No control

Learned helplessness is the opposite of our sense of agency. It occurs when we have repeatedly faced uncontrollable and stressful situations, have experienced that we cannot exercise influence over them and, as a result, have given up even trying to take control over these situations.

Learned helplessness is a major reason for aggression online. Especially individuals who feel that they are entitled to having influence over others, but experience time and again that they have no influence, or not enough, start to blame external factors for the state they are in. The easiest targets are representatives of less powerful social groups who do seem to be able to influence others nonetheless – for instance women, representatives of sexual minorities, and representatives of ethnic minorities.

If we understand the digital sphere as a space in which it is easy for individuals with non-mainstream views and opinions to find each other and reach out to each other, it is easy to see why aggression stemming from learned helplessness is a major problem online. Members of the online subculture of involuntary celibates (Incels) are a prime example of people meeting up in online forums and engaging in self-pity, resentment, misogyny, and racism.

In our current situation of lockdown, it is easier for all of us to succumb to a state of learned helplessness. Our reality has changed a lot, and our sense of agency has taken a serious hit. Therefore, the danger of online aggression as a result of learned helplessness now is even bigger.

Unfortunately, there are no generally accepted good practices on how to react to online aggression caused by learned helplessness.