The Degradation of Civility on Social Media

Paula LaBrot

The future of social media interactions in the United States is looking bleak. The Troll Farms in Russia, China, N. Korea, Iran, and various other nations are hard at work to create as much dissension as possible among our fellow citizens.

According to the Collins Dictionary, a troll farm is an organization whose employees or members attempt to create conflict and disruption in an online community by posting deliberately inflammatory or provocative comments. Paid workers spend 12 hours a day creating false profiles (false identities) with which they generate hostile, agitating, often false content. It seems negativity is infectious. Through this relentless process of polarization, the lack of civility online has escalated very quickly, from Facebook to Nextdoor. It’s amazing how such a pristine, positive-potential entity like the web could be so quickly corrupted by some pretty dark control freaks.



In 2008, Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams wrote a book called Wikinomics. They coined the expression, “Web.2.” wrote, “mass collaboration online, or Web.2, was going to save the world.” For example, when Hurricane Katrina hit, coders from all over created a system that “automatically collated data from the dozens of fragmented databases, message boards, and other online sources where people were posting information. The result was a single source which outperformed any government initiative and, more importantly, helped to reunite people with loved ones. It’s an inspiring story, well worth reading about in Wikinomics.”

Mass collaboration saved the day when it became social media.* It became a wonderful problem-solving, people-connecting platform. But, after a few years, reported, “…people who truly understood the technology started warning to be cautious with this new system…because social media was being systematically used and manipulated to influence how people behave.” They suggested that, “approximately 30 percent of tweets in a crisis are bot- generated (automatically), and many are specifically aimed at escalating the incident.” Whoa!


The answer is so simple: Power. Social media has become a battleground for the hearts and minds of users. There are a lot of people who want to manipulate the way you think and act and vote. International trolls, national polarized politics, and more intimate local social networks have unleashed ugly, angry exchanges across the internet. by Matthew deSilva, observes, “…what is true is that the conversations that happen across the divide are very low quality. Flame wars erupt, sarcasm is used, and people just dig in, refusing to budge an inch from cherished positions. It’s not at all like a collegiate forum where robust academic debates take place in an ambience where the right of everyone to express themselves unobstructed is respected, but more like the schoolyard, where hurtful things are said casually to exclude, to wound, and to objectify, without considering the consequences.”



There is a name for this social media incivility phenomenon:  Online Disinhibition Effect, a term coined by John Suler in his book The Psychology of the Digital Age. Two of the factors that contribute to people’s rude language, hostilities, anger, and even threats, are anonymity and invisibility. When writing to strangers, people “…don’t have to own their behavior…. When acting out hostile feelings, the person doesn’t have to take responsibility for those actions.” Invisibility removes all signs of reaction to a user’s posts. Spewing insults is a lot harder face to face, when the results of your attacks are visibly reflected to you.



In a free society, various viewpoints are essential. A monolithic intellectual platform is at best stagnating and at worst oppressive. Ideas from a variety of viewpoints lead to growth and development. Sharing our ideas is vital to man’s existence. But people are more and more reluctant to begin an online discussion about serious problems for fear of being personally attacked and marginalized for having an opinion. All you need to do to observe this is go on our own local Nextdoor Topanga. Sometimes threads are so personally assaultive it makes you think you are living in a lunatic asylum instead of a neighborhood long known for its tolerance of differences.



When you are online, you are dealing with people. People who get hurt. If someone has an opinion you don’t agree with, write an intelligent comment. Don’t become a cyber bully, don’t try to shame people, don’t be a social media troll, don’t spread gossip. Don’t be a censor. If you do, you won’t just shut down the person you are attacking, you will scare others from venturing an opinion or bringing up a subject that needs discussion. Poor online conduct should be recognized for what it is, and those types of posts should be discounted.

In my next column, I will give you a list and explanation of 10 common fallacies to help you recognize and deal with toxic, uncivil social media behavior. Be the change you want.

Vamos a ver!

Editor’s Note: *This is what happened during and after the Thomas and Woolsey fires when a Santa Barbara resident took charge—first, in the Thomas fire, then Woolsey—using social media to solicit donations of whatever people needed, or wanted, that were instantly provided. He called social media the “ of disaster relief,” faster and more efficient than FEMA.


Paula LaBrot

Paula LaBrot is a 30-year resident of Topanga, a futurist with a special interest in the uncharted waters of cyberspace.

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