply take the money and don’t carry out the executions but their existence and the fact that so many people actually send money to them suggests that such a disinhibition factor is at play, since many of those people would not dream of going out and seeking killers for hire in the real world.

Shuler says that we should not think that the online behavior is revealing the ‘real’ person under the mask that we wear in the everyday world and that what is going on is more complicated. “Rather than thinking of disinhibition as the revealing of an underlying “true self,” we can conceptualize it as a shift to a constellation within self-structure, involving clusters of affect and cognition that differ from the in-person constellation.”

That last bit, that online behavior may not indicate people’s ‘true’ nature gives a glimmer of hope for those of us who may despair at the behavior we see online.


  1. flex says

    “Rather than thinking of disinhibition as the revealing of an underlying “true self,” we can conceptualize it as a shift to a constellation within self-structure, involving clusters of affect and cognition that differ from the in-person constellation.”

    To be honest, I don’t know if this is deliberate obfuscation or a overabundance of jargon. But I think I know what he means.

    My take, which I know isn’t everyone’s, is that there is no “true” nature for people. And it is a mistake to look for someone’s ‘true’ nature. People, as even Shuler suggests, act differently in different environments. The internet is a different environment and it feels very private (although it isn’t as private as people think it is). So things that you wouldn’t say to a spouse, parent, psychologist, or even an unknown bartender in a town you’ll never return to, you will say on the internet. This feeling of anonymity encourages people to express ideas, or even encourages them to perform actions, which are outside of the normal conventions of society. The problem is that no matter how atrocious the thought or deed, there will be people who will applaud it. And with a world-wide audience, even if the action only appeals to people at the limits of a distribution curve, that is a lot of people who will admire and praise it.

    This desire for approbation is, I feel, one of the root drivers for performing these actions publicly. Private murders, secret spouse beatings, hidden carnality, and even abusive or sexist language occur without being displayed on the internet. They predate the internet and I doubt the internet will seriously impact the frequency of their occurrence.

    But primates are status-seeking. The behavior of primates, and I’m thinking of chimpanzees, bonobos, and baboons as well as homo sapiens, is largely driven by community status. Whether it’s through community grooming, or hunting/food gathering, or display of strength (or threats), each individual desires (and works toward) the level of status they feel they deserve. Desiring an increase in status among peers is so common that I believe that behavior is hard-wired into our brains. It drives most fiction as well as society to the point where it is hard to find any literature where the hero, villain (or both) are not trying to change their status within the community they inhabit.

    For what it’s worth, I recognize that I’m no different. I have worked hard most of my life to gain status, and I certainly modify my behavior in various situations in order to retain or increase my status. I don’t do this consciously, but I try to retain some time each day for reflection on the behavior I exhibited that day and I regularly find that the things I did, or the way I expressed myself included some level of desire for increased respect. I even do it when writing blog comments like this one, where I am both trying to achieve maximum clarity while at the same time display my erudition. (I know that I’m not entirely successful with either task, and I tend to be excessively verbose. You should see the comments I end up deciding not to post.)

    So if my understanding of the psychology of people who perform crimes for the plaudits of an internet audience is correct, simply trying to police the internet is doomed to failure. Long before the internet the child pornographers were using social media (newspaper personal advertisements and the like) to connect and share their child pornography. There is literature going back 200 years which graphically describes murders, beatings, abuse, rape. There was an immense public interest in the Dr. Crippen case, he acquired a tremendous notoriety. The Newgate Calendar, first published in 1795, describes the crimes, and executions, of criminals in great detail. Most of these cases were not deliberately seeking fame (status), but a few of them were. So the crimes themselves, and crimes committed for status, are not new.

    What is new is that these crimes are not as private as previously. I’m not saying that because the crimes were private they were okay, only that the internet is (like it is on everything else) allowing more people to be aware of them. Which encourages those people who are both considering a criminal act, and seeking status, to perform them. In fact, in some cases the status seeking desire may precede and suggest the criminal act.

    If status seeking is the primary reason for putting what would typically be a private act (shared between the victim and the perpetrator) on the internet, then public capture, trial, and punishment is not a deterrent. It could even be part of the incentive to engage in such behavior.

    So what can be done? The obvious solution is to eliminate the possibility that criminal actions will increase status (either through fame or notoriety). I don’t know how that could be accomplished as this behavior long predates the internet, and nothing which has been tried has been very successful. Taking the long view, I suspect that we’ll eventually find that publicly committed atrocities are not increasing because of the internet. Instead I think we’ll see that performing criminal acts to gain fame or notoriety occur more frequently than previously thought, but were limited to a much smaller audience. Such acts, and the notoriety associated with them, were not available to a world-wide audience but limited to, say, a local newspaper or television region.

    But that still leaves the poor people who have to review and cull content from the internet. That has got to be an impossible job for someone with any empathy. Maybe this would be a good job for people already identified as sociopaths? Farm it out to prisons, mental institutions, and retired CEO’s.

  2. says

    In the 18th century it was not uncommon for nobles to send some huntsmen to beat the shit out of someone who annoyed them. Even Voltaire got dry-gulched by the Chevalier de Rohan’s bravoes. And these crimes were widely discussed (the talk of Paris for a week!) I don’t think the internet changes much, it’s just an ugly user interface atop humanity’s ugly interface.

  3. file thirteen says

    I don’t have much faith in humanity to start with. My faith in humanity has already been undermined by the chinese uyghur camps, and so very many other things. This revelation doesn’t lessen it. When billions of people do anything, there are going to be outliers. Even if only one in a million is sick enough to want to post the type of things you describe, then there will be a thousand of them craving more and trying one-upmanship.

    I have always enjoyed horror as a genre, but I swiftly learned that if you look for something horrible or disturbing on the internet, you’ll find it. I advise others who haven’t already searched for things that might upset them not to do the same. It did teach me the limits of what I really thought was horror, and given my curiosity it was perhaps inevitable that I’d do it, but some of the things I found will haunt me to my grave. I wouldn’t be suitable for taking a censorship job.

    How much worse must it be for people who have experienced horrors that the rest of us have only seen? Soldiers, victims, residents of torture camps? If only pictures of things I’ve seen can disturb and haunt me, how much worse must it be for them? At least Gray had the option of changing professions when ey’d had enough.

    To be fair to facebook, it’s not their fault that there are so many sickos out there whose posts need moderating, and that only humans can do that.

    Anyone else reminded of the late Iain Banks’s “The Player of Games”?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *