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Is it Even Possible to Stop the Spread of Negativity on the Internet?

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I had an interesting conversation with a co-worker the other day, where we were talking about trolls. Essentially, wondering if there is anything that can be done to limit the amount of online trolling that takes place these days. Having open commenting sections on websites, or on social media platforms is what gives people the ability to voice their opinions. After all, that is the intent of the commenting sections. But now we live in an age where people hurl insults at each other and hide behind a screen, and often not showing their true identity.

On one hand, being anonymous is a great way to allow people who might feel uncomfortable sharing their opinions do so in a way where they don’t feel any pressure to do so. But on the other hand, the online comments section turned into this idea that anyone can say anything, regardless of the outcome or the consequences.

A recent study from the University of Texas at Austin found that people who read stories with nothing but negative comments attached “had less positive attitudes toward the site and saw it as less valuable”. In addition, people “felt less loyal to the site and less similar to the commenters”. This is a really interesting finding and I wonder if this could be applied to social media. For example, if a Twitter account, is constantly being bombarded with negative comments, is the opinion by others, of that account inherently negative as well?

Overall, I don’t think that this surprises me. Negativity, in my opinion is bad news. Meaning, if I’m seeing a lot of negativity, or I’m reading overly negative information (from anyone), I’m going to feel negative about that particular person or information and not necessarily be able to pivot my mindset towards positivity. That said, I wonder if the negativity is driven from the anonymity, or if it’s just in general the way it is?

The research suggests its the negativity, not necessarily hiding behind a screen that is the real problem. The reason, according to the researchers is related to humans’ cognitive bias towards negative information. It’s like the bandwagon effect. When we see a lot of information that is negative, we are quick to jump on that bandwagon and tear it down. But the argument could be made that it’s hard to bring forward positive comments for fear of those getting torn down in the process as well.

All of that said, is there a way to stop this at all? One suggestion is moderating comments, but that can have an emotional toll on the humans that are being asked to do it. Earlier this year, Facebook caught some pretty big heat given the kinds of conditions and mental-health support from their content moderators. The problem got so out of hand that a number of employees began to believe the conspiracy theories that they were hired to filter out in the first place. It’s no surprise that reading negative things over and over again had a negative impact on a person’s well being.

I think that people can tolerate a certain level of negativity, and they should be able to. The problem becomes when that is all that is on the internet. Unfortunately, there is more negativity out in the world than positivity these days. So if you’re reading this, I implore you to say one positive thing today, or make one positive contribution to the world.