Illustration by Javier Jaén
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How easy is it to hurl anonymous insults on social media? As visualized by artist Javier Jaén, it’s as easy as if a brawny catapult were flinging an egg—in this case, the blue egg that was Twitter’s original default anonymous avatar. The aim was to express “hate in the internet era, especially on the social network of the blue bird,” Jaén says. “I’m already waiting for the Twitter trolls to criticize the image.”
Illustration by Javier Jaén

Are We Really as Awful as We Act Online?

It’s not brutish human nature that prompts nasty posts and tweets, the author says. But how we evolved does play a role.

This story appears in the August 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

“You need to have your throat cut out and your decomposing, bug-infested body fed to wild pigs.” An anonymous Facebook user wrote that—and more that’s unprintable—to Kyle Edmund after the British pro tennis player lost in a 2017 tournament.

After University of Cambridge classics professor Mary Beard spoke about the history of male suppression of female voices, she received Twitter threats, including “I’m going to cut off your head and rape it.”

On Martin Luther King Day this year, an anonymous Twitter user lionized the man who killed King some 50 years ago: “RIP James Earl Ray. A true fighter for the white race.” The same month, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted that his “Nuclear Button … is a much bigger & more powerful one” than Kim Jong Un’s. This capped weeks of dueling statements in which Trump called the North Korean leader “Rocket Man” and “a madman” and Kim called Trump “a gangster” and a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.”

The internet is a particularly volatile place of late. Aggression on social media has reached such a pinnacle of acrimony that some U.S. House members proposed designating an annual “National Day of Civility.” The proposal drew civil responses—but also tweets and posts of wrath, ridicule, and profanity.

Is this aggression on social media giving us a glimpse of human nature, one in which we are, at our core, nasty, belligerent beasts?

No.

It’s true that hate crimes are on the rise, political divisions are at record heights, and the level of vitriol in the public sphere, especially online, is substantial. But that’s not because social media has unleashed a brutish human nature.

In my work as an evolutionary anthropologist, I’ve spent years researching and writing about how, over the past two million years, our lineage transformed from groups of apelike beings armed with sticks and stones to the creators of cars, rockets, great artworks, nations, and global economic systems.

How did we do this? Our brains got bigger, and our capacities for cooperation exploded. We’re wired to work together, to forge diverse social relationships, and to creatively problem-solve together. This is the inheritance that everyone in the 21st century carries.

I would argue that the increase in online aggression is due to an explosive combination of this human evolutionary social skill set, the social media boom, and the specific political and economic context in which we find ourselves—a combination that’s opened up a space for more and more people to fan the flames of aggression and insult online.

Let me explain. We’ve all heard the diet-conscious axiom “You are what you eat.” But when it comes to our behavior, a more apt variation is “You are whom you meet.” How we perceive, experience, and act in the world is intensely shaped by who and what surround us on a daily basis—our families, communities, institutions, beliefs, and role models.

These sources of influence find their way even into our neurobiology. Our brains and bodies constantly undergo subtle changes so that how we perceive the world plays off of, and maps to, the patterns of those people and places we see as most connected to us.

This process has deep evolutionary roots and gives humans what we call a shared reality. The connection between minds and experiences enables us to share space and work together effectively, more so than most other beings. It’s in part how we’ve become such a successful species.

But the “who” that constitutes “whom we meet” in this system has been changing. Today the who can include more virtual, social media friends than physical ones; more information absorbed via Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram than in physical social experiences; and more pronouncements from ad-sponsored 24-hour news outlets than from conversations with other human beings.

We live in complicated societies structured around political and economic processes that generate massive inequality and disconnection between us. This division alone leads to a plethora of prejudices and blind spots that segregate people. The ways we socially interact, especially via social media, are multiplying exactly at a time when we are increasingly divided. What may be the consequences?

Historically, we have maintained harmony by displaying compassion and geniality, and by fostering connectedness when we get together. Anonymity and the lack of face-to-face interaction on social media platforms remove a crucial part of the equation of human sociality—and that opens the door to more frequent, and severe, displays of aggression. Being an antagonizer, especially to those you don’t have to confront face-to-face, is easier now than it’s ever been. If there are no repercussions for it, that encourages the growth of aggression, incivility, and just plain meanness on social media platforms.

Since we’ll continue to be influenced by whom we meet virtually, the next question is: Whom do we want to meet? What kind of society do we want to shape and be shaped by? That is, how do we modify the whom by which our brains and bodies are being molded—and thereby reduce the aggression?

Humans are evolutionarily successful because our big brains have allowed us to bond together and cooperate in more complex and diverse manners than any other animal. The capacity to observe how the world operates, to imagine how it might improve, and to turn that vision into reality (or at least make the attempt) is the hallmark of humanity.

And therein lies the solution to the problem. We are equipped with the skill set both to quell aggression and to encourage cohesion.

For countless millennia people have acted collectively to punish and shame aggressive antisocial actions such as bullying or abuse. On social media, where the troll is remote and anonymous, even the best intentioned individual challenge may devolve into a shouting match. But confronting the bully with a group action—a reasoned, communal response rather than a knee-jerk, solo gesture—can be more effective at shutting down aggression.

Consider the impact of the #MeToo movement, the Time’s Up movement, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Look at the public pressure brought to bear on media corporations to monitor “fake news” and hate speech.

These are excellent examples of how humans can leverage social media to nurture what’s positive and sanction what’s negative.

After the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, activist students called out their Twitter trolls and shut them down. The neo-Nazi rallies have diminished, and some of the alt-right hate websites have been taken offline—all because thousands of people stood up to them and said, “No more.”

Yes, it seems that the world is getting more aggressive, but that’s not because we are aggressive at our core. It’s because we haven’t been stepping up, in unison, to do the difficult social work our contemporary world demands. That means standing up against bullying, abuse, and aggressive harassment, and fostering pro-social attitudes and actions. In person and on social media, we must do both.

Agustín Fuentes, who has been a National Geographic explorer and grantee, is the Edmund P. Joyce Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. He has authored numerous books, including Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths About Human Nature and The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional.