How social media turns online arguments between teens into real-world violence

By Caitlin Elsaesser

The deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in January exposed the power of social media to influence real-world behavior and incite violence. But many adolescents, who spend more time on social media than all other age groups, have known this for years.

“On social media, when you argue, something so small can turn into something so big so fast,” said Justin, a 17-year-old living in Hartford, Connecticut, during one of my research focus groups. (The participants’ names have been changed in this article to protect their identities.)

For the last three years, I have studied how and why social media triggers and accelerates offline violence. In my research, conducted in partnership with Hartford-based peace initiative COMPASS Youth Collaborative, we interviewed dozens of young people aged 12-19 in 2018. Their responses made clear that social media is not a neutral communication platform.

In other words, social media isn’t just mirroring conflicts happening in schools and on streets – it’s intensifying and triggering new conflicts. And for young people who live in disenfranchised urban neighborhoods, where firearms can be readily available, this dynamic can be deadly.

Internet banging

It can result in a phenomenon that researchers at Columbia University have coined “internet banging.” Distinct from cyberbullying, internet banging involves taunts, disses and arguments on social media between people in rival crews, cliques or gangs. These exchanges can include comments, images and videos that lead to physical fights, shootings and, in the worst cases, death.

It is estimated that the typical U.S. teen uses screen media more than seven hours daily, with the average teenager daily using three different forms of social media. Films such as “The Social Dilemma” underscore that social media companies create addictive platforms by design, using features such as unlimited scrolling and push notifications to keep users endlessly engaged.

According to the young people we interviewed, four social media features in particular escalate conflicts: comments, livestreaming, picture/video sharing and tagging.

Comments and livestreams

The feature most frequently implicated in social media conflicts, according to our research with adolescents, was comments. Roughly 80% of the incidents they described involved comments, which allow social media users to respond publicly to content posted by others.

Taylor, 17, described how comments allow people outside her friend group to “hype up” online conflicts: “On Facebook if I have an argument, it would be mostly the outsiders that’ll be hypin’ us up … ‘Cause the argument could have been done, but you got outsiders being like, 'Oh, she gonna beat you up.’”

Meanwhile, livestreaming can quickly attract a large audience to watch conflict unfold in real time. Nearly a quarter of focus group participants implicated Facebook Live, for example, as a feature that escalates conflict.

Brianna, 17, shared an example in which her cousin told another girl to come to her house to fight on Facebook Live. “But mind you, if you got like 5,000 friends on Facebook, half of them watching … And most of them live probably in the area you live in. You got some people that’ll be like, ‘Oh, don’t fight.’ But in the majority, everybody would be like, ‘Oh, yeah, fight.’”

She went on to describe how three Facebook “friends” who were watching the livestream pulled up in cars in front of the house with cameras, ready to record and then post any fight.

Strategies to stop violence

Adolescents tend to define themselves through peer groups and are highly attuned to slights to their reputation. This makes it difficult to resolve social media conflicts peacefully. But the young people we spoke with are highly aware of how social media shapes the nature and intensity of conflicts.

A key finding of our work is that young people often try to avoid violence resulting from social media. Those in our study discussed four approaches to do so: avoidance, deescalation, reaching out for help and bystander intervention.

Avoidance involves exercising self-control to avoid conflict in the first place. As 17-year-old Diamond explained, “If I’m scrolling and I see something and I feel like I got to comment, I’ll go [to] comment and I’ll be like, ‘Hold up, wait, no.’ And I just start deleting it and tell myself … ‘No, mind my business.’”

Reaching out for support involves turning to peers, family or teachers for help. “When I see conflict, I screenshot it and send it to my friends in our group chat and laugh about it,” said Brianna, 16. But there’s a risk in this strategy, Brianna noted: “You could screenshot something on Snapchat, and it’ll tell the person that you screenshot it and they’ll be like, ‘Why are you screenshotting my stuff?’”

The deescalation strategy involves attempts by those involved to slow down a social media conflict as it happens. However, participants could not recount an example of this strategy working, given the intense pressure they experience from social media comments to protect one’s reputation.

