My friend, mentor, and hopefully future colleague, Dr. Michael Nuccitelli, recently shared with me the link to a TED Talk with Philip Zimbardo as the lecturer. If that name sounds familiar, you may recall his famous Stanford Prison Experiment that went awry, but taught us some valuable lessons. It was the beginning of understanding how good people can become bad.
The TED Talk is one worth watching. I would encourage my readers to watch and listen for yourself. I found it enlightening and Dr. Zimbardo gives an explanation that should be further explored in the area of social media. The following picture is courtesy of Philip Zimbardo’s TED Talk:
7 Social Processes That Grease the Slippery Slope of Evil
1. Mindlessly Taking the First Step
2. Dehumanization of Others
3. De-individuation of Self (anonymity)
4. Diffusion of Personal Responsibility
5. Blind Obedience of Authority
6. Uncritical Conformity to Group Norms
7. Passive Tolerance of Evil Through Inaction, or Indifference
I find the processes frightening in the realm of the internet and social media.
Let’s use a blog for the sake of example.
Step 1: When a person decides to start a blog, there is usually a topic at hand. Sometimes the original topic changes as the blog progresses. It all depends on the overall topic at hand and after people start commenting, the topic morphs or changes based on what is gaining a response. The purpose of a blog is usually to elicit a response from the reader. If a blogger is not receiving responses, he/she may turn to topics not originally planned to discuss with the readers or to gain insight into the direction the reader may want to discuss.
Step 2: The dehumanization of others is a rather simple process in the realm of social media. When we read a blog, the author is basically a screen in front of us. A computer, tablet, iPad, smart phone, or laptop are not human in our minds. They are merely objects. It is so easy to convince our mind that “people” on the screen are not really “people”.
Step 3: The de-individuation of self (aka anonymity) in social media is a two-fold process. In one aspect, the blogger can be anonymous, or symbolized as a screen name. The same can be said for people commenting on the blog. They may only use a screen name (not their birth name) and are, therefore, anonymous. This leaves both the blogger and commenter and even the reader of either/or unaware of the individual behind the words on the screen. This is a very difficult context for our minds to grasp.
In Zimbardo’s discussion, he relates this to individuals wearing uniforms as being a form of de-individuation of self. In his prison experiment, the prisoner’s being stripped of their names and being given a number was all it required for the prison guards to feel a sense of control and power over the prisoner. The prison guard’s reality was that the human (in this case man) was not a man, but only a number.
Step 4: The diffusion of personal responsibility is easily accomplished on social media. In essense, we are all anonymous, so creating chaos, distractions, an alter ego, and even excuses is as easy as creating another screen name. We give ourselves excuses for pointing the finger. With “blog wars”, it is an excuse of, “Well, she did this so it is ok for me to retaliate by saying that about her.” (As a side note: I’ve read a few blog wars and they aren’t pretty for either side and make both parties seem like nothing more than gossiping attention-seekers. No amount of “proof”, “evidence”, “truth”, “insight”, or “personal knowledge” can be disputed online, and in court, it all amounts to “hearsay”, which is inadmissable, and, therefore, useless to engage in online.)
The “bystander effect” should be brought into this particular step to give more clarity. This has been tested time after time in social experiments, and the results can help explain this behavior that we can relate to social media. The following video explains the “bystander effect” and the “diffusion of responsibility“:
According to the reasearch in the above link on “diffusion of responsibility”, the rate of response drops to only 31% when there are only 6 bystanders present. There is no question in our minds that there are more than 6 people viewing the words we write online. Now ponder that thought in relation to cyberbullying…
Step 5: Since users of social media are mostly anonymous, we can all be “authority”. In the context of a blog, the authority may be the blog author. It can also be a particularly “loud” commentator. It may also be based on the topic at hand or the individual user’s own belief system.
Step 6: Uncritical conformity to group norms is disastrous in the social media setting. In my post, Perception on the Internet, I described a shared picture of a convicted child molester, and the shock and awe of the comments left on that post. I explained how I saw it as a virtual pat on the back with each like and with each comment, the content became more and more disturbing and graphic. The group norm in that scenario was that it was acceptable to describe ways to torture and/or kill this sexual predator, and it spiraled so quickly down that slippery slope. The same can occur in comments on a blog. Because of steps 1-5, a social media user can escalate to some disturbing comments that cross the line they may never cross in a physical social setting.
Step 7: As we engage in social media and read the words of anonymous screen names on a lighted screen, it can be as simple as shutting off the screen to be rid of the horrible words of the masses. That perception has become the reality of the vast majority of social media users. We see little consequences of the effects our words have on others—until it does affect you or your family. The realization of this is profound, and one I hope to teach others. It takes seconds (unless you’re long-winded like myself, and then it’s minutes) to not be the one to turn a blind eye, to speak up for the silent, to be the voice of reason, to point out what is wrong, or to reach out to someone in need.
You may never see the consequences of your inaction or indifference, but does that mean there are no consequences? The consequences may never affect you or your family, they may never be realized, or you may feel the effects in the future. They may effect someone else’s life—good or bad—and you may never know.
Knowing the processes and how it can be applied to social media can help you keep yourself in check. If you wouldn’t stand in a room with 100 people (of all ages, sexes, races, religions) and blurt out what you write on social media, then don’t write it where the audience exceeds that times a billion and has the potential to reach another billion.
You may find smaller audiences with restrictions and privacy settings, but the users of social media can (and many times will) share with others previously restricted access. Remember, those users are human, and we have a need as humans to feel accepted by others. If passing along private information is the only way a person can feel accepted in social media, then it is more likely that person will share. Insert any number of actions into that sentence replacing “passing along private information”, and you will find an answer to many baffling and sometimes troubling “behaviors” (words) of our social media “peers”.