The year is 2017, and there are still people who act as though the Internet isn’t the real world.

I’m sorry if it seems obvious to you that actions taken and words written online are published utterances and can have the same impact as if you shouted them at a judge in a trial.

But recent digital hijinks suggest some folks aren’t hearing the message that things that happen online are not “virtual” or “cyber” or any other term that suggests ephemerality or a less-grounded reality. They aren’t getting it, even though that message has been delivered repeatedly by courts, employers, social groups and colleges, as well as racial and religious minorities and majorities.

The Internet is real and it has real-world consequences. Why is that so hard to understand? The answer lies wedged somewhere in the mess of psychology, political culture and the Internet attention economy that has invaded modern life.

Example one: Dr. June Chu, who resigned as a dean at Yale in June because of controversy over Yelp reviews, including one in which she labelled a Japanese restaurant as perfect for “white trash.”

Chu has a degree in psychology from Bryn Mawr College, as well as graduate degrees from the University of California, Davis, and Harvard. In a response to the publication of her reviews, Chu wrote that she had “learned a lot this semester about the power of words and about the accountability that we owe one another.”

My question is, just this semester?

Example two, from Canadian Twitter: The May debacle of several senior media leaders chortling about kicking in money to fund a “cultural appropriation prize.” In the aftermath, some of these powerful figures found their careers derailed, while others scrambled to distribute apologies, both inside and outside their organizations.

Let’s not argue whether the media moguls were meaner and more immature than the “online mob” that told them their conduct was gross, but rather focus on what other, savvier users of the service wondered: “Do they not know we can see them?” It was rather bewildering that long-time journalists devoted to the written word didn’t realize they were creating a shameful, very permanent record.

A final example: U.S. President Donald Trump, whose tweets routinely undermine his administration. Multiple court rulings regarding his Muslim Immigration ban reference his Twitter account in an attempt to determine his true intentions, while he could be in personal legal jeopardy if his tweets regarding the Russia bonfire are found to show obstruction of justice or even just evidence of a guilty mind.

This habit is now rubbing off on his children, as seen in Donald Trump Jr.’s unorthodox decision to tweet screen grabs of e-mails discussing his meeting with Putin-linked lawyers. For their own safety, the Trumps really should heed Hillary Clinton’s advice and delete their accounts.

One reflex is to accept that people are just prone to saying dumb stuff, including presidents, media executives and professors at Ivy League colleges. That flies in the face of the idea of humans as rational actors, but also blames individuals for a problem we all have: a failure to properly calibrate our interactions that happen through screens.

“We are witnessing online a digitized version of Lord of the Flies. When you take away authority structures and accountability, many people regress,” said John Suler, a clinical psychologist and professor at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J.

Suler has been writing and thinking about the way the human mind adapts (or fails to adapt) to the Internet since 2001, and is one of the earliest chroniclers of the “online disinhibition effect:” The idea that when using the Internet, most people “self-disclose or act out more frequently or intensely than they would in person.”

His 2016 book, Psychology of the Digital Age: Humans Become Electric, identifies eight different factors that create disinhibition, including online anonymity, a frequently referenced and debated cause for alarm.

But to understand our present moment, where public figures and other people using trackable identities act in totally disinhibited ways online, it’s also worth looking at what he calls the most pernicious of the eight. That is “solipsistic introjection,” the easy definition of which is: President Trump.

“People who are truly inappropriate online are lashing out not really against other people, but against all the toxic people from their past who are lurking in their imagination and in their unconscious mind,” Suler said. This helps explain why someone who disagrees with you online can go from zero to 100 – or “I’ve never met you” to “I’ll burn your house down and kill your family” – in the space of a few tweets.

Social media let that rage go both broad and narrow: Narrowly to fellow travellers, who will promote messages they agree with, and broadly to everyone else, many of whom may well be horrified at the way people express their desires to stick it to “them,” whoever “they” are.

Another handy factor in this disinhibition is the Western preoccupation with freedom of speech, the cause célèbre of those Canadian media celebs. Lindy West, an American writer who is a frequent target of online abuse, penned an essay for The New York Times that dissected how cries of “free speech” are now being hurled at anyone who disagrees with any hate-filled utterance.

What she refers to is the torrent of on- and offline hate unleashed on women and people of colour by MAGA hats, Bernie Bros, gamergaters, “no platformers” and men’s-rights activists who say they are compelled to promote free speech.

These people are “pretending to care about freedom of speech so they can feel self-righteous while harassing marginalized people for having opinions,” West said. “Conflating criticism with censorship fosters a system in which all positions deserve equal consideration, no bad ideas can ever be put to rest, and lies are just as valid as the truth.”

Many others don’t like the idea of embracing racists on the Internet in the name of free speech and often point out that Canada has boundaries on protected speech.

Here, at least, speech is not free to be hate speech and various human-rights statutes and hate-speech laws go beyond libel and slander in legally penalizing people. In February of this year, a Saskatchewan oil worker was convicted of uttering threats after a paint-peeling Facebook screed that both advocated and fantasized about killing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Now, it is not hyperbole to point out that when states police speech more heavily, the consequences of social-media commentary can be drastic. In Pakistan, a man was recently sentenced to death for allegedly blaspheming the Prophet Mohammed in Facebook comments. When Nobel Prize-winning writer Liu Xiaobo died in Chinese custody, that country’s digital censors went so far as to block even the display of his name inside the largest social platforms (such as WeChat and Sina Weibo).

The United States does have very strong guardrails for free speech, but they are aimed almost entirely at keeping government from overreaching. In the last term of the Supreme Court of the United States, an Asian-American band called the Slants won a victory over a 1946 law that said trademarks cannot “disparage … or bring … into contempt or disrepute” any “persons, living or dead.” In the ruling, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that “the proudest boast of our free-speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate.’”

But an “online mob” that yells at you is not the government. Even in the United States, it’s well within the rights of non-governmental bosses, communities and social networks to react to crap spewed online. Negative consequences to personal liberty can still come as a result of speech, even if the speech itself is free.

What’s amazing is that it’s not just old folks unfamiliar with digital culture rules who trip up. Ten students recently found their early admissions to Harvard rescinded after being foolish enough to join a “private” Facebook group called “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens.” These young digital natives proceeded to post a slew of racist and offensive bon mots(“When the Mexican kid hangs himself in the school bathroom: Pinata Time”). When the administration found out, no more Harvard for them.

Those who grew up with social media should know better, but Suler blames the “amnesiac” nature of our “next new thing” technological culture.

Even though 16 years have passed since he first started researching online disinhibition, his first-year students are still shocked to discover there is academic language to explain “keyboard warriors” and other lords of the antisocial Web.

“Each new generation of users seems to have to discover, and even reinvent, the principles we already know to be true,” Suler said. “People still like cyberspace as a ‘wild, wild west’ where they can do and say whatever they want … and in the process, be forced to deal with others who have the same desires.”

Which means it’s unlikely that online nastiness will end any time soon – if everyone from young “digital natives” to the President of the United States is compelled to behave badly, what hope do the rest of us mortals have?

“It’s not easy changing human nature,” Suler said. “The temptation to be disinhibited, whether benign or toxic, is too great.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Jul. 19, 2017 4:03PM EDT
Last updated Thursday, Jul. 20, 2017 1:48PM EDT