The trolls and tribulations of social media

by Nicky Pellegrino / 26 April, 2016
For all its power in connecting people, social media can be destructive – and New Zealand has its own problems.
Illustration/Chris Slane

It was the flag debate that stirred up my Facebook friends. Suddenly a group of strangers who have no connection, aside from me, were scrapping. One took to the keyboard to rant; others softened their opinions with a smiley emoticon. A decade ago they might have discussed the issue with a few mates over a beer but today, when the nation divides, it is publicly and vociferously via social media channels.

All this digital hot air is most likely wasted. The latest study of Facebook reveals it is a stronghold of ­confirmation bias. Research by the Laboratory of Computational Social Science in Lucca, Italy, shows we seek out information that confirms our beliefs and ignore anything contrary to them. We form communities of like-minded people whether we’re debating flag designs, the US election or some off-the-wall conspiracy theory, and in doing so we strengthen whatever opinion we had in the first place.



Facebook – still the leading social network with 1.5 billion monthly active users worldwide – remains the platform that is most about staying in touch with people you know. But hundreds of millions more are posting on image-sharing networks such as Instagram, Pinterest and Weheartit. They are mini-blogging on Twitter and Tumblr. Live broadcasting on Periscope and Meerkat. Digesting everything from snackable bites of philo­sophy to recipes on Google+ and dating on Tinder or Grinder. Chatting about books on Goodreads. Connecting on Snapchat. Professionally networking on LinkedIn.

Yet despite the proliferation of social media outlets and globalisation, New Zealand retains its own social media ­character. Just because something is trending overseas it doesn’t mean it will here. “You see Kiwis getting all ‘soapboxy’ on Facebook, which is very unusual,” says Auckland social media professional Wendy Thompson. “And Twitter is a very unbalanced community in this country. All the media are on there, all the politicians, a ­massive left-wing contingent. In general, Twitter attracts people who have strong opinions; it’s more negative, a shouty public thing. And when you look at who is most vocal, it’s generally not young people, it’s men in their fifties and sixties.”

Lena Dunham. Photo/Getty Images Lena Dunham. Photo/Getty Images

Both here and overseas, misogyny and abusive tweets from “trolls” have driven a number of people from Twitter. Girls creator Lena Dunham is one of many to have taken refuge on Instagram, calling it “a less-toxic environment”. Dunham, who now hires someone to post for her, recently explained in a podcast that ­Twitter “really, truly wasn’t a safe space for me”. She says she could no longer handle seeing the mean-spirited comments directed at her statements and photos, and mentioned in particular a shot of her wearing a sports bra and her boyfriend’s boxer shorts.

“It turned into the most rabid, disgusting debate about women’s bodies.”

Likewise, New Zealanders have cited the toxicity of Twitter interactions and a general lack of awareness in people of how destructive they can be in 140 characters. Some who have exited Twitter recently include journalist Beck Eleven, actor and writer Michelle Langstone and novelist Eleanor Catton. Eleven has even taken down her cat’s account. “When I started on ­Twitter in 2007, it was a place where several belly laughs a day were guaranteed. As a journalist, you were encouraged to have a profile there. Not many of the bosses had an account, and if they did, they didn’t appear to interact or step in to take the heat. I was lucky enough not to face much criticism or confrontation, but eventually enough shitstorms rained around me that rarely would a day go by without being touched by a cluster of fights.

Eleanor Catton. Photo/Getty Images Eleanor Catton. Photo/Getty Images

“Sometimes these would last a week, which is a century in Twitter years. But I [also] met a handful of people whom I now call good friends and we keep in touch in other ways. Some I’ve now met in glorious human form.”

Yet after several years on the platform, ­Wellington’s Danyl McLauchlan suddenly realised he was wasting a huge amount of time on Twitter and found it was stifling any kind of usefully critical conversation. “I was basically addicted to it, but was also very bored with it and got nothing from it”.

