Last month, writing in The Mail on Sunday, Peter Hitchens asked: “Why do people behave so badly on the Internet?” A bit later, he followed up with another question: “Why is it that people seem to feel free, on the Internet, to say almost anything?
I have wondered this myself. I don’t pretend to have clear, definite, scientific answers—only speculative, slightly tongue-in-cheek ones. This is an issue that has intrigued me for quite a while, and I have written about it before on this blog (see, for instance, here and here).
Let me offer a few brief, tentative answers—beyond the obvious one that the Internet allows people to post anonymously. First, there are many not-so-smart people on this planet. I hate to write this so bluntly, but it’s undeniable. Most people do not know how to argue, do not know that feelings are not facts, do not know how to find (much less read and understand) reliable sources, etc. The Internet helps to market this mass idiocy by allowing anyone to say whatever he wants at any given moment. It isn’t surprising, then, that most of what is said on the Internet by casual commenters is profoundly false and almost always crudely so.
Second, the nature of the Internet is such that it brings out the worst in even the best person. Not having to face someone means that your opponent is effectively dehumanized. And this lack of real interaction dehumanizes you as well. I believe everyone, even the otherwise intelligent and well mannered person, is inherently tribalistic. The Internet accentuates the primal urge to join gangs and go to war with other gangs. People who in everyday life are milquetoasty wallflowers suddenly become foam-lipped warriors the moment they sit themselves in front of a keyboard. They are willing to say the most disgusting things, to fling baseless accusations and libels, to insult, to denigrate, to lie, to abuse. We might call this Internet-induced psychopathy.
When you combine these two broad trends, you get closer to answering Hitchens’s question.