I must preface my remarks by stating that the following comments are not conclusions drawn from any scientific study. The data gathering has been anecdotal and empirical, and the comments provided should not be relied upon as fact.
Further to that, I have no formal qualifications in psychology, my last academic studies in the field having been conducted half a century ago, and then only in a cursory fashion.
By Julian May
If you have the desire to study human behaviour, Facebook presents fertile ground. Behaviour and its links to personality types, have long held a fascination, both personal and professional, for me.
In an environment of anonymity, we will tend to find expressions of personality which we might not witness in public, especially in face-to-face interactions. Being able to hide behind alter egos, means that people can let it all hang out, and display their true, uninhibited behavioural tendencies.
Having been a Facebook user for a little while now, yesterday (17 December) I decided to dedicate a full day to research. In addition to Coffs Coast Independent News, I access several personal interest pages, so my data gathering has not been restricted to only one or two sites. It was exceptionally tiring, somewhat disturbing, but ultimately worthwhile, having confirmed the impressions which I gained through earlier observations.
My conclusions will surprise no-one, but here they are anyway:
- On the Facebook pages which are of personal recreational interest to me, I find a large number of people who are interested in telling and hearing stories from like-minded individuals, asking topic-centred questions and providing answers to same. The group mood tends to be jovial and supportive, with light relief provided by smart-arse remarks, offered in good spirit. As a smart-arse myself, I enjoy these interactions. There is rarely a negative comment offered, and such comments are not welcomed.
- Sampling “Coffs Coast Independent News”, (CCIN) I find that contributors and contributions are very much “middle-ground”. I should point out that my CCIN contact has been relatively short, a matter of months only, so my data collection has been limited. Most people are moderates who rely upon factual knowledge, and express rational opinion, as opinion, not pretending it to be fact. There are significant numbers of differing views expressed and discussed, with most interactions displaying respectful attitudes. As we would expect, a behavioural continuum exists.
At one extreme we have contributors who refrain, at all costs, from making negative comments about a post, and never resort to the use of personal criticism of a fellow contributor. At the other extreme we have contributors who take any opportunity to launch attacks which are personal, and often have little bearing upon an issue. Most contributors tend to gather towards the centre, a phenomenon which is not unexpected, and which is probably due in part to the nature of the personalities involved, and in part to the effective moderation of content.
- Much of my time yesterday, was spent switching between CCIN and the Facebook page known as “Heart of Coffs” – clearly a misnomer, if the content is examined. The unintended comparison, which I could not help but make, between these two sites was stunning.
There was no need to do any statistical, numerical analysis, in order to identify the polarity which exists on this page. The “never the twain shall meet” nature of the content is clearly drawn. Three entities appear.
The smallest and apparently least powerful of these, is the HOC moderator. (More on that later).
The next largest, but by far the most aggressive and blusteringly intimidating, is the faction which supports the construction of the Coffs Harbour Mayor’s new council offices, with attached cultural spaces.
The third group primarily contains opponents of the second, and features a range of respondents from mild to wild. Very few of these people favour communication through the use of aggression and abuse, and even then, it tends to be in retaliation against “attacks” from the “proponent group”. However, the disparity in numbers between this group and the “pro” group is great. Questions and comments to the HOC co-ordinator, and largely moderate responses to comments, are features of the interactions here.
Back to the HOC moderator. I suspect this Facebook page was established by Coffs Council with the initial intention of using it as a propaganda tool, which might reach an audience of moderate contributors, who were seeking information. The cynic in me wonders whether it was intended that the site would be overwhelmed by ratbags.
Intended or otherwise, HOC has degenerated into a page marked by manic, irrational, aggressive, confronting and counterproductive behaviours. Many comments which appear here, would never see the light of day on CCIN and similar, responsible pages.
Yesterday, in order to see how far some of the aggressors would go, I joined the “discussion”. Using prior knowledge of the public behaviours of some of the individuals, I targeted one or two, and posted numerous inflammatory, as well as a few supportive, comments and responses.
It was all a bit of a fizzer, really. Schoolyard bullying, verbal tongue-poking, hands-on-hips displays of aggression, nothing much more of significance. However, behind all behaviour there is motivation, and the evidence provided by yesterday’s unwitting participants, provides some useful insights.
There are probably two chief protagonists in the “pros” camp. It’s hard to be sure, because of suspicions relating to identity appropriation and multiple identity use. However, even if we take the numbers at face value there were only about 7 active yesterday.
