As I’ve discussed in previous entries, groups that are moving toward a single polarized expressed opinion on an issue, go through a number of transitions and evolutions. Familiar behavioral roles appear, and familiar patterns emerge as members jockey for consensus. Members of high rank exhibit opinions that lower ranking or new members rely upon because of a lack of information. Negative opinions hold more weight, because members of the group are attempting to avoid problems and conflict. So it is, that when a member of the group is declared to be aberrant by one or two members, the majority of members will often follow suit, to either maintain the “core” group, or to avoid conflict.
Religious groups, cults, and other extreme ideological groups often engage in shunning, or a kind of organized ostracism. If it were pursued on a one-on-one basis, it would be more commonly called bullying. Essentially, the leader or leaders of a group will make an argument—the validity of these arguments is irrelevant in this discussion, but in the case of polarized groups can be based on a mixed bag of supposed evidence, allegation, or outright lies—and then rally or cajole members of the group to participate in either completely ignoring the “offender”, or to participate in active censure.
Obviously, the experience of the bullied is important, and countless studies are done on the psychological impact of bullying and ostracism on victims. More importantly, in recent years, these studies have become an integral part of discussions about education reform, psychological counseling, and more pressing matters like gun control. However, what often isn’t discussed, is the impact organized ostracism can have on group members who perform the shunning, bullying, or ostracism. Even less explored is the negative psychological impact it can have on members of online groups, in situations that have a high degree of anonymity, and therefore deindividuation.
As discussed before, deindividuation is essentially a descriptor for the risky, increasingly cruel, deviant, or occasionally violent behaviors that members of a group engage in, when they feel they cannot be identified. But deindividuation isn’t merely I cannot be found out, so I can do as I please”. In a group, it can indicate that the actor feels so removed from their own identity, that they instead rely upon the group for identity. Therefore, a deindividuated person can often act on behalf of the group in extreme ways.
While it is true that leaders of extreme groups and cults organize the “corrective” actions of shunning, bullying, and punishment as a means of keeping an individual in line, the actions actually have multiple effects on the dynamics and psychology of the members. The obviously traumatic effects on the victim keep other members from deviating from the consensus, as they too do not wish to be punished. However, what has become increasingly clear in research, is that—I’ll refer to lower ranking members who are convinced to help ostracize as “participating bullies”—participating bullies suffer from horrible side effects themselves. Guilt and shame are frequently reported, and over time, the personality of the participating bully begins to break down.1 Multiple studies show that bullies suffer from lack of focus, inability to maintain relationships or jobs, increased risk for addiction and criminality, and so on2, but in the case of organized ostracism, the resulting breakdown of idenetity results in increased deindividuation, and therefore, a more controllable individual. Religious cults often insist that members bully any dissenters—and as may be expected, dissent is often any opinion that deviates from consensus—as a show of loyalty, but the side effect is, that as time goes on, and negative psychological effects occur, the participating bully becomes even easier to use in the service of the group. As the personality is broken down, the group member deindividuates, which almost ensures that as time goes on, they can be convinced to carry out more and more extreme actions.
The table above loosely describes how specific stimuli can effect a person who is a member of what is called a collective group—a mob, audience, or other emergent group. However, with some slight alteration, it also applies to members of other types of group. in the case of a group that is closed, or has a high interdependence, like a cult, “reduced responsibility” can often mean “lower rank”, for example. “Arousal” can also be seen as the emotional response to sermons, arguments, or targeted censure.
But how does this function online? Do internet-based groups also indoctrinate members to regimented abuse of dissenters? Do so-called “trolls” experience the same deindividuation and psychological breakdown? Will they, if their actions are undertaken on behalf of a group?
My instinct is to say of course, and that the anonymity and open social network structure of online groups actually contributes to greater deindividuation, and therefore more extreme bullying than would be performed in an offline setting. If the ostracization is organized or spear-headed by a leader or group of leaders, it may have almost identical effects as within groups like cults. For an example, I’d emphasize the social media platforms of beauty drama bloggers. Their specific role within the online community, the web of interweaving social media platforms, is to speculate, churn out rumor with little factual backing, and their own personal opinion. As their followings grow, the members, who cannot be identified by anything other than an online handle, participate in comments in an increasingly abusive way. If encouraged by the content creator, some even become violent. And because each member can have multiple platforms and multiple accounts on these platforms, a small group of “trolls” can appear to be much larger. This works toward the false consensus integral to polarized opinion.
While it’s true that a troll can be a part of many open groups (groups with little connectedness or organization) that doesn’t mean the negative psychological effects won’t take place. I think what is a good hypothesis to make is: the longer a person participates in trolling, especially on the basis of information put forward by a group or group leader, the more negative psychological effects take place. This almost ensures that their behavior will become more erratic, extreme, and could result in them being more easily mobilized by any online person they feel is an authority.
This is one reason I have always insisted people not defend me to any online presence. Interestingly only some platforms facilitate this kind of organized ostracism.