Does the internet make people racist?


Check email inbox. Scroll through Facebook newsfeed. Scan the headlines on 3 different news apps. Watch a Vivo music video on Youtube. Write a blog on xenophobia. It’s lunchtime on a Tuesday and that’s just how I’ve used the internet since I woke up this morning.

How about you? If you’re reading this you probably use the internet. (If not you have a personal assistant with very good taste in blogs!) How much has online content now become a part of your daily activities?

You don’t have to look far to discover how intertwined online media are with our everyday lives. We can’t separate them from our society, and we can no longer ignore the effect they have on social harmony.

If you use the internet half as much as a millennial does, you would have to be pretty lucky to have avoided encountering angry comments at the bottom of online news stories or on social media.

It’s gotten so toxic that most large news sites now moderate comments before allowing them to be published, and some have disabled the reader comment function altogether.

We might be used to it by now, but it’s still alarming just how much hostility people pour onto the pages of the internet. They do it with so much passion, for an audience they will probably never even meet, and in response to sometimes the most inconsequential writings.

A lot of this hostility is directed at particular groups in some way or another:

‘They (ABOS) should thank god it was not the Japanese or Chinese who colonized Australia instead of the British as they would have all been eradicated to the last one and that would have been a godsend to humanity.’

‘Belgium has welcomed untold numbers of sandn’iggers and 3rd World vermin, and what do they get in return??? A nice taste of muslim terrorism. Get ready, Sweden, Finland, Germany, there will be bombings in addition to the R’APE epidemic already in place.’

[In response to a headline ‘Do Black Lives Matter?’] ‘no they do not as they breed faster than they are wasted.’

I did not make these up. These are real statements found in the reader comments of three separate news stories.

When was the last time you heard someone say something so racist out loud, let alone to the face of the person they were talking about? Probably in the 18th century. Or never.

The internet isn’t such a novelty anymore. People know how to use it, know that hundreds, sometimes millions, of others will read what they write, and that it could be saved, archived, even used against them in court. We rarely even post anonymously anymore – we are almost always logged in to one profile or another, wherever we roam.

img-thingSo WHY is there still so much more racism and hatred on the internet than we would ever consider appropriate in our ‘real’ (read: offline) lives?

Does the internet provide us with the chance to be ‘honest’ about how we ‘really feel’? This seems to be the default view. But, are we really all shuffling around feeling secretly racist, just waiting for that opportunity to scream ‘finally!’ and run around naked and hateful between the ones and zeros of freedom? I find it hard to believe.

In 2004, one theory provided a conveniently comprehensive set of reasons for our ‘crazy’ online behaviour. Known as the Online Disinhibition Effect, it claims that 6 things about the internet cause us to say and do things we might normally not even dream of doing offline. In short, these are:

  • anonymity (being able to hide most aspects of our identity means not having to take responsibility for what we say)
  • invisibility (not having to see negative face-to-face reactions of our listeners, and being able to say things without nerves because people can’t see us)
  • asynchronicity (not having to cope with reactions immediately and being able to ‘run away’ from a conversation after putting something out there)
  • minimization of status and authority (people are reluctant to say inappropriate things if an authority figure is present, but on the internet there are no visual cues telling us one person has more authority than another)
  • solipsistic introjection (attributing a voice and even an image to the person we are talking to online, until the conversation starts to seem as though it takes place in our imagination rather than in reality)
  • dissociative imagination (a sense that the internet itself is a kind of make-believe play world)

The last two are particularly interesting. They imply something intriguing about what the internet can do to our human psyche.

Another theory, called Group Polarisation, points out what happens when the internet helps us find and associate with people whose opinions and prejudices are similar to our own. We hear ‘more and louder versions’ of our own views, and this doesn’t just reinforce our opinions but in fact further radicalizes them. And let’s not forget the global reach of the internet and its accessibility mean that hateful ideas can be spread to readers who might never have encountered them in an internet-free world.

Does this mean the internet creates racism?

I think we all agree that racism, xenophobia, and discrimination existed well before Google. But if we consider the implications of hate speech online – the conflicts it causes, the divisions and further hatred it can incite – then it’s not a real stretch to say that the internet exacerbates racism.

All behaviour is a product of the environment in which it takes place. You act differently in the office with your colleagues than you do at home with your partner or in a pub with your friends. We can think of the internet, and particularly social media, as just another type of social space with its own sets of behavioural expectations, norms and taboos, that all influence how we act when we are in that space.

But this new environment is perhaps more important than any we have encountered for generations, because its reach is massive. Its virtual nature means we can slip between online and offline environments instantly, or even interact in both – chatting to the friends in front of us while we tap away at our smart phones. Our online reality is no longer separate from our offline reality. It is a part of it. The online environment now influences the offline environment almost as much as vice versa. What we say and do online can even start to change how we act offline. To give an example, have you ever heard someone utter ‘lol’ or ‘OMG’ out loud?


The more our social media lives grow, the greater the influence online norms can have on our offline norms. In other words, what the Online Disinhibition Effect has made ‘acceptable’ online threatens to creep into what we believe is acceptable in face-to-face interactions. And that’s where anonymous racial slurs become directed, public hate speech, and real racial and ethnic discrimination with real-life consequences.

What’s to be done? No one is advocating a return to the web-less dark ages here. But perhaps we need to find better ways to educate people about how what we say online can hurt others. Or maybe we need ways to challenge people who spread hate speech online to try expressing their views to an individual face-to-face? In any case, we clearly need to start seriously investigating what the internet does to social harmony.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Agree – education is the key. I guess the problem might be is that some people don’t want to be educated, which is the sad part of it all.

  2. Hope says:

    I find this issue particularly evident on Facebook. Facebook have their community standards which are aimed at making users feel safe and included in online communities. I think the standards are a very important initiative that Facebook have implemented – we live by rules, morals, and ethics in our day to day lives so it makes sense to have a clear indication of where these lines are in an online forum. Some bloggers I follow seem to have had inconsistent application of these standards though meaning that people can continue to call them awful names or send malicious messages with no repercussions. It’s an interesting area and there have been a few different tactics I’ve seen employed to deal with racism and online abuse, some with different levels of success or appropriateness. I think our ability to deal with these issues and hopefully stop them before they arise will only improve with time and these conversations are the way to start them!

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