Why nice people become mean online

Story highlights

  • We generally conduct real-life interactions with strangers politely, but can be horrible online
  • Scientists are studying how can we defeat our inner trolls

On the evening of February 17, Professor Mary Beard posted on Twitter a photograph of herself crying.

The eminent University of Cambridge classicist, who has almost 200,000 Twitter followers, was distraught after receiving a storm of abuse online.
    This was the reaction to a comment she had made about Haiti.
    She later added "I speak from the heart (and of cource I may be wrong). But the crap I get in response just isnt on; really it isnt."
    Those tweeting support for Beard -- irrespective of whether they agreed with her initial tweet that had triggered the abusive responses -- were themselves then targeted. And when one of Beard's critics, fellow Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal, a woman of Asian heritage, set out her response to Beard's original tweet in an online article, she received her own torrent of abuse.
    Such constant barrages of abuse, including death threats and threats of sexual violence, is silencing people, pushing them off online platforms and further reducing the diversity of online voices and opinion. And it shows no sign of abating.
    A survey last year found that 40% of American adults had personally experienced online abuse, with almost half of them receiving severe forms of harassment, including physical threats and stalking. Seventy percent of women described online harassment as a "major problem."
    Our human ability to communicate ideas across networks of people enabled