“The Internet has reached peak hate. It had to. At every other moment in history when there has been an explosion of text — whether through social change, like the birth of a religious movement, or technological change, like the advent of print — a period of nasty struggle ensued before the forces of civility reined it in. In the past few months alone, we’ve seen the catfishing of Manti Te’o, a professional tennis player quit because of trolling, and a rash of teenage suicides from cyberbullying alongside the by-now-standard Twitter hatestorms of various strengths and durations. The sheer bulk of the rage at the moment can seem overwhelming. But the fact that we recognize it and have acknowledged its unacceptability is a sign of the ancient process reasserting itself yet again. The Internet is in the process of being civilized.
Hate is a source of acknowledged pleasure. Hate-watching. Hate-listening. Hate-reading. These are all things that you, your friends, and your neighbors, not monsters, likely do. We deliberately expose ourselves to objects of contempt to stoke inner outrage in order to enjoy the release of fury. It’s not just online, though the Internet is the most obvious theater of cruelty. What’s new is how all the bullying is on the record, so you can see just how horrific it is. Cyberbullying and its adult cousin, trolling, are merely the most extreme expressions of the low-level, mean-spirited abuse that fills every comment board and social-media forum.
The change in tone is coming because the cost of hate is becoming clearer. The research on the psychological effects of bullying has become much starker in its analysis recently. In February, a long-term study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry established that bullies and their victims both have a higher rate of mental illness for decades afterward.Science magazine reported on the effects of nasty comments about science stories online: Not only do they fail to improve debate, they also make people stupider. The “nasty effect,” as the researchers call it, has a polarizing effect in that readers react by becoming more entrenched in their previous opinions, whether positive or negative.”