McLauchlan is no shrinking violet in online debate. While in his day job he’s a uni­versity biologist, he’s also a long-time political ­blogger and writer whose second novel comes out in June. He says the problem is that people who spend a lot of time on these platforms tend to self-organise into virtual communities.

“I think that has a kind of lobotomising effect over time. People end up saying and eventually thinking what they already know the rest of their virtual community wants because they get praised and validated if they do and demonised if they don’t. The result is a very boring conversation, like a bad sitcom where the characters just repeat stock phrases over and over and the fake audience roars with laughter.

“The members of these communities provide real-time feedback on everything that the other members say, because that’s how the platform works. Mostly the community provides validation to people who say the right thing, but very harsh criticism if they say the wrong thing, and even expulsion if they really challenge the consensus viewpoint.”

Warriors star Shaun Johnson has 216,000 Instagram followers and 86,680 Facebook followers, but there are times he doesn’t ­venture there. Last month he said he planned to stay off social media until the Warriors won – the team were then on an 11-match losing streak – because he wanted to “taper off some of the hate”.

One long-time Twitter refusenik is leading US novelist Jonathan Franzen. He famously doesn’t like the mob culture of social media, its time-sucking nature or that it forces young artists to be shameless self-promoters.

Shaun Johnson. Photo/Getty Images Shaun Johnson. Photo/Getty Images

TWITTER STORMS


Recently local actress Teuila Blakely resorted to posting a video on Facebook in response to an outburst of derogatory comments about her decision to share a shot of her with league player Konrad Hurrell, with whom she had been involved in a “sex tape” scandal in 2014. While she might have expected criticism from some quarters, Blakely complained about what she calls not bullying or trolling but “goddam persecution”.

It can be hard to fight back. When Austra­lian feminist writer Clementine Ford named and shamed an online abuser, leading to him being fired from his job in a Sydney hotel, she was deluged with disturbing ­comments on Facebook and Twitter, with one person saying she deserved to be gang-raped and another that she was the reason some men get violent.

Last week Ford was banned from Facebook for 30 days for telling a troll who had called her a “diseased whore” to “f--- off”.

She has railed against Facebook’s community standards, highlighted by her reporting a meme showing the face of a bloodied woman with the line, “He told me to make him a sandwich, I should have listened.” Facebook deemed the meme acceptable.

Not even Cabinet ministers are immune. After Associate Tourism Minister Paula Bennett took her campaign to get rid of sexist and offensive slogans on Wicked Campers’ vans to her Facebook page, Auckland man John Lehmann posted: “Bit of sexual violence never hurt anyone Paula. Your [sic] should try a bit. Lol.”

Bennett shared his remark, sparking angry responses. Lehmann says his comments were taken out of context as LOL shows it was a joke. Later he said he had also been the target of abuse, when someone sent him a photo of his daughter with a ­message that said “‘let’s try some abuse on her”.

Worse was to come for Bennett when she was warned in a Facebook post: “People own guns out there I dare any[one] to shoot the b**** dead at [her] next public appearance.”

“When you’ve got your own kids pointing out things on social media that someone should shoot me … it’s pretty distressing that your  kids have to read that stuff,” Bennett said.

Photo/Getty Images Photo/Getty Images

TEENAGE GIRLS AT RISK


Cyber bullying is so rife it can affect anyone, but the most affected group are teenaged girls. New research from the New Zealand Attitude and Values Study shows that roughly three in five women aged 18 and 19 have suffered it.

US journalist Nancy Jo Sales reveals the worrying ways life has changed for ­digital natives in a new book American Girls, Social Media and the Secret Life of Teenagers. She interviewed young American women aged 13 to 19 from diverse socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds.

“All they wanted to talk about is social media and they all had the same things to tell me about what is going on,” she says.

Sales discovered a disturbing new world where being sexually harassed and sexualised in your early teens is considered normal; where children who have been exposed to online porn from a young age begin using technology to act out what they’ve seen and where “sexting” has replaced intimacy.

