What happened to civility: Is social media turning people into jerks?

Apr 23, 2021 | 25 comments

By Jeff Van Pelt

Mark Twain said, “Good breeding consists in concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of the other person.” Some people must not have gotten that breeding. Trolling on Facebook, and in the comments section of various online publications, is a hobby for some.

Lately there has been a lot of discussion about snarkiness and meanness on expat Facebook forums. It seems to be a “law” of Facebook groups that, as the membership of a group reaches a tipping point, almost anything that gets posted will offend someone or trigger condescension.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is widely exhibited on social media.

Large group size means greater anonymity, which reduces inhibitions about meanness. Road rage has a similar dynamic. Most people wouldn’t think of treating others in person the way they do on social media. On social media, people react to those mean comments by either responding in kind and upping the ante, or having their feelings hurt and not wanting to post again.

A second law of Facebook groups might be that in an online debate, when one person is able to make a stronger case for their viewpoint and win others over, the other person will change to ad hominem arguments, attacking the former’s intelligence, character, background, etc., rather than addressing the issues being debated.

A variation on the above behaviors is “virtue signaling”; that is, posing and posturing to show that one is morally superior to others.

And some people think that putting others down jokingly is funny, and harmless if you are smiling. But making a joke at someone else’s expense is a juvenile, unsophisticated type of humor. See my article You Have to be Joking for examples of positive and negative humor, and how to develop a positive sense of humor.

There is an element of the Dunning-Kruger Effect with most of these types of trolls. They think they are smarter than other people. They know everything, are always right, and anyone who disagrees with them is an idiot. I have not known a truly wise person who acted that way. I like the following quote by Abraham Joshua Heschel: “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”

I call all of the above behavior “one-upmanship.” These individuals try to raise their own self-esteem by putting others down. But in fact, they are diminishing themselves. At best, they are irritating; at worst, they make themselves objects of contempt.

The trolls defend their bad behavior by saying, “Grow a thick skin,” “Don’t be a snowflake,” and “Stop trying to censor free speech.” But I think the same standards of behavior should be followed on social media as would be followed in a face-to-face group, such as at a party or a professional seminar. If someone in the latter groups went around insulting others, they would be told to shut up, and if they continued, they would be asked to leave.

Imagine the difference in our Facebook experience if everyone took Mark Twain’s adage to heart.

Jeff Van Pelt earned his master’s degree in social psychology from New York University and his doctorate in counseling psychology from the College of William and Mary. He has worked as a psychotherapist, wellness program consultant, and health and psychology writer. Jeff and his wife retired early and have lived in Cuenca since 2013.