Agustin Fuentes in National Geographic:
“YOU NEED TO have your throat cut out and your decomposing, bug-infested body fed to wild pigs.” An anonymous Facebook user wrote that—and more that’s unprintable—to Kyle Edmund after the British pro tennis player lost in a 2017 tournament. After University of Cambridge classics professor Mary Beard spoke about the history of male suppression of female voices, she received Twitter threats, including “I’m going to cut off your head and rape it.” On Martin Luther King Day this year, an anonymous Twitter user lionized the man who killed King some 50 years ago: “RIP James Earl Ray. A true fighter for the white race.” The same month, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted that his “Nuclear Button … is a much bigger & more powerful one” than Kim Jong Un’s. This capped weeks of dueling statements in which Trump called the North Korean leader “Rocket Man” and “a madman” and Kim called Trump “a gangster” and a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.” The internet is a particularly volatile place of late. Aggression on social media has reached such a pinnacle of acrimony that some U.S. House members proposed designating an annual “National Day of Civility.” The proposal drew civil responses—but also tweets and posts of wrath, ridicule, and profanity. Is this aggression on social media giving us a glimpse of human nature, one in which we are, at our core, nasty, belligerent beasts?
It’s true that hate crimes are on the rise, political divisions are at record heights, and the level of vitriol in the public sphere, especially online, is substantial. But that’s not because social media has unleashed a brutish human nature. In my work as an evolutionary anthropologist, I’ve spent years researching and writing about how, over the past two million years, our lineage transformed from groups of apelike beings armed with sticks and stones to the creators of cars, rockets, great artworks, nations, and global economic systems.