Anger is contagious: Why is there so much aggression in social networks

If we single out the main emotion with which the Internet is associated with us, this, of course, will be anger.

It seems that social networks are a space built on conflicts: from fierce disputes and discussions to aggressive actions and direct persecution.

The Internet as a whole reflects the norms and moods of the society in which its users exist: as long as discriminatory views remain in the world, they will penetrate the media, social networks and publications.

We decided to find out why this applies to anger – and why it spreads so easily and quickly over the network.


Anger is just one of the emotions that arise in online communication: it is logical that communication on the Internet can cause us the same range of feelings as live communication.

For example, the authors of a study conducted with the participation of nearly 700 thousand Facebook users tried to determine how “contagious” emotions can be when people do not see each other live, but communicate online.

Researchers slightly changed the news feeds of different user groups: some saw more posts with positive information, others with negative mood.

It turned out that what was happening in the feed influenced the actions of users: if they saw more positive, they themselves started writing in social networks in a more positive way, and vice versa – anger and sadness in the feed influenced the content of posts of those who read about them in a negative way.

The effect was less than with “live” communication, but still noticeable.

However, studies show that anger on the Internet has its own characteristics.

Researchers at Beihang University in Beijing studied posts at Sina Weibo, the Chinese microblogging platform, and concluded that emotions spread unevenly on the social network: for example, joy moves faster than sadness or disgust.

But anger turned out to be the most rapidly spreading emotion: the researchers concluded that Weibo users reacted particularly quickly and sharply to “social problems and acute diplomatic situations”.

According to scientists, in many cases one can talk about a “chain reaction” that anger triggers: users transmit information to each other not only to express their own emotions, but also to create an appropriate emotional reaction from other people, that is, to “infect” them with anger.

Another study, already owned by experts at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, leads to a similar conclusion.

Its authors studied seven thousand materials of The New York Times, published over three months, and found out which of these users more often sent to each other. According to the researchers, the emotions of the author of the material did not matter – it was much more important what emotions the material evoked.

So, for example, it turned out that sadness caused less activity than anger: because of the first, people were more likely to step back and not “convey” their feelings further.

“Anger is an emotion that causes intense excitement, which encourages people to take action,” says one of the co-authors of the study, John Berger. “It inflames you, which is why you are more likely to pass the message on.”

True, scientists have come to the conclusion that there is an emotion that spreads faster than anger – it is an admiration for something pleasant or new for us, with the help of which we build new emotional connections with people.

The question, of course, is not only how quickly the anger spreads – but also why online space so often becomes a platform for the rapid emergence and growth of conflicts.

One possible answer is how online communication is designed in principle. Art Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, believes the reason is a whole bunch of factors.

Anonymity (when it comes, for example, to a forum or comments on social networks where users are not familiar with each other) and the distance between the participants in the conversation are of great importance.

This simultaneously gives users a sense of freedom and the feeling that they are not talking with a living person, but with his abstract point of view – it is much easier to speak out against the latter.

According to Markman, it is also important that online discussions are often much longer in time than a live conversation.

Users of social networks and forums have the opportunity to carefully think through their answer and write a lengthy monologue, which is impossible with personal communication, due to which they can only become stronger in their opinion and become tougher.

“When communicating, the live opportunity to pronounce a monologue is found only among movie heroes. Even if you are angry, people exchange remarks, so sooner or later you will have to calm down and listen to them in order for the conversation to take place,” Markman said.

Experts also note that online communication is devoid of many non-verbal elements that help us better understand the interlocutor, for example facial expressions, intonations, body language. Because of this, it can be difficult for some to stop: a person may simply not understand that his words hurt the interlocutor.

For the same reason, many say online what they would never dare to say to their interlocutor in person, and sometimes they don’t even feel that their words can have real consequences. Even if we know a person to whom we want to make a sarcastic remark, he is still impersonal.

A good illustration of the latter is the section on evil tweets in the Jimmy Kimmel show, where celebrities from athletes to musicians read out evil messages about themselves.

Pretty quickly, the situation becomes absurd – when messages like “Billy Ailish dresses as if she had stolen clothes in the gym and gave her what was found among the forgotten things”, Billy Elish reads herself, it becomes noticeable how much aggression is disproportionate to the actions of a real person, to the side which is directed.

Anger is a valuable emotion that should not be ignored or sought to abandon. We need it so that we can better define our own boundaries and understand when they are being violated.

It allows you to see threats and danger – not only on the physical, but also on the emotional level. Anger helps us to see that what is happening next to us or other people’s actions is unpleasant or unacceptable to us – and take action in time to change this situation.

Nevertheless, one should not confuse the ability to work with one’s own anger and uncontrolled aggression directed outward. No matter how much we want, we cannot force ourselves to stop experiencing emotions – even as severe as anger.

But there is no equal sign between anger and aggression: if the first helps us to better understand ourselves and the source of our discontent, then the second is a consequence of the choice, of how we decide to act with our feelings.

The popular idea that the best way to deal with anger is to throw it out, actually a dangerous myth. For many, it becomes an occasion to bring emotions or conflict with another person to the maximum or even try to hurt the interlocutor more painfully.

Neither one way helps to find a solution to the problem – and the thought itself is often lost behind a high degree of emotions. The situation around us constantly generates reasons for anger, but this does not mean that you need to get angry at someone else’s expense.

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