Online interaction has grown exponentially over the past two decades, and it will continue to grow as technology becomes more ingrained in our lives. Though as anyone who has spent time on the internet can attest, online communication can be aggressive and hostile.
As part of our senior research project, Christian Reifsteck and I examined the causes of negative communication on the web among college age (18-26 years old) users. Specifically, we wanted to find if there was a correlation between negative communication and how anonymous users appear.
We looked at five social media platforms – Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit – and surveyed respondents how frequently they observed or produced negative comments, along with cyberbullying (repeated and directed hostility toward a specific user).
Distributing our survey across Facebook, Twitter, and Discord, data from 154 respondents was used. We separated the five social media platforms by their level of anonymity based on how much personal information was available in a user’s profile. The questions asked participants their frequency of seeing and producing negative comments, and their frequency of seeing, committing, and being the victim of cyberbullying on the five sites. The questions were Likert-scales, ranging from 1-5, with 1 being “very frequently”, to 5 being “never”.
Our results found that there was a significant relationship between anonymity and how frequently hostile comments are produced on the respective social media sites. In simpler terms, people behaved more aggressively the more anonymous they were online.
For the cyberbullying portion of our research, we found a significant between anonymity and both the frequency of observing cyberbullying as well as the frequency of being a victim of cyberbullying. Again in simpler terms, anonymity led to greater amounts of cyberbullying, both witnessed and experienced by our respondents.
Of the social media platforms selected, Twitter had the highest amount of negative comments produced by the survey takers. It also was the platform that had the most cyberbullying committed against the respondents, as well as cyberbullying observed on other users. While being less anonymous than Reddit (the most anonymous of the five), the large number of Twitter users means that hostility and aggression are more frequent there.
What both students and faculty can take away from this research is that interacting on social media with other open and identifiable users is more likely to create a pleasant and respectful experience for all involved.