People using social media are more likely to blame victims for online abuse than the perpetrators because they may have become numb to cyber-bullying, new research suggests.
The study by cyber-psychology researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) and the University of the West of Scotland (UWS) found there is little public sympathy or support for victims of online abuse.
But they also found people are less likely to be blamed for the abuse and get more sympathy if they are considered more physically or socially attractive.
The research involved creating fake Facebook accounts for an equal number of males and females using common names like John and Monica with basic profile photos.
The number of friends each account had was controlled so as not to affect perceived social attractiveness.
Mundane comments were posted on the fake profiles such as “Roll on 5 o’clock, going out for dinner with my pals”, or “Really glad to finish that project at work”, and researchers responded with a range of positive, neutral and abusive comments, some as strongly worded as “I hope you die”, to make them look like they had come from real people.
Researchers then recruited 164 people aged 18-59 who were asked to study each profile and its contents.
They filled out a questionnaire about how much they thought the profile owner was to blame for the abuse and negative comments.
Dr Chris Hand, a lecturer at GCU, said: “We asked the public to rate how much the abuse was the victim’s fault and people consistently perceived it was something about them, they were responsible for it or they provoked the abuse even though they’ve said something as mundane as ‘going out for dinner’. It is really quite scary.
“We set out to test the relationship between attractiveness and blame. We found that if someone was more physically or socially attractive, they were less likely to be blamed for the abuse and got more sympathy.
“Our results could be due to an observer desensitisation effect, or that participants interpreted the posts as indicative of friendly ‘teasing’ or ‘banter’ within an established social relationship.
“A lot of comments are not horseplay, but malicious, and I think we need to understand how we support people more. Everyone should be able to use social media safely and responsibly, but we don’t see that.”
Dr Graham Scott from UWS was also involved in the study.
The fake Facebook profiles, created using photo-editing software, were never made live online and no real people were subjected to abuse.
Researchers said all necessary permissions were sought and the study was fully reviewed by a research ethics committee.
They hope the results could be of use to people who support victims of cyber-bullying such as police, teachers and counsellors, and employers.
The research, titled The volume and source of cyber-abuse influences victim blame and perceptions of attractiveness, has been published in the peer-reviewed journal Computers in Human Behaviour.