“The new coming-of-age is kids exchanging ‘nudes’,” says Sales. “Sometimes it’s girls trying to get a boy’s attention and sending unsolicited shots of themselves. Or they may think they’re in love, or are pressured into posing. With a press of a button these pictures are passed around really quickly and suddenly everyone is looking at them.”

These nude and semi-nude images often end up being posted on social media. “I saw ‘slut pages’ with girls as young as 13,” says Sales. “Even if you’re not on that page, you’ll know about it and talk about it as if it’s normal. I was shocked by the level of sexual harassment. And the girls didn’t feel as if there was any recourse.”

It’s not that social media has created any of these things but it has amplified them. Take the popularity contest that high school has always been, says Sales. “In school now, everyone knows your numbers. How many followers you have on Instagram, how many likes – it’s a quantifiable measure of who is popular. [Posting] an ordinary shot of you might get a few likes, while provo­cative poses get hundreds.

“The girls complain about it,” Sales says. “A lot of them hate it. They feel burdened by it. They say social media is destroying their lives, but if they’re not on it they won’t have a life.”

Sales believes it is possible to help. “One of the ways you cure society’s ills is by talking about them. The law needs to catch up with what is essentially child porn. Then we need the leaders in the tech industry to be more involved and the ‘bro culture’ of Silicon Valley to change. Parents could be a lot more involved – I think many aren’t aware how serious this is.”

Jon Ronson, author of best-selling So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, talks about the outbursts of collective fury and vindictiveness this new connectedness has made possible. Some have entered the canon of social media legend, such as that involving American Justine Sacco who, in 2013 before boarding a flight, carelessly tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get Aids. Just kidding. I’m white!”

Sacco may have intended to be ironic but the world didn’t get that. In the fallout, she lost her job as a PR boss and felt as if her whole life had been destroyed (she now has a new job and is staying out of the spotlight and off Twitter).

Ronson refers to this and other outbursts of online community contempt as “the great renaissance of public shaming”. In 2015 he told the Listener, “I don’t like the fact that we sleepwalked our way into ­creating a surveillance society for ourselves”. His conclusion: that in the internet age, the smartest way to survive is to be bland.

For young people who’ve grown up in the often vicious world of social media and seen such things as the “ironic” Darwin Awards, which “award” people who “make the supreme sacrifice of keeping their genes out of our pool”, it can be a hard lesson to learn.

Local celebrity Pebbles Hooper experienced what can happen when you say the wrong thing on a public platform. The daughter of World designers Denise L’Estrange-Corbet and Francis Hooper, she was working as a gossip columnist for the Herald on Sunday when she tweeted about Ashburton’s Cindy George and her three children who died of carbon monoxide ­poisoning: “I’ll get major slack [sic] for this but leaving a car running inside a closed garage while you’re [sic] kids are in the house is natural selection,” quipped Hooper.

What followed was a devastating public shaming. Hooper was called everything from “a useless parasite” to “a retarded amoeba”.  She apologised, resigned from her newspaper column and deleted her Twitter account. When asked (via a Facebook page devoted to pictures of her art) to speak to the Listener for this story, she responded: “I’m really not looking to bring up anything to do with my situation. I’m really trying to move forward with my life and to be honest my experience was so incredibly taxing both psychologically and emotionally I will have to politely decline any involvement.”

She didn’t want to run the risk of another “public lynching”.

Nancy Jo Sales found being sexually harassed in your early teens is normal. Nancy Jo Sales found being sexually harassed in your early teens is normal.

‘NOT REAL LIFE’


Hooper’s withdrawal from social media has saved her further angst. In Australia, fragile TV personality Charlotte Dawson had a public battle with online trolls. She was bombarded with vile comments and death threats from anonymous bullies, but continued to engage – even engineering a face-to-face meeting with some of her ­abusers for a TV news show. (“It’s not real life” seemed the only excuse they could muster.) Ultimately, all this exacerbated Dawson’s depression and contributed to her ending her life in February 2014.

In New Zealand, the case of a 12-year-old girl allegedly influenced by social media comments is now before the coroner.

