Why social media makes us so angry, and what you can do about it
Every time we glance at our phones or check our social media, we are met by irate tweets and rage-inducing headlines. Why are we all so furious, and is the always-on culture making us angrier?
Outrage has become the defining emotion of the 21st Century, worn righteously, as a finger-pointing badge of honour.
From the backlash against Yorkshire Tea, when Conservative politician Rishi Sunak was photographed with a packet of it in February this year, to the outrage from both sides over Brexit, the Twitter hordes are waiting, spring-loaded, to call out anyone who is ideologically opposed to them. Anger is being baited, owned and exalted like never before.
No matter where you stand on each individual case, the outrage and the hungry baying for blood – often with scant attention being paid to context, and with no compassion for someone who may have made a mistake in 280 characters or less – has become a disturbing phenomenon.
Sitting anonymously on a bus, anyone with a smartphone has the power to bully, hurl abuse, humiliate and belittle. So is this knee-jerk anger and polarising aggression in danger of seeping out from beyond our screens and into real, flesh-and-blood life? Or, perhaps more disturbingly, are online platforms merely holding a mirror to what was already there?
Are we getting angrier?
It’s hard to scientifically measure whether we’re getting angrier or simply venting more publicly. The latest Gallup Global Emotions Report is based on 151,000 interviews with people in 140 countries. Since it began in 2016, the report has found that the number of respondents who felt angry has risen, with the global average currently sitting at 22 per cent. (Anger in war-torn regions is double that, with 43 per cent of people in Palestine and 44 per cent of people in Iraq feeling angry.)
However, what psychotherapist and author Dr Aaron Balick can say with confidence is that, in the internet age, “the capacity for emotional contagion of anger has increased, certainly you see anger crossing populations much more easily.”
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For example, assaults on Transport for London employees have risen by nearly 25 per cent in the past three years, from 505 to 628, while the RAC’s 2019 Motoring Report found that 3 out of 10 drivers had witnessed physical abuse on the roads in the previous year, with the number of people whose single biggest fear was the aggressive behaviour from other drivers having doubled in 12 months.
Until recently, however, showing anger was a sign of belligerence, or a lack of rational self-control. Most people tried to keep the lid on their simmering rage, as righteous anger was something reserved for God and the clergy.
But now, says historian Dr Barbara H Rosenwein, anger has “been secularised and generalised... and everybody’s anger is virtuous.” Whichever cause you support, whether it’s feminism, eco-activism or Brexit, expressing indignation can now feel brave and noble, and is a form of moral superiority. But is it necessarily productive?
Why do we get angry?
“Aggressive behaviour comes with huge economic costs,” says Dr Nadja Heym, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University who specialises in individual differences, psychopathology and antisocial behaviour. “It has a huge impact on relationships, work performance, mental health, and health in general.”
While we can’t avoid anger arising, allowing it to become persistent and chronic increases the risk of crossing the line into abusiveness. “It’s functional to outlet your anger to some extent,” says Heym. “[But] what can be dysfunctional is how intensely and how frequently you express it, and how long it takes.”
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As a basic survival instinct in reaction to a provocation, frustration or threat, anger is a trigger for the fight or flight response. “It’s a hardwired emotion which can mobilise us physically and energise us,” says Heym. The heart starts racing, adrenaline kicks in and a red mist can descend.
To control these animal instincts that are associated with the brain’s amygdala, our orbitofrontal cortex provides context, while our frontal lobes monitor and regulate our emotions. But this system can be dysregulated, sometimes through genetic inheritance but also learned through example (such as growing up in a violent household) or poor anger management.
“We have this unpleasant cardiovascular response [when we feel angry] that can raise more negative feelings, and we feel we need to get rid of them,” says Heym. Letting it all out in an outburst can bring a sense of relief, but the more we do it, “the more we associate that relief with anger outbursts.” This can lead to mindless raging trumping acting more productively on your anger.
Similarly, ruminating and stewing will facilitate more angry outbursts. “If we keep ruminating over that anger, and over the triggers that have caused that anger, we carry that negative emotion with us, which can intensify over time,” she adds.
Is social media making us angrier?
The trouble with non-stop access to social media and news outlets is that our boundaries, identities and values can be assaulted whenever we look at our phones, turning all of us into tinder boxes. “You could say that people are chronically wound up,” says Balick.
He likens this narrowing of our margins of tolerance to what happens when we’re driving. “You’re in a state of mild or high stress, so if someone pulls out in front of you, you’re more likely to scream out of the window. Whereas if you’re in a relatively calm state, and the same stimulus happens, you have a threshold to not let it get to you. People who are exposed to angry social media tend to have less margin to contain their anger, too.”
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Balick has a special interest in social media, having psychoanalysed online behaviour for his book, The Psychodynamics Of Social Networking. According to Balick, anonymity is a big part of online anger, with people being more likely to use anonymous accounts on Twitter than Facebook, “You’re much more likely to throw out rage and anger, particularly if you have an anonymised account,” he says.
Similarly, the relative anonymity and security of being in our cars can beget shockingly abusive behaviour, highlighting just how badly behaved we have the capacity to be when we think we can get away with it.
The power of anonymity was shown in a famous experiment in 1970 by Dr Philip Zimbardo, now emeritus professor of psychology at Stanford University. Female students were asked to administer electric shocks to other students, but some of the shockers had their identities hidden with hoods and poor light. No prizes for guessing which group administered twice as many shocks as the other.
