In late February, social media in New Zealand showed its bitchy side rather than outright bullying, but you have to ask which is worse. Blogs like these by Deborah Hill Cone and David Herkt (you might want to read to the end before you click those links) about NZ/Australian television personality Charlotte Dawson’s suicide demonstrated how easy it is to spit bile from your keyboard behind the anonymous veil of the internet.
The insidious side to nasty posts like these is that it’s nigh on impossible to voice dissent. In the virtual economy of click value, no matter what you may say on or about a post, be it positive or negative, you’ve already reinforced its writer or the site’s editor/owner by your mere presence on their site. You’re a “visit” and the more visits, the more popular the post and the higher their rating in the game of internet traffic.
From a behavioural psychology perspective, “reinforcement is a consequence that will strengthen an organism’s future behavior whenever that behavior is preceded by a specific antecedent stimulus (or cue to perform a learned behaviour” (Wikipedia). In other words, the more a post is visited, the more a writer or owner/editor is likely to publish another one because visits provide positive reinforcement (or reward) for writing.
Positive reinforcement may also include a comment saying, “Nice post,” or a Facebook Like etc. Reinforcement can also be negative (we’re now in the theory of operant conditioning, but don’t sweat the lingo). Negative reinforcement is where “the rate of a behavior increases because an aversive event or stimulus is removed or prevented from happening”. This is almost impossible in social media as the medium requires active involvement, whereas negative reinforcement requires a somewhat passive engagement (or stopping doing something to increase a behaviour).
The other side of operant conditioning is punishment, both positive and negative. Positive punishment “occurs when a response produces a stimulus and that responses decreases in probability in the future in similar circumstances.” In social media this may mean a “thumbs-down” on a blog post or a negative tweet. If the writer/editor/owner cares what you think, it may be constructive — otherwise it’s just more positive reinforcement by way of your visit plus everyone else’s who responds to your tweet.
Negative punishment, on the other hand, “occurs when a response produces the removal of a stimulus and that response decreases in probability in the future in similar circumstances.” This is, ironically, the hardest and most effective form of moderating unsavoury social media. It means removing the thumbs-downs and negative comments. Harder still it means resisting clicking on those links — we all want to gape at the awful things someone is saying — and sharing them. But its effective because it removes the visits that create such valuable virtual real estate.
It’s all very tricky because, often, we can’t tell the quality of a post by its title. What it takes though, I think, is a commitment to boycott sites that produce unsavoury content, no matter if they also produce good stuff. Just like you’d stop having a beer with the nice guy who occasionally beats his wife. So I unfollowed @nzherald and @publicaddress after I first published this post, with a link to it as explanation.
When it comes down to it, it’s about recognising the troll and not feeding it.
Philip Patston began his career 25 years ago as a counsellor and social worker, and he is the founder of DiversityNZ. Philip lives in New Zealand and is recognised locally and overseas as a social and creative entrepreneur with fifteen years’ experience as a professional, award-winning comedian. His passion is working with people when they want to explore and extend how they think about leadership, diversity, complexity and change.