It can be hard for anyone to handle. Jamie Curry, the Napier-born teenager who has become an international YouTube star with her Jamie’s World channel, has had haters. “I used to answer, but then I realised it just fanned the fire and was what they wanted,” says Curry, who is New Zealand’s most popular Facebooker, with more than 10 million followers, putting her well ahead of Lorde who has more than 6.5 million.

Curry has had comments of the “kill yourself and die” variety, but most of her trolls are relatively mild-mannered. “It’s pointless stuff like ‘You’re not funny’, I just brush it off,” she says. “There was one guy who was really harsh, but he told me he thought he was being funny.” He’s now a friend.

Although she still makes a YouTube film a week, she doesn’t post on social media as much any more. “It got to the point where I was getting attention for no meaningful reason, so I’ve backed off a bit.”

Others crave the attention. While most social media platforms have strict rules forbidding nudity or sexually explicit content – Facebook has even removed shots of ­mothers breastfeeding – a Facebook page devoted to New Year celebrations at Mt Maunganui included posts recounting under-age sex, sexual assault and violence. This was long after the Roast Busters boasts of sexually assaulting drunk and underage girls caused outrage.

Equally ugly are those who use networking sites to target and groom young girls. In December in the UK, 31-year-old Andrew Dimmer was jailed for exchanging sexually explicit images with girls as young as 12 after befriending them on Facebook and Snapchat, where he posed as a teenage boy.

PERFECT WORLDS


Less serious but still insidious is the fakery of the social media world – all those perfect Instagrammers posting photos of themselves in their active wear, sipping on green smoothies, the Facebookers who seem to be living the dream in flash restaurants and overseas destinations, all of it leading to a self-esteem-denting sense that everyone is fitter, prettier and having a better time than you are.

Australian Instagram star Essena O’Neill quit the platform citing unrealistic ­“fitsperation” images that distort the idea of beauty and drove her to adopt unhealthy eating habits so she looked thin enough to post the highly staged, often sponsored, perfect photos of herself that she has since deleted. “Social media is not real life,” the 19-year-old declared.

But for many it is a large part of everyday life. About two million Kiwis log on to Facebook every day. The average user checks in about 15 times a day.

And it’s not all bad. Much of the popular local content is of social benefit – the ­Facebook com­munity groups that tell you what’s going on in your neighbourhood, the Pay It Forward Facebook pages doing good deeds, the many agencies now using social media to convey information. Police, for example, regularly load photos and videos of wanted criminals in the modern equivalent of a Wanted poster.

It all makes for vast amounts of content. In a single day there are about one billion Facebook posts and 400 million tweets worldwide.  It has been estimated it would take 10 years to view all the photos shared on Snapchat alone in a single hour; and by then another 880,000 years’ worth would have been posted.

But all this sharing and connecting may not be making us any happier (Facebook’s lonely hearts, page 22). Researchers in Denmark have found that Facebook users were less happy, more worried and lonelier than non-users. After one week without it, ­participants reported a significantly higher level of satisfaction. Other studies have looked at the way the constant self-comparison triggers feelings of envy that in turn can lead to depression. Research from Austria’s University of Innsbruck found the longer people spent on Facebook the worse they felt – largely because of a sense they weren’t using their time meaningfully.

DOPAMINE FIX


So why does social media have such a hold over us? Even when it’s not rewarding, we keep going back for more, partly because each time we check into social media it stimulates the release of small amounts of dopamine, the feel-good hormone. What it actually does is cause seeking behaviour, says US psychologist Susan Weinschenk, who explains that social media supplies almost instant gratification for the desire to seek, putting us in what she refers to as “a dopamine loop” (you get rewarded, which makes you seek more).

Moreover, the dopamine system is most powerfully stimulated when the information coming in is small so that it doesn’t fully satisfy – hence you crave more of those 140-character bursts of pleasure.

So is social networking addictive? Potentially, says US psychologist Michael Fenichel who has introduced a new term Facebook Addiction Disorder (Fad). He defines this as a condition where hours are spent on social media to the extent that the healthy balance of an individual’s life is affected – one warning sign is having multiple Facebook windows open, another is being on social media when you really ought to be sleeping.

