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I have been on Facebook and Twitter for many years now, and I have posted and tweeted tens of thousands of times. But in the last few years, the replies and comments have become a lot more aggressive. What has happened and what can be done about it?

First, we need to realise that almost everyone now is on social media and at every moment. Everyone has a high-quality smartphone, and internet connections are available everywhere, either for free (at malls, airports, restaurants, etc.) or for a fee (from the mobile phone and internet provider). So everyone can comment on the fly, without thinking much.

Secondly, everyone wants to have “a voice”, i.e. to be distinguished from the pack, to be noticed and to be followed, and oftentimes this comes by being bold and disrespectful of everyone and everything. Who wants to follow a bland, regular, polite person who says nothing “interesting”?

Thirdly, on social media, many people go incognito, with usernames that are totally different from people’s real names and with profiles that give no information whatsoever about them. Anonymity frees the person from accountability, and that often leads to rudeness, aggressiveness, insults and views that will not be attached to whoever is voicing them. A recent survey found that 53 per cent of anonymous comments were uncivil; that’s shocking! Psychologists have labelled this “the online disinhibition effect”. Moreover, as one cannot be interrupted online, aggressive posters will often write long, harsh monologues, something that would not happen in real life, as people in normal conversations will interrupt each other, especially when discussions become heated ...

Fourthly, on social media, people are “at a distance” and don’t know the person they are responding to. And that removes any moral inhibitions or reservations about attacking others. If I meet you, I will see your human traits, your strengths and weaknesses, and perhaps know your history, I will spontaneously be more respectful than if I’ve never met you.

I remember when I took a training programme for online teaching: One of the first rules we were taught was “when you type something in reply to a virtual classmate, before posting it, ask yourself whether you’d say it to him/her face to face ... if you wouldn’t, don’t post it”. Another important rule was “remember that a harsh tone will often divert your reader’s attention from your argument: If you want to convince someone, lower the tone of your statements”.

An extreme version of this aggressiveness is the “troll” phenomenon that has grown lately. Trolls are online characters who specialise in viciously targeting people for one reason or another. This can include physical or social threats (of rape or beating, of posting personal information, etc.), particularly to teenagers and young women. This has led to a number of suicides, depressions, withdrawal from social media, and so forth. Recent surveys have found that 70 per cent of young people aged between 18 and 24 years have experienced online harassment.

Rude and aggressive responders

I have not been threatened in any way online, but I can testify that insults and aggressive posts have grown rapidly and substantially in the past two years. Indeed, in my first five years or so online, I did not block anyone (from the tens of thousands of followers), but just in the past few months, I have had to block a dozen or so rude people who would not stop and desist despite warnings.

What can we do about this?

Psychologists and sociologists who specialise in social media behaviour agree that one should not engage rude and aggressive responders. It’s often difficult to remain calm and silent when being insulted and to ignore the offensive comments, but the most that one should do is to warn the poster that he (it’s most often a “he”, as surveys actually show) will be blocked if he doesn’t stop that kind of behaviour.

Another recommendation, which also comes from surveys of online behaviour, is to perform good acts online, such as donating a book or something of value to people who couldn’t otherwise get it or to provide any kind of help; it has been shown that this encourages others to act in similarly kind fashion, both online and in the “real world”. One good deed deserves another. Pay it forward. The best way to do good deeds is to make others follow your good example. Our culture(s) are full of proverbs and teachings about good deeds being the best way of preventing bad behaviour; this also applies online.

Social media has become a parallel world to our “real world”. Most youngsters spend more time with their Facebook “friends” or Twitter and Instagram followers than with their parents or teachers. But it’s a very different dynamic, which can become toxic, depressing, and even dangerous. We need to understand this social environment as fully as we can and integrate it with our teachings and preparations of our children, lest they be swept away by the wild and perilous online storms.

Nidhal Guessoum is a professor at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum.