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Online abuse research at Scottish university exposes new dark side of social media

Cyberpsychologists have revealed that many of us have Dark Tetrad personality traits
Cyberpsychologists have revealed that many of us have Dark Tetrad personality traits

A leading cyberpsychologist has warned Twitter users to be careful what they post online after a study found a new darker side of social media.

For the first time, research has revealed that many people with strong Dark Tetrad personality traits like psychopathy, narcissism, sadism or Machiavellianism have little or no sympathy for people who are badly abused online.

The research, led by Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) cyberpsychologist Dr Chris Hand, involved 125 regular Twitter users aged 18-43 from all over the world.

A quarter (25 per cent) of the 125 volunteers scored high with psychopathic, sadistic, narcissistic and Machiavellian characteristics – which are traits of psychology, commonly known as the Dark Tetrad, to describe people who have a tendency to be callous and exploitative.

Dr Hand explained: “No-one showed 100 per cent total victim blame, and no-one showed 100 per cent that they didn’t realise the abuse was in some way serious; however, the proportion of people who scored really high on victim blame and really low on perceived severity were similar to the above Dark Tetrad data.

“Victim Blame was far greatest if the victim posted something negative; the Perceived Severity was lowest when the victim had tweeted something negative and had received a small amount of abuse, whereas the abuse was seen as most-severe if the victim had posted something positive and received lots of abuse. There were still plenty of responses that were unsympathetic in all conditions though.

“Twitter is a bit more open to stranger abuse, rather than teasing or banter between established real-life acquaintances. People are more likely to follow strangers on Twitter and engage with strangers, whereas Facebook friends tend to be folk that you have a real-world connection with in some way.

“This research is really novel because, for the first time, we’ve added the Dark Tetrad analysis to it. This study also shows how important what the victim says in the beginning is, as well as what the abuse looks like.”

© Peter Devlin
Dr Chris Hand

The research also involved experts Dr Graham Scott and Dr Zara Brodie, from the University of the West of Scotland, and Dr Sara C Sereno and student Xilei Yi, from the University of Glasgow.

All 125 participants were frequent Twitter users, 84 were women. They looked at six different profiles and fictional timelines. All of the fake victims were young white men in their early 20s with stereotypical male faces to try to keep them as typical as possible so not to throw the data off and researchers took real tweets and generated the stimuli.

Dr Hand added: “The study investigated if the observer blamed the victim, did they see the abuse as serious and how did the observer’s personality influence how they saw these victims. That’s where the Dark Tetrad came in.

“If the observer scored high on narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy and everyday sadism – for example if someone says they like watching motor racing but only when there’s a crash – they were less likely to judge the abuse as severe, blame the victim and shrug it off.

“This is about everyday people being abused online. We wanted to know how does a person’s initial tweet influence the reactions to it and how do the reactions influence how we perceive the person who tweeted it. This is where we saw one of the more striking differences when you look at regular people versus celebrities.

“When celebrities get abused online, all that seems to matter is what they said or did in the first tweet – who they are and what they said. The stuff that happens afterwards doesn’t make any difference.

“However, when we looked at regular people that was the big change. Yes, it matters what the person tweets in the first place but the nature of the replies also makes a difference. It’s as if people really lock in to that person’s identity, what they’ve said, who that makes them come across as, and that’s what fixes people’s attention and that’s what drives whether or not they blame the person for any abuse and whether or not they see it as severe.

“Another interesting thing we found was that people realise the abuse is serious although they still blame the victim for it happening. It is the classic case of ‘yes that’s bad, but they should never have put the tweet up in the first place’ even if the abuse was really horrible like ‘‘why don’t you just go and kill yourself’.

“So I would advise Twitter users to be careful what you tweet because if you say something provocative you’re not going to get any sympathy if you then get abused.”


The full paper can be found at https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chbr.2021.100056