More than half of New Zealanders use Facebook most or all of the time while watching TV, and 1.6 million of them access it from their mobile phones, presumably while they’re out and about doing other things. All this multi-tasking is depleting our brains, says US behavioural neuro­­scientist Daniel Levitin, author of The Organised Mind. “The brain didn’t evolve to deal with so many things at once,” he says. “It evolved in a much simpler world with far less information coming at us.”

The truth, as any neuroscientist will tell you, is that multi-tasking is a myth. What we’re actually doing is shifting our attention from one thing to another very rapidly. This comes at a high cost, says Levitin. “Every time you do that you’re using up neural resources. You’re causing the brain to be in a state of stress. Cortisol spikes, as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenalin, and rational thinking shuts down.”

Divided attention has been shown to affect memory – a 2006 Stanford University study found that learning while ­multi-tasking causes the new information to go to the wrong part of the brain. An earlier study from Gresham College, London, showed it can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points.

“Cloudy thinking is the main problem,” says Levitin. “But we also get addicted to this task-switching because the brain has evolved to have a novelty bias. We would rather pay attention to something new than something old. That served us well when we lived in the same village and knew the same people our entire life. Now we are bombarded with constant novelty.”

Neuroscientists are still discovering exactly how the noise of social media affects human brains. Meanwhile, the high-tech brains of super-computers crunching through all that “big data” have potential in other fields. At the University of Auckland’s Te Punaha Matatini, Centre for Research Excellence, Shaun Hendy wants to harness the personal details being volunteered on Twitter to track flu as it moves through the population. “It’s early days yet, but the end goal is to find ways to prevent the spread of disease, particularly if there were to be a pandemic, and we’re doing that through better understanding.”

Interestingly, Hendy is looking at using tweets to track the spread of ideas through the population. “The way ideas are trans­mitted is a little bit like disease,” he says.

“A lot of economic growth is dependent on innovation. We’re trying to understand where good ideas come from.”

FEAR OF BOOKS


The social media growth area seems to be with Instagram, now owned by Mark Zucker­berg. Futurists also predict that messaging apps will evolve into the central hubs for communication. Zuckerberg is dabbling in artificial intelligence and has bought the ground-breaking company Ocular VR. He believes virtual reality will be the next technology we use to interact with one another.

The world has seen such change before. In The Organised Mind Levitin points out that the invention of the printed book was not met with unbridled enthusiasm. Some feared books were an impediment to learning. Philosopher Descartes famously recommended ignoring the proliferation of texts and instead relying on one’s own observation, complaining that “even if all knowledge could be found in books, where it is mixed in with so many useless things and confusingly heaped in such large volumes, it would take longer to read those books than we have to live this life”.

We adapted to books all those centuries ago; can we adapt now? “It’s different,” says Levitin. “Most people didn’t binge-read and suspend all social relations until they’d read every book in the library. The internet is ­creating a generation who aren’t accustomed to sitting and thinking about any one thing for more than five minutes. But the Sistine Chapel wasn’t painted in five-second bursts. Beethoven’s Fifth wasn’t written between conversations with hundreds of people. All the great human achievements are the ­product of sustained effort.”

Levitin has seen a change in his own ­students in the past few years. They baulk at their homework requirements and ­complain they’re not going to be able to manage the amount of reading he assigns to them.

“They’re not accustomed to focusing on one thing for an hour. I tell them to work up to it and they do, but it takes effort.”

Like Levitin’s students, we’re all flicking in and out of social media when we’re meant to be doing other things. Apparently I have spent 57 days of my life on Facebook alone.

So what does the future hold? “I’ve no idea,” says Thompson. “We’re in this crazy, ­exponentially changing time … we’re so connected. It opens up the world to good and bad things, but I have a strong belief in the power of people coming together.”

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Like a mirror of the material world, the socially poor get poorer online

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