Then in 1976, the psychologist Professor Ed Diener gave 1,300 children the opportunity to steal sweets and money, while they were trick-or-treating on Halloween. They stole significantly more when their identity wasn’t known. They also stole more when they were in groups rather than flying solo.
Heym says that people are more likely to exhibit angry, aggressive behaviour in crowds, too. “People feel less identifiable, and we feel more confined and intruded into our personal space,” she says.
In this way, the infectious anger of Twitter mobs is all too familiar, and it’s a terrifying force. One ill-judged tweet gets retweeted disapprovingly, goes viral and within days the original tweeter is a pariah, receiving death threats and losing their job.
Meanwhile, the angry tweeters are gleefully getting high on mass righteous justification. If you fire off an angry tweet, getting liked and retweeted might further stoke your rage, which can be thrilling in itself, or it might cheer you up so much that you don’t even feel angry any more.
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“Anger is quite a sensational emotion,” says Balick. “There can be a snowball effect where you become attached to the exciting sensation you get through your newsfeed, even if it’s an unpleasant emotion like anger, and that that’s pretty much what emotional contagion is.”
But is Twitter configured to keep the anger flowing? “I don’t know about intentional design,” says Balick. “What I do know is that hot emotions that set hearts racing, such as anger, fear and sex, tend to be more contagious.” If these topics tend to get passed around more, it’s likely that algorithms will exacerbate the contagion.
While people might get a kick out of venting on Twitter, Balick doesn’t think it’s productive. “Processing anger is productive,” he says. For example, if you get angry with someone for continuously poking you, and they apologise, this is processing.
Talking about it with a friend or partner would also help you process it. “To just shout out into the streets, ‘I hate it when people poke me,’ triggering other people to say, ‘I hate it when they poke me too!’ is not particularly productive. It doesn’t go anywhere, it just spreads,” he says.
It’s hard to find evidence of the extent to which Twitter anger impacts on life off-screen. “Social media is an extension of what is already there,” says Balick. Poverty, inequality, mistrust of politicians, threats to reproductive rights, social exclusion and many other real issues are making people angry. “In some cases [social media] may be an accelerator, increasing the anger, frustration and polarisation that is already there.”
One could also argue that the way we curate our news sources feeds polarisation. “Social media sites like Twitter power up confirmation bias,” he says. “You have an opinion on one thing, your natural confirmation bias will gear you towards accepting news and stories that appeal to your opinion, and then Twitter or Facebook further encapsulates you into a filter bubble. It is arguable that this induces and increases a kind of righteous indignation that may indeed lead to a behaviour outside the social network.”
How to stay calm
There are strategies to help you stay reasonable when angry. “It’s all about trying to regulate that strong emotion,” says Heym. She says there’s good evidence that a method called ‘cognitive reappraisal’ will help. This means taking a step back from the provocation and trying to see it from a different viewpoint. Focusing on breathing or counting can help.
“If somebody nips a parking space away right in front of you, this creates an angry response,” says Heym. “You might start muttering or shouting, you might start beeping the horn, some people might get out of the car and attack the person. Trying to reappraise the situation, and learning how to gain prefrontal control over these angry desires, can help.”
Trying to repress angry feelings isn’t the answer, however. “If you keep your anger in too much and you don’t express it, it can backfire,” warns Heym. Expending your angry energy by playing sports can be beneficial. Or if you’re bubbling over and about to lose it, Heym says that displacing your angry response can help avert catastrophe.
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“Hit the car seat rather than getting out of the car and hitting a person,” she suggests. “Just to get rid of that intense outburst that you’re feeling at this moment, because losing control can come at huge costs.”
Mindfulness has also shown promising results. It helps train your mind to see and understand what’s happening in the moment, without reacting. “The more you practise mindfulness, the better you get at it,” says Heym.
“You learn that these negative emotions are transient experiences. Our heart rate shoots up, we are adrenalised and we want to react, but observing your own state helps you to see how this is transient and goes away and then we can deal with the problem in a much more efficient manner.”
Verbal aggression, says Heym, can be as hurtful as violent aggression. Whether you’re about react to a confrontational tweet, an overtired child or being beeped at while driving, the message is, “Try to take a step back, take a breath, remove yourself from that frustration point, and cognitively reappraise before you act.”
Case study: When infectious anger leads to public shaming
In 2013, Justine Sacco, a 30-year-old senior PR officer, flew from New York to South Africa to visit family. Frazzled from travelling, she sent a flurry of sardonic tweets to her 170 followers ahead of boarding a connecting flight at Heathrow. It was one she says she intended to mock her white privilege that got her into trouble: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
When she landed 11 hours later, #HasJustineLandedYet was trending on Twitter. Members were calling her racist, demanding she loses her job and thrilling over the thought of her face when she switched her phone on upon landing. Someone duly photographed her after she landed and posted that on Twitter too. She subsequently lost her job and became a pariah.
This toxic call-out culture has become somewhat of the norm online. Celebrities are being regularly ‘cancelled’ (which means losing their followers as people stop supporting) over ill-judged tweets, and many more ordinary people have been fired, even receiving rape and death threats.
What possesses individuals to be so quick to judge and shame? “When you are engaged in social media, it almost feels like it’s happening just in your head, so you’re likely to be less inhibited,” says Balick. Sometimes, however, people jump in deliberately, “to get off on the energy,” or they are seduced by the chance to “bond over giving a righteous justification.”
In October 2019, the former US president Barack Obama spoke out against call-out culture. He said that on social media, “[People think] the way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people, and that’s enough … [but] that’s not activism, that’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you are probably not going to get that far.”