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Why Do Online Communities Become Hyper-Toxic?

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Those who socialise in online communities often become alarmingly hostile, toxic, and verbally violent toward one another, according to new research by the Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU).

The study, conducted by Marius K. Luedicke, WU Vienna University of Economics and Business, Olivier Sibai, Birkbeck, University of London, and Kristine de Valck, HEC Paris, investigated the online behaviour of a British electronic dance music community over 18 years.

They aimed to find out why, although people typically join online communities to socialise peacefully, online communities are often riddled with verbal slander, trolling, and hateful flaming.

They discovered that online communities often became hostile, creating hateful spaces, a phenomenon known in sociology as brutalisation.

Specifically, the researchers identified three kinds of direct, structural, cultural, and mutually reinforcing forms of violence: sadistic entertainment (verbal conflict and exploitation performed in front of an audience for their entertainment), clan warfare (competing subgroups vie for dominance), and popular justice (members violently enforce community norms).

The researchers theorise that frustrated desires for entertainment, social status, and justice are the main reasons for endemic violence. Moderators have an important role to play to stop online violence: “If they recognise and name these patterns early on and, above all, speak out against the supposed harmlessness of online verbal violence, they can probably curb this behaviour,” explains Marius Lüdicke from WU.

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