Cyberbullying has become a familiar buzzword in the past 14 years. This is a highly researched behaviour with much of the early work conducted by specialists in the field of school bullying (bullying was systematically studied for the first time in Norway following the suicides of a number of boys who had been subject to bullying). So cyberbullying is seen as a form of bullying that happens online. This implies that it is a subtype of aggression intended to cause harm, it is repeated over time, and it is done by those in a more powerful position. But the cyber world is not exactly like a physical setting. Intent can be even harder to ascertain online as communication becomes muddied in the lack of vocal intonation and non-verbal cues. An aggressor does not have to engage in repeated acts for the target to suffer repeated humiliation. Just think of all the viral clips that become irretrievable once posted. The world wide web (i.e., huge audience) looks on. As for power – one need not be physically superior or more popular in cyberspace.

Rather, victimization can be hard to stop because of the perpetrator’s technical skills, anonymity, or sheer volume of group size. For these reasons it has been argued that we should focus on cyber aggression more generally; characterized only by intent to harm. The terminology keeps evolving as does the technology. Terms like ‘happy slapping’ (which emerged with the introduction of camera phones) or ‘flaming’ are not widely used in 2020. Now we are interested in behaviours like trolling, hacking, stalking, harassment, revenge porn, cancel culture, and hate speech. As the technology develops rapidly, terms, policies and legislation become outdated. There has been relatively very little research on cyber aggression more broadly, especially among adults. However, we have learned over time that abuse in the online world can have very real consequences, with potentially detrimental effects on psychological health.

The Internet has been compared to the Wild West; full of opportunity, carrying risk, but almost unpoliceable.

Many have called for anti-cyberbullying legislation in the wake of suicides following victimization. Others emphasise the need for education, not criminalization. A recent example of the pressure on organisations to moderate content came in the form of Twitter’s flagging of a tweet posted by Donald Trump regarding protestors. Although they did not remove the post, they noted that the post violated their terms regarding glorification of violence.  Some celebrated this whereas others believed it did not go far enough, whilst others still condemned it as suppression of free speech. It is a complicated business managing the world’s online interactions! But is cyber aggression an inevitable reality when we venture online? Perhaps we need to begin by considering what might drive it.

Many psychological theories have been applied to bullying and aggression and these can generally be divided into nature (genetic factors) and nurture (environmental factors) with some recognising the interaction of both influences (James Fallon, a neuroscientist who uses the term ‘prosocial psychopath’, offers a fascinating story of how biology and genetics are not always very evident in our behaviour). If we consider group dynamics on a global scale the online world and its populations might provide a space for us to project our guilt, anger, and anxiety. Perhaps it is gratifying to focus our rage or distress on the current scapegoat. With this in mind, Monica Lewinsky recently returned to public life with a Ted talk that described what it was like to be the U.S. president’s ‘other woman’ just as the Internet was becoming a means for mass sharing of content. She describes the “mobs of virtual stone throwers”. Perhaps in the modern era, Lewinsky’s saga would have been relatively short lived as the news seems to cycle faster in the super cyber-linked world of 2020.

Ideas and sentiments on Twitter can spread rapidly much like the boos at a football match.

Some would argue Zimbardo’s perspective on the power of the situation as a force for bad behaviour online. Considering the behaviours witnessed in the Standford Prison Experiment and the atrocities in Abu Ghraib, Zimbardo suggests that rather than focusing on the bad apple to explain evil, we should consider the bad barrel. Zimbardo claimed that humans are capable of good and evil and in many cases we can explain bad behaviour by looking at the situational factors. It could be argued that the Internet offers many opportunities for power to dominate (via anonymity, technical skills, access, group affiliation) in the absence of supervision and with relatively few consequences. So, we may see our darker side revealed in this setting.  Behaviourist theory might suggest we are rewarded for aggressive behaviours online (e.g., with clicks, views, follows, shares, comments) whilst Social Learning Theory would indicate that we replicate the behaviour observed online. It could be argued that these forces are at work on a platform such as twitter which has its own cultural norms, tribalism, and (as has been suggested) echo chamber-like platform. Ideas and sentiments on Twitter can spread rapidly much like the boos at a football match. 

In 1920 McDougall published ‘The Group Mind’ which described crowds as impulsive, violent, suggestible, and drawn to the coarser emotions.

Even earlier than McDougall, Le Bon theorised that the individual becomes submerged in the group, is highly suggestible, and contagion sweeps through the group. One becomes like a puppet, behaving in ways he or she would usually not. Anonymity and feelings of invulnerability have been cited as causes of destructive mob behaviour, but may also be attributed to the mob like pile on we frequently see online. Suicide baiting has been known to occur in the physical world (e.g., coaxing someone to jump from a building) and online (as in the case of Abraham K Biggs from Florida). This may be explained partly by Festinger’s concept of deindividuation – what happens when one is in a crowd and loses his sense of individuality. In the face-to-face world, the KKK member protects his identity with the uniform white hood; but online he becomes faceless and has no such need. Research focusing on rioting has also shown another (perhaps more complex) side to crowd behaviour. Reicher reviewed the events of the St. Paul’s rioting in the UK in 1980 and concluded that crowd behaviour is more sophisticated and creative than many theories would suggest.  It was evident that participants retrospectively described feelings of joy and pride following the events. One person was quoted as saying “It was lovely. I felt free”. People expressed a feeling of community. Crowd experience may bring feelings of euphoria and unity (think of a fantastic concert experience you remember) and perhaps this can explain some of the online group behaviour (both aggressive and peaceful) that seems to thrive online.

Aggression has also been explained in biological terms suggesting that genotype as well as brain structure and activity can predict aggressive (and even psychopathic) tendencies. But it seems clear that environmental factors play a key role. Psychologist Dr Stephen Minton recently outlined his perspective on cyber aggression. Drawing on the work of Konrad Lorenz, Minton focuses on the physical and social proximity/distance between people. Lorenz believed that like other species humans are inhibited about using our aggression. Being aggressive puts us at risk. Think of the snarling dog who arches his back and bears teeth to warn his opponent. These rituals send a warning to prevent full violent confrontation. In this way the dog may never have to risk his own safety and still maintain his territory. We as humans also risk our safety when we attack others. However, Lorenz noted how our evolving weaponry makes us less vulnerable and therefore less inhibited. The cannon, the pistol, the bomb, and the missile allow us to get further and further from our opponent and therefore distant from harm and the consequences of our actions. Minton extends this theory to cyberspace where technology creates distance and may have a disinhibiting effect. We do not witness the full impact of the abusive tweet or humiliating video we post, we are less vulnerable to retaliation, and therefore may not fully recognise its impact. Minton also considers how social distance is created when we demean or dehumanize the other. This brings to mind some of the terms used to describe others offline and online; such as ‘deplorables’, scum, or cockroaches. When we see those from other political beliefs, religions, races, or ethnicities as less than ourselves, fundamentally different, or sub-human, we can more easily engage in violence and subjugation towards them. The combination of reduced physical proximity and increased social distance can be a dangerous combination online.