In one thread, “All Welcome: Coffs Harbour’s Cultural and Civic Space”, containing 140 comments, there were numerous comments and questions posted by known, and some unknown (to me), moderates, pros and opponents, all responded to in an appropriate way. Only one of the commentators was a known and very aggressive pro. The comment made by this individual was banal, to say the least.
In a second thread, “Demolition is officially complete!”, the mood, and the behaviours generated, featured aggression and puerile attempts at intimidation. In this post, the excrement really hit the wind-producing device. 246 comments were generated.
Of those I identified the writings of perhaps 7 pros, if two of the writers are actually different people, and not the same person using a partner’s identity. I counted, roughly, the number of comments attributable to these individuals and divided them into three categories – Mild, Forceful and Extreme.
In the Mild category were 2, each making one contribution. 2 fitted into the Forceful category, making 2 and 4 contributions respectively, and 3 writers found a place in the Extreme category making 5, 9 and 13 comments.
I’ll probably stuff up the maths, but here’s what I think the stats may tend to show:
- About 36 of the 246 comments were made by “pros” – approximately 15% in all.
- Therefore, about 85% of comments on the council’s Facebook page, were made by opponents of the Glass Palace. Few of these comments contained negativity (a number of those, as mentioned above, were mine) and the level of negativity evident was relatively mild.
- Roughly 27 of the pros comments contained insult and verbal abuse – approximately 75% of the total number of pro comments. None of the negative comments was any more significant than those heard in the average primary school playground, and each lacked any semblance of sophistication. Imagine, if you will, two seagulls fighting over a cold chip.
So, what does this data gathering exercise tell us about HOC’s page, and its moderator?
Here are some of the possible conclusions which I have drawn:
- Council’s attempt at propaganda may have backfired, seriously, with more opposition input than supportive input, appearing on the page.
- Council may be happy to allow the slanging match to continue, believing that any pro content is better than none.
- Council’s page has been hijacked by a manic lobby group of about 4 individuals, who prefer to verbally attack and abuse opponents, due to the fact that a) they have no cogent arguments to present; b) they lack the necessary skills to present an argument, without recourse to negative behaviours; c) they enjoy the conflict which they create, given the fact that they achieve attention-seeking goals in doing so – commonly known as “shit-stirring”. (CCO Editor – also known as ‘trolling’ too).
- Council’s moderator has totally lost control of the Facebook page, and doesn’t know where to go from here.
- In keeping with its apparent predilection for taking action without allowing for unforeseen outcomes, council has created a monster.
Given the (somewhat sketchy) evidence provided above, what can we suggest about the behaviours and personality types represented on Facebook pages? Try these thoughts on for size:
- Social media provide legitimate outlets for a huge number of people who might otherwise feel the negative impacts of social isolation.
- There are some really sick bastards – trolls, tragics, extremists, paedophiles, who use social media, including Facebook, for anti-social activities which range in severity from insignificant to life-threatening.
- Two of Coffs Harbour’s Facebook pages are located, by the nature of their users, at opposite ends of a spectrum. CCIN seems to cater to the needs of people who wish to communicate rationally, and in a positive manner, about important local issues. This does not prevent incursions into the space, by individuals who have nothing of value to contribute to debate. Those same individuals have infested the Facebook page of Coffs Harbour Council’s “New Administrative Offices, with Attached Cultural Spaces” (Heart Of Coffs). As a result, HOC now seems to exist solely to satisfy the needs of these characters to bang their drums, puff out their chests, and scream abuse at anyone who holds an opposing view.
- Many users find support for their views in CCIN, and like pages. Debates may vary from light-hearted to deadly serious, but there exists a sense of companionship, and an appreciation of the need for fair play. Those who are incapable of maintaining appropriate standards of behaviour are invited to cease contributing. This is an approach which should be applied in the HOC setting.
- “Keyboard tragics”, such as those few who have reduced the HOC page to a drivelling, irrelevant mess, are all motivated by issues chosen from a particular set. Included within this set are – a sense of worthlessness, a sense of impotence, a sense of hopelessness, a sense of futility, a feeling of personal insignificance, feelings of personal inferiority, and significant anger and frustration generated by the foregoing issues.
Such individuals express their angst, whilst hiding behind the safety of a computer screen or telephone. Some will attempt to fabricate support, in the form of alter egos, hoping to extend their small power base, and thereby become “more relevant”. Some will adhere to the belief that by saying something very loudly, and very often, it will become true – a tactic used to great effect by Trump. The more extreme will resort to personal, physical confrontation in public, a tactic commonly used by Trump supporters.
Regardless of motivation, the salient issue here, is that these people, in one way or another, are damaged.
They need, but do not necessarily deserve, sympathy and support.