This is your brain on hate

Constant exposure to hate on the internet forces your body to go into survival mode. The result: anxiety, insomnia and depression.

Erin Carson Former Senior Writer
Erin Carson covered internet culture, online dating and the weird ways tech and science are changing your life.
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Erin Carson
5 min read

Experiencing hate online can have physical consequences.


Evette Dionne thought she was tweeting into the void. Then the void tweeted back.

When Muhammad Ali died last year, Dionne, a 27-year-old journalist, posted a handful of tweets reflecting on what the boxing legend and cultural icon meant to the black community. She shared her thoughts on how commentators seemed to sand down the edges of a man who was an outspoken civil rights activist. She noted that Ali wasn't afraid to talk about racism in America, even if that meant repercussions from the white establishment.

Dionne included a personal reminiscence: the thrill of meeting Ali in New York's LaGuardia Airport with her mother and brother when she was a kid. "My mom whispered, mostly to herself, 'Muhammad Ali?' He came over to her, grabbed her hand, and kissed her cheek," she tweeted before putting her phone away.

Within half an hour, her tweets had gone viral. They spread to Facebook after someone screen-grabbed them and posted them to the social network. For four days, Dionne suffered an onslaught of ugly insults. She was labeled a racist and a liar and ordered to "stop pushing [her] bullshit agenda." Some people emailed her boss, trying to get her fired.

Dionne isn't a stranger to online harassment. She writes about race, gender and class and is a senior editor at Bitch Media, a feminist publication. Haters come with the territory. But this felt like a new frontier.

"That ripped the scab off the wound," Dionne told me, referring to the barrage. The Ali experience left her "emotionally upended."

Dionne isn't the only one of us facing hatred online. It's everywhere. And all that exposure is dangerous, even if the digital mob doesn't show up at your apartment door. The constant attacks put you under siege, causing a psychological reaction that prompts a physical response.

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There's a real mental and emotional toll to experiencing hatred online.

Just like an attack in real life, getting online hate prompts your body's "fight-or-flight" response. It's the flood of chemicals that gives your body the extra steam it needs when you're being threatened. One of those chemicals is cortisol, which limits certain biological functions like digestion during times when you might need energy to protect yourself.

Fight or flight is a wonderful thing if it helps you escape a bear by climbing a tree. But there's a reason your body produces small amounts of cortisol and only briefly. Prolonged exposure to cortisol and the other fight-or-flight hormones, like adrenaline, can lead to sleep problems, weight gain, digestive difficulty and anxiety. After all, cortisol is meant to disrupt your normal body functions in extreme situations.

Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, a nonprofit that studies media technologies and their effects, says each time you experience online hate, your body makes a little cortisol. When you're the target of trolls, you may be making it all the time.

"Because our bodies respond to virtual environments in ways that are similar to offline environments, you can still feel the same kind of trauma," Rutledge said. That can be magnified if online harassment includes threats to your physical safety.

And if you think online harassment is confined to the fringes of the internet, research suggests otherwise.

Seventy-three percent of adults on the internet have seen online harassment and 40 percent have experienced it themselves, according to the Pew Research Center. That includes name-calling, sexual harassment, physical threats and more. More than a quarter of Americans surveyed by Data & Society said they censor themselves online for fear of harassment.

What's the answer? 

The answer isn't shutting off your phone or your computer any more than a solution to avoiding a torch-bearing mob would be to close the curtains.

How you experience hate online depends on who you are and how you identify yourself. Religion, race, gender, orientation and age all play a role in determining how someone might choose to attack you -- as well as how those attacks affect you.

Graphic by Aaron Robinson/CNET

Your experience can also hinge on who's doing the hating. Individual trolls can be persistent and scary. When they band together in organized hate groups, they seem a lot more menacing. An offensive meme on Facebook is one thing. A concerted effort to direct an online army at someone by publishing contact information, a tactic known as "doxing," is another.

Brendesha Tynes, who teaches education and psychology at the University of Southern California, studies the effects of racism on minority teens. Over three years starting in 2010, she found that teens reported that their exposure to racism online had increased every year. That ranged from seeing racist images or jokes online to getting cyberthreats because of race or ethnicity.

"We know across three years that it has this really detrimental impact," Tynes said. But because social media is relatively new, she added, "we don't know beyond that."

Think about those teenagers, who already have symptoms of depression, and what happens to them as they get older. Now project that onto our society and think about the effect online hate could have more broadly.

The rise of online hate is changing the tone of the world we live in. We know saying something unpopular online could prompt vile tweets and Facebook posts from complete strangers, so we stop expressing ourselves. The concerns and worries undermine our cognitive abilities, hindering our ability to innovate and create.

"We will see a decrease in productivity," Rutledge says. That's because productivity is in part a result of creativity and collaboration, the very qualities that are being hurt.

The world online and off 

Last year, Guitar World magazine said it would stop publishing its gear guide, an annual issue that showcased women in skimpy clothes straddling guitars, amps and other music equipment.

The news made Emily Harris, a 28-year-old guitarist in Seattle, happy. And she said as much on a music website, where she also detailed some of the dismissive experiences she's had in the guitar community, like shop employees assuming her husband is the musician and she's just along for the ride.

A little while later, her inbox was full of notifications from the site's comment service. She knew she'd touched a nerve.

People piled on, calling her whiny and talentless. She got lectures on what "real women" care about. Some called her a spoiled child for even raising the point.

"I feel extremely disappointed that this is something that happens," Harris said. "It makes you feel a lot of things."

Dionne, the feminist editor, draws a line between the online and offline worlds. She's optimistic that engaging with people in the real world is more powerful than dealing with trolls online.

Still, her experience prompted her to rethink her social media strategy. She's still active on Twitter and Facebook but more circumspect than she had been.

"I am more cautious in the way that I use social media," she told me. "If it's not worth the backlash, I choose not to share things online."

6 GIFs that show you the internet's nasty side

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