Social media

The rise of language aggression and bullying on social media

May 10, 2021

In the last decade, with the emergence of the interactive web in the form of social media platforms, there has been an exponential increase in user-made content on the world wide web.

Today, information online has the power to reach billions of people within a matter of seconds. This has resulted in not only positive exchanges but has also led to the circulation of aggressive and potentially harmful content on the web. Acts of antisocial behaviour are older than the internet, but as social media extends its reach across our lives, the rising volume of aggression has become increasingly unsettling.

Mental health impact

According to a 2010 report, these incidents have not only created mental and psychological distress to users but have forced people to deactivate their accounts, and in some extreme cases, commit suicide. That is why today, these incidents of aggression and unjust verbal abuse are no longer just a minor issue and are now considered a form of criminal activity that affects many people online.

Ultimately, it is not just the technology that contributes towards antisocial behaviour but also the social situation. Some experts believe the rise in aggressive behaviour online has mainly arisen due to digital communication offering physical distance, anonymity, and reduced social cues. However, the phenomenon of this behaviour online is not well understood despite there being a great number of reports of hostile behaviour on social media platforms.

Friend or foe?

The common belief is that social media was created as a tool to help individuals to keep in touch with their friends and extended family. But today, social media has become a place where people from all over the world can share their opinions about topics of their interest.

Although social media offers people the freedom of speech, it also encourages a lack of inhibition. There is a grey area when it comes to what social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram define as freedom of speech. Research has shown that striking a balance between undeterred free speech and censoring abusive speech has been a challenge for social media platforms, and an area where they have struggled to act. This is because speech is not black and white – good speech to one can be seen as bad speech by another.

Punctuation vs paralinguistics

The most common form of aggression found on social media platforms is flaming. Flaming can be defined as aggressive and vicious verbal attacks, often profane, derogatory, obscene, overheated prose, and derisive commentary. This impulse to act badly can again be put down to a reduction in the degree of social norms and a lack of inhibition.

Internet users do not have access to paralinguistic features such as tone of voice or to facial expressions, gestures, and body language. Social media users often compensate for the lack of paralinguistic features by using punctuation marks, emojis, and various other emoticons. The interactions that take place on social media are deficient of interactions because people cannot express themselves completely as they normally would in spoken interaction. Therefore, it is more likely for people to experience misunderstandings online.

A feline misunderstanding

A great many examples of flaming start off with a simple misunderstanding. For example, on a forum for cat pictures, someone might make a sarcastic remark regarding a user-submitted image. Readers who fail to understand the joke may then post a long discussion flaming the person making the sarcastic remark. This will eventually draw in more users to engage in the thread with more responses, and soon the original cat post would be lost somewhere in the lengthy thread of people flaming one another.

Using exclamation marks or uppercase characters are normally understood to be signs of rage or anger on the internet. This then triggers more misunderstandings among users within the community and people retaliate by flaming each other. Here, the tools that were created to make online interactions simpler end up creating bigger problems.

Being human

According to some researchers, it is not so much the misunderstanding of the message that causes aggression. Instead, it is the fact that interaction online leads to a reduction in the effects of the social norms that regulate our behaviour, which then lowers people’s inhibitions. The features of social media – physical distance and anonymity – are the main contributors behind this.

Flamers on social media platforms may not identify their ‘targets’ as human beings with emotions but simply a line of text on the internet. When it comes to online aggression, anonymity and physical distance seem to contribute towards people losing their inhibitions. They are therefore more likely to become aggressive on a thread about cats without feeling accountable for their actions.

Anonymous antics

Anonymity online is seen to contribute towards a lot of aggression online and has been a topic of interest among social scientists. It is the feature of anonymity that leads to deindividuation. Deindividuation is known as the phenomenon in which people engage in deviant, impulsive, and sometimes violent acts in certain situations in which they believe they cannot be identified. A good example of this is groups and anonymous accounts on social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

A prime example of deindividuation is Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment (1969). This showed us that a lack of certain norms reduces our self-awareness and evaluation by others, thus weakening the restraints against the expression of aggressive and undesirable behaviour. Those that were made to dress in guard uniforms to hide their identities engaged in cruel behaviour towards the prisoners, which presumably would not have occurred if their identities were revealed.


The same aspect of anonymity seems to drive cyberbullying on the internet. Cyberbullying is very much different than flaming online, fuelled by attacks and vicious outbreaks based on a power difference. As with real-life bullying, bullies target those with less power. However, this construct of power in online platforms is nuanced.

A study has shown that the difference in power online can be factors such as a large following, expertise in an area, or anonymity. The ability to attack somebody anonymously might enable or even promote bullying through disinhibition and deindividuation.

A need for clear boundaries

People that engage in acts of flaming and cyberbullying rely on two key aspects that social media offers: anonymity and free speech. Trolls and bullies hide behind anonymous accounts and believe that the data cannot be used to trace it back to them. Tech giants need to take steps to clearly separate good speech from hate speech, so users are made aware of a clear boundary.

As for anonymity, steps have already been taken to adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards any form of racism and cyberbullying. By ensuring people engaging in acts of cyberbullying online are dealt with by the authorities, social media companies can help bring us one step closer to a better internet.

Written by Abhishek Majumdar and edited by Kate Thomson.