Can Comment Rage Kill Real People?

Scroll down ↓

I near fell over when I read the post…

It came from Michael Arrington, of Techcrunch fame. Here’s an excerpt, but you should really read the entire post to understand it’s depth.

Yesterday as I was leaving the DLD Conference in Munich, Germany someone walked up to me and quite deliberately spat in my face. Before I even understood what was happening, he veered off into the crowd, just another dark head in a dark suit….Luckily my tolerance level for verbal abuse has risen proportionately to our growth, so I can handle most of the verbal abuse thrown our way…

Something very few people know: last year over the summer an off balance individual threatened to kill me and my family. He wasn’t very stealthy about it – he called our office number, sent me emails and even posted threats on his blog, so it wasn’t hard to determine who he was. The threats were, in the opinion of security experts we consulted, serious. The individual has a felony record and owns a gun. Police in three states became involved and we hired a personal security team to protect me, my family and TechCrunch employees…

This isn’t about whether you like or dislike Mike…

If you’ve been online expressing your opinion for any period of time, you’ve been flamed, toasted and roasted. Sometimes rightfully, others, not so. Either way, unless you’re the type of person who relishes a fight (I’m not), it hurts, but it’s pretty much part of the equation. But, here’s my bigger concern…

Can online, targeted verbal aggression lead to real-world physical violence?

For some, the combination of relative anonymity and remote distance created by the web allows for a level of aggression that the very same people wouldn’t dream of engaging in were the same conversation happening in person. It makes you wonder…

If the anonymity/distance created online emboldens someone to become repeatedly hyper-aggressive in the virtual world, over time will that online pattern embolden that person to become more aggressive and potentially violent…offline?

There is actually a jarring potential parallel to the ongoing argument about developing battlefield robots (Unmanned Armed Fighters) that allow someone sitting in a room far away to instruct the battlefield machine to attack or kill an enemy on the battlefield.

According to P.W. Singer, in his new book Wired For War, the research shows, pretty definitively, that the distance/remoteness dramatically increases the remote operator’s willingness to kill someone, compared to another soldier who has to make that same call standing just feet away from another human being. This isn’t about the ethics of these machines, though. That’s another dicussion.

The parallel comes when you ask what happens when you then insert that remote-operator, who has become accustomed to remote kills, back into the live battlefield. Are they now significantly desensitized to the live kill?

Now transfer that to the world of online punditry. Can a pattern of remote comment aggression desensitize the commenter to a point where they then transfer that aggression into real-world violence toward the subject of their comments?

This ain’t like gaming, movies or TV…

One last thing, before we go down the “isn’t this the same argument people make about the effect of playing violent video games, listening to songs with violent lyrics or watching violent movies and TV shows” line of reasoning…it’s different. On a number of levels. Here, the online aggression is focused on real-world, specific, targeted individuals.

It’s not like watching an animated cyborg rip apart an enemy with it’s bare cyborg hands (or “being” that cyborg in a game), then transferring a pattern of animated hyper-aggression or altered reality to the real world person.

This is about ripping apart that real world person, but doing it with words through the shield of distance and anonymity. And, doing it in a potentially far more aggressive manner than would likely ever occur in a face-to-face setting. Then potentially transferring a patterned hyper-aggressive state and altered sense of permissibility to that same person in the real world, but turning words into deeds.

I honestly don’t know what the answer is here…

But, maybe it’s time to dive a bit deeper into the question…

As always, I’m just thinking out loud.

What do you think?

What am I missing?

Let’s discuss…

Join our Email List for Weekly Updates

And join this amazing community of makers and doers. You know you wanna...

11 responses

11 responses to “Can Comment Rage Kill Real People?”

  1. Michael D says:

    I sometimes find Michael Arrington annoying but seeing people get so overblown about things has me liking him more. Funny how that works.

  2. Glen says:

    I’m not sure that I see the difference between your example of the battlefield robots and violent video games. And I only see a small difference between violent movies/songs/books/etc. and your topic. To the best of my knowledge, studies have shown links between repeated exposure to violence and desensitization towards violence as well as dehumanization and violence. I’m not convinced we should sensor the media, but rather find a way in our society to condemn violent media (like my choice not to watch movies that glorify violence).

  3. You sure hate to see this sort of thing happen. Kathy Sierra, a/k/a Creating Passionate Users, quit blogging because of something like this. She was one of the best out there and it was sad to see her go. I can’t see Michael quitting his gig, but I bet it makes it less fun for him. Those types of threats are scary no matter the circumstances.

    But I don’t think that the internet is creating monsters. They’re out there regardless of the medium. I think these sorts of people are just part of the hazards of being famous or powerful and have always been around. For example, the internet doesn’t make it more dangerous for me to use my credit card. That danger has always been there, such as giving it to the waiter at a restaurant or the cashier.

    All this means is that

  4. I would have to agree with Michael here i also find Michael Arrington to be kinda annoying he is good at creating emotion.

  5. Suzie O says:

    I see this as being around attachment – people with an online persona who show themselves, with their vulnerabilities, allow others to more easily create a connection (read accept) with them. Others don’t. With no emotional connection it is very easy for someone to dehumanise (reject) the other. There is then no face to face interaction to allow a ‘normalisation’ of the situation – for the commenter to get what they really want from the interaction.
    Online comments are a new form of communication, we need to learn the new rules of interaction. Until that happens, I guess there will be times when that dialogue goes to extremes, and yes, I think it is possible that on line aggressive comments could in some people lead to physical aggressive actions.

  6. I think we are talking about different degrees of the same problem here. It may be on a different level then playing violent video games, listening to songs with violent lyrics or watching violent movies and TV shows. But who’s to say that those things aren’t just the next logical step in the progression toward online aggression focused on real-world, specific, targeted individuals. All such programming starts somewhere. If we can imagine aggressive comments turning into aggressive actions, isn’t it the same line of reasoning in reverse that leads back to video games, etc?

  7. Steven Leung says:

    I read a parallel story where a blogger accused other bloggers of conspiring to agitate her mental issues to the point where she’d commit suicide. She wasn’t kidding in her accusation, but I don’t know the circumstances otherwise.

    When you’re dealing with real people, not avatars, it’s easy to take things personally. And famous bloggers get to experience what celebritities do, only worse because bloggers have opinions that sometimes offend people.

  8. Ann says:

    I am a novice at the blogging world, don’t have one, just read them. I have found many protect their “real identity” for this very possibility. Is there a reason some of you don’t? Anonymity servers many purposes some good and some bad. As mentioned above, anonymity allows for privacy, for the security to know you can say whatever you feel; which is of course also the bad side of it. Without the accountability factor, many people say (and do) things they wouldn’t if they had their identity attached to their words or actions. I, myself, have left comments on occasion that in person I would never say – nothing foul or mean, just more sarcastic than I would want to appear in person. Would you (bloggers) all be safer if you kept your true identity hidden? Of course that wouldn’t help when a blog is part of a marketing tool for your business or product. . .

  9. Justin says:

    I have heard of people getting in fights online and one of the participants killing the other. It certainly does happen, in a large society it is unavoidable, but not very often.

  10. Lane Ellen says:

    I think the Kathy Sierra situation where she received death threats was an example of how the online existence really can be an extension of some people’s world. The internet has become a place where many people feel safer putting out their feelings and thoughts in a provocative way. But now that we are creating internet celebrities – and usually that celebrity is gained through being outspoken – it seems that the online world is quickly coming to become part of your living experience. Thus the violence.

    The reality of the internet is that it is becoming more a part of who we are in the flesh.

    Doesn’t mean it is right or a good thing. It just is.