Twitter storms, online spats and insults are making it impossible to talk to one another and reach the compromises on which public life depends
There’s a new consensus about what social media is doing to public life: it’s making us meaner to each other. From behind a screen, we have the licence to be nasty to strangers, insult celebrities and swear at politicians. It’s fuelling misunderstanding and catalysing the spread of fake news. And because of self-reinforcing algorithms and the logic of friendship networks, we’re all cocooned with like-minded people and news we already agree with.
Cyber-psychologists have known all this for ages. In 1990, the American lawyer and author Mike Godwin proposed a natural law of the behaviour of Usenet newsgroup conversations: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” In short, the more you talk online, the more likely you’ll be nasty; talk long enough, and it’s a certainty. (Godwin’s law can easily be observed today on newspapers’ online comment threads.)