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Another presidential election cycle is upon us, and the mudslinging, name calling, and outright rudeness is reaching new heights. Today, candidates are using the digital frontier to extend the reach of their campaigns, connect with supporters – and broadcast their anger and venom to new levels.

While Republican nomination-seeker Donald Trump is often at the center of name-calling exchanges with his opponents, society has been on a clear path toward greater language impropriety since long before he declared his candidacy. The use of swear words and crude speech in the public sphere has been on the rise for centuries, as Melissa Mohr documents in a 2013 Salon article. Bit by bit, once-shocking words have become more socially acceptable.

What’s novel about the 21st century is that emerging media gives our basest instincts a borderless outlet. Crudeness spreads quickly, festers, and invites more people – from celebrities to ordinary citizens – to join the conversation. Three factors make this environment so fertile:

  1. Online forums enable free, unedited expression. Emerging media are hailed for their capacity to empower the individual. Comment on that article you’ve just read or share the latest news story with your Facebook friends – let your voice be heard! Pauline Wallin, in a blog for the Society for Media Psychology & Technology, cites the ease of replying to online material instantly as one accelerant of digital rudeness. Because it’s so simple to post what we think, a person can readily give in to emotional impulse and say online what they might never say in a face-to-face conversation.
  2. Discourtesy loves company. Users who fire their internal editor aren’t likely to encounter external censors, either. On the contrary, online communities of like-minded individuals develop easily, with people encouraging one another and fueling the heat of debate, language be damned. Social networking sites are, by definition, communities of individuals who share connections with one another. Sometimes those connections are as unsophisticated as a tendency toward vulgarity.
  3. Anonymity is a two-way street. Scroll through the comments section of a web page and you’re likely to see users who cloak their identities in digital anonymity. Using a pseudonym is the easiest way to shield oneself from being accountable for online rudeness. But the impersonal nature of online communications can also lie at the heart of what’s prompting that rudeness. Art Markman, psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told one writer that the distance imposed by the computer screen makes it easier to get angry at what one reads. “People tend to antagonize distant abstractions more easily than living, breathing interlocutors,” he explains. In addition, he says, it’s simply “easier to be nasty in writing than in speech.”

Where does all this insolence end? New technologies do not change human nature; they merely give our basest instincts a different outlet. Unless we find a way to rewire some of those instincts, the derision is likely to endure far beyond the November election.

Paula Moore @pemberley_manor

Emerging Media Graduate Student

Loyola University

 

Cirilli, Kevin. “Trump Repeats Vulgar Audience Taunt Used to Describe Cruz,” Bloomberg Politics. February 8, 2016. http://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2016-02-09/trump-repeats-vulgar-audience-taunt-used-to-describe-cruz

Ellison, N. B. & boyd, d. (2013). “Sociality through Social Network Sites.” In Dutton, W. H. (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 151-172.

Mohr, Melissa. “The Modern History of Swearing: Where All the Dirtiest Words Come From,” Salon. May 11, 2013. http://www.salon.com/2013/05/11/the_modern_history_of_swearing_where_all_the_dirtiest_words_come_from/

Wallin, Pauline. “People Post Things Online That Most Would Never Say to Someone Face to Face.” Society for Media Psychology & Technology. October 2012. http://www.apadivisions.org/division-46/publications/newsletters/the-amplifier/2012/10/online-rudeness.aspx

Wolchover, Natalie. “Why Is Everyone on the Internet So Angry?”, LiveScience. July 25, 2012, http://www.livescience.com/21837-internet-comments-angry.html