Why Are So Many People Rude and Nasty on Facebook?

Angry couple using social media.
Image: depositphotos.com/ SIphotography

A few days back, one of my wife’s writer friends on Facebook asked for some suggestions for writing tools.

My wife posted that she found the grammar checking tool Grammarly very helpful.

Another person immediately chimed in to belligerently belittle my wife’s response, claiming that Grammarly was garbage and that its grammar suggestions made no sense. She then rather imperiously declared that the original poster should not even bother trying it.

I’m not here to discuss the relative merits of Grammarly. And, of course, the person is entitled to her opinion. But, why the venomous and belittling response? She could have very easily outlined her grievances with Grammarly without condemning and ridiculing another person’s suggestions.

The post seemed more intent on tearing down my wife’s opinion than offering useful advice to the original poster.

Having interacted socially with this person, I greatly doubt that she would have ever dared to be so outspoken and confrontational had the conversation taken place in real life.

Of course, the Grammarly incident is just a minor blip in the greater scheme of things. My wife was more amused than offended by the person’s response. But it is representative of the baffling propensity that people have to be rude, arrogant, self-opinionated, and utterly dismissive when posting on Facebook. And, like the Grammarly hater, most of these people would never be so rude and nasty in real-life situations.

The real world is a complex and ever-shifting collection of greys. But, on Facebook, people tend to discuss the world in starkly rendered black and white.

Facebook users regularly post or share venomous memes and hate-filled rants that serve only to further divide an increasingly polarised world.

I’m betting that the number of people who have radically switched their political or religious worldview after seeing a Facebook meme belittling their opinion would be vanishingly small.

Political and religious posts on Facebook often present just one opaque facet of deep and complex issues without any attempt at a nuanced understanding. They are shallow and one dimensional. And, they are often bitingly derogatory and openly insulting to those who hold the world views being so stridently derided.

And, at least in my experience, people all along the political spectrum are equally likely to perpetrate such posts. Those on the left are just as liable to create such material as those on the right. Both conservatives and liberals will hit the share and like buttons on venomous memes that fit their worldviews with no thought to the consequences. Both atheists and people of faith are equally guilty of spewing out destructive, tone-deaf, one-dimensional garbage on Facebook.

We all know that it’s difficult to change a person’s deeply entrenched beliefs. I’d suggest that the only hope of achieving such an outcome lies in an ongoing and mutually respectful dialogue. Give and take. Reaching for and exploring common ground as a starting point. And, hopefully, moving toward actual solutions.

And that’s why it’s so important that there are channels where people can discuss issues intelligently and respectfully. Facebook could — and in some cases does — offer such a platform. But, at least in my experience, most Facebook political and religious messages and memes, regardless of the poster’s worldview, are the polar opposite of intelligent and respectful. They don’t foster dialogue, invite debate, or leave room for compromise. Instead, they derail any chance for consensus and harden the resolve of those opposed to the viewpoints expressed. People remember the rudeness and disrespect, not the point being raised. They remember the personal attack, not the content.

I often wonder what the people who post such material ever hope to achieve. Like-minded members of their tribe will, of course, agree, applaud, and share, but the posts are vastly unlikely to change the minds of anybody who disagrees with them.

And, isn’t changing the minds of those who disagree with the entire point of posting such material in the first place? Why else would they even bother?

And, again, if you meet these people in a typical real-life social situation, most would never think of blurting out their beliefs in such derisive and belligerent terms. They might disagree with something you’ve said, but they will usually conduct themselves with at least some modicum of decorum and respect.

At one point, I operated a section of Hoax-Slayer that featured stories published by scam victims. These brave people were willing to share their personal stories hoping that others might avoid being scammed. However, I soon stopped posting these stories to Facebook. Many commentators claimed that the victims must be dumb or stupid and just made fun of them.

Even though the stories did not identify the victims, those who submitted the stories often followed the Facebook threads. So, the derisive comments directed against them were very hurtful and certainly not in any way helpful.

