Is it possible that studying behavioral evolution can help us understand the social atmosphere of the Internet? Recently, an academic paper titled “Third-party punishment as a costly signal of trutworthiness” and published in the journal Nature may help answer this question. The essay examines the nature of outrage and its evolutionary roots, suggesting that it arose as a primarily demonstrative trait. This means that people developed the outrage response as a way to scold those who act “wrongly” instead of a purely guttural, unrestrained culmination of anger. In doing this, individuals could showase that they both do not agree with the negative behavior and can be seen as trustworthy because they are willing to punish it.
While this may seem like a minute distinction, it has a tangible impact on our modern culture, particularly in relation to the Internet. In this age of social media, the cultivation of an online image is intensely important to many people. Individuals have complete control over the way they present themselves online – what they post, share, like or retweet – and in turn control how others perceive them. Certainly many will directly impact those who see them online, so these personas may blend together, but many others still retain a relative anonymity with their friends or followers. Either way, your Internet persona is dictated by what you do or do not post.
This is where outrage comes into the equation. Anyone who has been on the Internet is readily aware of this phenomenon, but I will give an outline for those who are unaware. Someone on Twitter, Facebook or any other opinion-sharing venue, will post a quote or a joke in poor taste and before the dust can settle, condemnations will come from everywhere.
The nature of these websites facilitates this brand of mass shaming, forcing relatively obscure individuals into the Internet spotlight.
An example of such an event comes from Twitter in 2013, where a woman named Justine Sacco posted a joke about AIDS in Africa. Certainly, this comment was in poor taste, but it had a relatively minor scope given her scant 170 followers. However, without much delay, Sacco was bombarded with criticism, pushing her briefly to the top trending topic on the website. How is it possible that this relatively unknown woman garnered this kind of large-scale scorn for a single, failed racist joke on her personal account? It seems that the answer is human nature.
Likely, this group of detractors were not so purely put off by this joke that they felt the need to publicly express their disgust, but rather used it as an opportunity to showcase themselves. It is a fortuitous position, where condemning Sacco’s joke leaves little to no risk of kickback while censuring her wins the chance to show off to your followers that you are not racist. It is a moment of mob mentality, where indifference implies tacet support and disdain wins respect.
While this situation may be unlikely to occur in real life, the relative anonymity of the Internet allows people to dissociate the person from the tweet or status. It is easier to be combative online because the act of shaming is less likely to garner a response that can’t be shrugged off with a simple blocking.
However, for the individuals being shamed, the impact is more difficult to escape, and it often becomes a sort of online witch hunt. A momentary lapse in judgement or even simple expressions of an unpopular opinion becomes an unforgivable character flaw. It becomes a perpetration that must be culled by popular opinion.
In this way, social media regulates itself, affirming popular opinions while stifling others. The number of people who hold a position will likely trump substance or rhetoric, and often once something is branded distasteful it becomes a jumping off point for others to show their openmindedness.
That being said, no opinion is unquestionable and we certainly should not hold our tongues in the face of ideas that are offensive or distasteful. It is simply important that we consider why we are responding in the way that we do.
Conlan Campbell ’18 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is from Burnsville, Minn. He majors in English.