A new UK investigation of online troublemakers discovers the perpetrators are often socially well connected. As a result, some Facebook users remain friends online with troublemakers because they are worried about the repercussions if they “unfriend” them.
Sarah Buglass, a Ph.D. student in the School of Social Sciences at Nottingham Trent University will presented her research this week at the British Psychological Society’s Annual Conference in Nottingham.
The issue of online troublemaking is a growing concern as more people use online social networks as a focal point for social relationships.
“People are spending more and more time online making them more vulnerable to potentially damaging social tension and disagreements. Our study explored the characteristics of people who might be more likely to cause this sort of trouble in an online social network,” explains Buglass.
The researchers analyzed the online relationship characteristics of 5,113 network contacts from 52 Facebook users (13 to 45 years).
The participants were asked to rate 100 randomly sampled Facebook “friends” from their networks in terms of online disagreement (with self and others), relational closeness, and communication frequency (online and offline).
Analysis of the results revealed that online troublemakers tended to be socially popular contacts who were known and in regular communication with the participants offline but not online (i.e. the participants were Facebook friends with the troublemakers but had very limited online contact).
This implied that Facebook users might be keeping an eye on provocative friends in a bid to avoid confrontation themselves. Online disagreements could be attributed to immaturity as they were more frequent in the 19 to 21 year old group.
“Facebook users appear to be harboring known online troublemakers on their Facebook networks. While some were not averse to reporting the online indiscretions of others to the service provider, many more choose to merely ignore them. It appears that they don’t want to communicate with the troublemakers online for risk of damaging their own reputation, but at the same time they don’t appear to want to unfriend them either,” explains Buglass.
Therefore, the social risk and emotional toil of unfriending may be greater than accepting the inappropriateness.
Buglass summarizes, “The social repercussions of unfriending someone reach far beyond the boundaries of the online network. People don’t want to risk causing offline tension with their friends, family members, or colleagues by disconnecting them from their online lives. Remaining online friends with troublemakers appears to be a social necessity for some.”