Do all of the people who post such judgmental and hurtful comments about scam victims walk through life with their superior noses lifted skyward, sniffing disdainfully at the lesser beings that surround them?

If these people met a scam victim in real life, would they sneer and tell them that they deserved to be scammed for being so stupid? I think not!

So why do people feel free to be so downright nasty on Facebook? Why does Facebook tend to bring out the worst in people? Why is so much of the discourse on Facebook so far removed from the usual etiquette, decency and everyday politeness that grease the wheels of our real-life social transactions?

Perhaps it’s because posting something on Facebook is a step removed from the possible consequences that saying the same thing face to face might bring. If you shouted out derogatory and confrontational words in a crowded room, you might be immediately condemned. You might immediately see the hurt or contempt that your words caused. You might immediately sense people pulling away from you and thinking less of you. You might be immediately required to face the consequences of your actions.

Of course, even on Facebook, some people may well respond to your post with condemnation. But, these responses are, again, a step removed. You can always delete the person’s response or block them from posting. What you may not realise is that among those who don’t respond to your inflammatory post, there will be at least a few who feel hurt or upset by it. There will be at least a few who quietly despise you for your arrogance and perceived inability to formulate a reasonable argument.

In real life, nobody likes a loudmouth. These are people who arrogantly state opinions as facts, dismiss the views of others as unworthy, and talk over the top of people. They don’t have conversations. Instead, they spew out statements that shut down discussions rather than add to them. Most of us try to avoid people like that. Or, if we can’t avoid them, we tolerate them but secretly despise them.

But, on Facebook, a lot of people are loudmouths. And yet, most of these people are not loudmouths in real life. Only on Facebook.

Often, when someone clicks like or share on a venomous political meme, the derogatory sentiment is second-hand. The person has seen something they agree with and hit share or like probably with little thought to how their friends or family will feel about it. Perhaps we’ve all done that from time to time.

But, the fact that someone else actually created the post and we are just passing it on doesn’t let us off the hook. The same questions should apply whether we write the message ourselves or share someone else’s post. What are we hoping to achieve? Do we think that our shared post will really change someone’s worldview, or are we just trying to annoy or upset them? Do we think sharing will foster conversation and consensus? Create possible solutions? Will the post help or make things worse?

Imagine a world where everyday politeness and respect for others DID extend to social media? People with opposing ideas or worldviews might reach some manner of consensus rather than being driven even further apart.

Why not, instead of writing or sharing some poisonous black and white diatribe, we took the time to formulate a well-thought-out opinion piece on an issue that we feel strongly about? In other words, what if we opened a polite and respectful dialogue rather than thrusting a controversial opinion down the throats of our Facebook friends? Of course, some will still respond with the usual venom and arrogance. But, others may follow suit and engage in a discussion instead of a rant. Explain their point of view. Respectfully present some counterpoints. It may empower some to respond in kind because, for once, they don’t feel that they are being insulted or ridiculed. Just maybe, both parties may gain some new insights and come away with a broader perspective on the issue, even if they don’t switch their opinion altogether. That would be a great start.

Could we not simply ask ourselves the following questions before we post, share, or like something? What is my motivation for posting this? Am I trying to create a dialogue that might help me reach common ground with people that have opposing views? Will my post be constructive or destructive? Am I going to hurt or upset people I love and care about by belittling their worldview and implying that they are stupid for believing them?

Why not, if you disagree with someone’s opinion on a company, product or service, travel destination, movie, TV show, artist, singer, or celebrity, take the time to formulate a polite response that outlines your views without attacking the original poster? Just as you would likely do in a real-life conversation? You’ll still get your opinion across without alienating anybody. And other people reading the post will respect your opinion and take it into account instead of dismissing you as arrogant and opinionated.

Social media, including Facebook, can be an important vehicle for disseminating ideas. It can be a way for people to reach a consensus on complex issues and work towards viable solutions or workable compromises.

But the fetid rivers of hate, contempt, and scorn that flood Facebook vastly reduces its value as a tool for positive change and stop it from fulfilling its potential.

And that’s rather sad.