New research provides evidence that people with an elevated sense of victimhood are more likely to engage in cyberbullying. The findings provide a better understanding of how personality traits and authoritarian tendencies are related to abusive behavior on the internet. The study has been published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media.
The author behind the new study was interested in studying online bullying and harassment, which have become widespread concerns due to the increasingly abrasive and polarized nature of online discourse. He wanted to understand the phenomenon of cyberbullying and identify the individuals who are most likely to engage in this behavior. He was particularly interested in exploring the relationship between mental health, personality traits related to victimhood, and authoritarian worldviews in relation to cyberbullying.
“I would consider myself to be on the political left and over the last 10 years, I’ve anecdotally witnessed some shifts, pretty widely discussed in news media, in the culture of the political left,” explained study author Christopher J. Ferguson, a professor of psychology at Stetson University.
“Specifically, parts of the far-left appear to have abandoned principles of free speech and due process and have become obsessed with victimhood and identity. Much of this occurs online and Twitter mobs and other online outrage appeared to have gotten outsized influence in our society. I thought psychology had done a pretty good job understanding right-wing authoritarianism, so I was curious to examine how a culture of left-wing authoritarianism was developing, particularly in online spaces.”
Ferguson used an online sample collected during the COVID-19 pandemic to conduct their study. They recruited participants through a liberal arts university in the U.S. South and online platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to ensure a diverse sample. The final sample included 361 adults, who completed various online assessments via Qualtrics.
To measure cyberbullying perpetration, the researcher used the Cyberbullying Perpetration Scale. The scale assessed behaviors such as spreading rumors, excluding individuals from online groups, and making false accusations. The study also assessed mental health symptoms using the Brief Symptoms Inventory-18 , which measured psychological distress in three dimensions: somatization, depression, and anxiety.
Personality traits related to histrionic symptoms were measured using the Brief Histrionic Personality Scale, which assessed attention-seeking and seductiveness. Borderline personality symptoms were measured using the short version of the Borderline Symptom List.
To assess authoritarian worldviews, Ferguson used the short version of the Right-Wing Authoritarianism Scale and developed a scale for left-wing authoritarianism. The Right-Wing Authoritarianism Scale included items related to obedience, respect for authority, and the need for a strong leader. The left-wing version focused on rigid left-wing beliefs and the willingness to eschew free speech or due process to enforce those beliefs.
Finally, the participants completed an assessment of trait victimhood via the Tendency for Interpersonal Victimhood Scale. This scale included items that assessed the tendency to perceive oneself as a victim and feel taken advantage of by others (e.g. “It is very hard for me to stop thinking about the injustice others have done to me”).
The study found that both right-wing authoritarianism and left-wing authoritarianism were positively associated with trait victimhood. Greater trait victimhood, in turn, predicted higher levels of cyberbullying.
“The modern left has become very efficient at identifying victimhood as a status marker and this isn’t at all a good thing. We should be sensitive to real victims of bad circumstances (natural disasters, war refugees, etc.), but we seem to have a tendency to give victimhood actual moral status,” Ferguson told PsyPost.
“Unfortunately, some individuals have what is coming to be called trait victimhood wherein victimhood is part of one’s identity and such individuals thus feel justified in being aggressive toward others. Whether on the left or right, such individuals tend to have more mental health problems and are also more aggressive and cruel, at least online. Sadly, we’ve been giving these individuals a lot of cultural power and we should really stop doing that.”
Interestingly, borderline personality traits, which are characterized by unstable emotions and impulsive behavior, were initially found to be correlated with cyberbullying. However, when considering other variables together, borderline traits did not significantly predict cyberbullying. This suggests that trait victimhood may be the key factor driving cyberbullying, rather than general mental health issues.
The study has limitations, including its correlational nature and reliance on self-report data. Causal conclusions cannot be drawn, and future research should consider longitudinal assessments to understand developmental paths.
“It’s only one study (albeit preregistered), and it would be good to see it replicated,” Ferguson said. “I think there is still much to learn about creeping authoritarianism on the left as psychologists being (like me) mostly leftists have been reluctant to admit it could be a problem. And of course none of this means that right-wing authoritarianism isn’t also a problem.”
Individuals high in trait victimhood may believe their aggression is justified due to their perceived victim status, and Ferguson argued that that emphasizing victim narratives may exacerbate authoritarian tendencies. Instead, it may be more beneficial to encourage collaboration and understanding among different communities to reduce aggression and discord.
“I suspect that people who don’t live and work in far-left spaces like academia and (honestly) journalism probably aren’t aware of how bad this has become in some of those spaces,” Ferguson told PsyPost. “Some people refer to a ‘long march’ of quasi-Marxism through our institutions — whether or not ‘Marxism’ is a fair paradigm (and I’m not sure it’s quite as intellectually organized as that), I do suspect there’s some truth to the “long march” idea — which means that rolling it back is also going to take persistent, concerted effort, and we’re going to need to figure out how to do that without tempting authoritarians on the right to do it for us.”
“But that is going to mean, on one hand, we stop treating self-declared victimhood as if it were empirical evidence and, on the other, we may need to take a hard look at some academic disciplines that function to do very little other than to promote exactly those same self-declarations of victimhood status, particularly when founded on identity categories.”
The study was titled: “Cyberbullying and Its Relation to Right and Left Authoritarianism, Trait Victimhood, and Mental Illness.”