The internet can be a tense battleground. Perhaps once envisaged simply as a pure portal to knowledge, the rise of social media and internet comments sections – and the fiery clashes therein – have made surfing online a sourer sojourn.
Why do we fight online? Does everyone do it, and what about? Those are the questions probed in a recent survey by Barna Group.
As the chart below shows, the typical white, male Christian millennial is the most likely candidate for an online fight.
Over half of the 1,021 adult Americans polled (55 per cent) said they never get involved in social media arguments. A quarter (24 per cent) called it a rare occurrence, while one in five said they do it sometimes (21 per cent). Pushing against stereotype, those in full time employment are more likely to argue online than those who are retired or unemployed (30 per cent compared with 12 and ten per cent respectively).
The faith group most likely to argue on social media is practicing Catholics (16 per cent). In comparison, six in ten Protestants say they never experience conflict online. Although evangelical debates, be it regarding Donald Trump, LGBT issues or women in ministry, appear to be pervasive conflicts, the impression may distort the general reality. Seven in ten evangelicals say they never argue on social media.
Of those who argue at least rarely, more than one-quarter (26 per cent) say the fight began with a stranger who didn't like what they had posted online.
'Our most fraught conversations seem to have moved from the dinner table to the screen,' said Roxanne Stone, editor in chief at Barna Group.
'However there are very few rules of etiquette in place for the internet yet. Where once family members could put a stop to an argument with a cry of 'no religion or politics at the table!' the digital world does everything to encourage such debates. And, of course, it's a lot easier to be an anonymous jerk to a stranger than it is to yell at your mom.'
Stone emphasized the human cost of cruel online discourse, calling online bullying a 'truly destructive force.
'The number of teen suicides attributed to it is but one extreme and horrifying example of its potency. Our level of civility and straight-up kindness should not be dependent on whether we are physically with a person or whether we know them. It's easy to disembody the messages we read online and imagine our own posts are simply going out into an indifferent void. But real people are really hurt by the things said about and against them online.
'It seems important today that we expand our idea of 'neighbor' to the digital space as well,' Stone added.
'Treating our digital neighbors as ourselves—even loving our digital enemies—would go a long way in making the internet a better place. Perhaps a simple guideline for all of us might be: If you wouldn't say it 'in real life,' then don't say it online. There's no such thing as someone who is super nice in the physical world and then a bully online. The world is no longer so bifurcated. Your online actions are as revealing as your real life ones.'