They emphasized the bystander intervention strategy was most effective offline, away from the presence of an online audience. A friend might start a conversation offline with an involved friend to help strategize how to avoid future violence. Intervening online is often risky, according to participants, because the intervener can become a new target, ultimately making the conflict even bigger.

Peer pressure goes viral

Young people are all too aware that the number of comments a post garners, or how many people are watching a livestream, can make it extremely difficult to pull out of a conflict once it starts.

Jasmine, a 15-year-old, shared, “On Facebook, there be so many comments, so many shares and I feel like the other person would feel like they would be a punk if they didn’t step, so they step even though they probably, deep down, really don’t want to step.”

There is a growing consensus across both major U.S. political parties that the large technology companies behind social media apps need to be more tightly regulated. Much of the concern has focused on the dangers of unregulated free speech.

But from the vantage point of the adolescents we spoke with in Hartford, conflict that occurs on social media is also a public health threat. They described multiple experiences of going online without the intention to fight, and getting pulled into an online conflict that ended up in gun violence. Many young people are improvising strategies to avoid social media conflict. I believe parents, teachers, policymakers and social media engineers ought to listen closely to what they are saying.

Dr Caitlin Elsaesser is an Assistant Professor at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work.

The Conversation is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.

© The Conversation

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Arguments on social media are futile and a total waste of time. Just turn it off.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

what about the prior year of numerous riots, arsons, and murders by BLM and Antifa?

Um, the BLM movement rioted, arsoned, and murdered exactly zero times.

The FBI has been clear that the violence last year was a result of right-wing agitators pretending they were antifa and BLM.

Sorry, you didn't expect those of us who aren't too stupid to look out of the right-wing bubble to pretend that your comments weren't complete and utter inanity do you?

1 ( +2 / -1 )

As if, such never occurred previous to 'social media'. Trip with social media, one can choose not to plug-in to begin with or participate. Avoidance.

The article does not cite actual numbers. Presents anecdotal accounts. The framework is confined by immediate geography and such is not addressed in any meaningful or factual sense. Hartford, the sample is 'dozens' of youth in the age range 12-18. A large difference between a 12 year old and 18 year old.

Hartford has a population of 121,000. There is no reference to race and ethnicity or socio-economic status of the targeted group. All of which does not reflect the demographics of the population at large in the USA. It is the 238th ranked city by population in the USA. The poverty rate is almost 30%. It is one of the poorest cities in the US. Almost 25% of the population has failed to graduate from high school.

The article and its assumptions certainly do not apply to Japan nor the population of the USA at large. It is specific to Hartford and based on a very small sample of the population.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

It's the same old, same old way of bullying and fight provocation - now with the internet. Bear in mind that online looks can be decieving. This is how cops nail child predator perverts, by staging phony chats and staging rendevous for arrest stings.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

No reputable journalist would casually use the phrase 'the dangers of unregulated free speech'.

That's the sort of thing you would expect to read on a website run by the Chinese or Russian government.

The persistent scare stories pushed out on once reputable media outlets regarding Web 2.0 are starting to look sinister.

The internet should operate under the same laws as the rest of society. In the United States, that is the first amendment.

Taking individual examples of bad things happening, blaming a technology rather than the individuals concerned, and using that as an excuse to ban it, is a back-handed way of imposing a level of state censorship that most developed countries have not had for centuries.

Censorship is toxic to a civilised society. State censorship, more than anything else, is the mark of a dictatorship. And all a dictatorship deserves is to be overthrown by any necessary means.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Social media was used by seditionists and insurrectionists to communicate and coordinate. The violence was caused by the ex-president and his lackeys like Mike Flynn and Roger Stone. A new study shows that the demographic that unites those who participated is the fall in the non-Hispanic white population in the counties in which they live over the past 5 years. See 4.6 WAPO for the article.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

The deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in January exposed the power of social media to influence real-world behavior and incite violence. 

Wow - what about the prior year of numerous riots, arsons, and murders by BLM and Antifa? All driven by social media.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

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