Why toxicity thrives on Twitter

Rosanne Barr is just the latest person to end up in big trouble on Twitter. So what is it about Twitter that gives some people the feeling of freedom to be able to say whatever they want?

Barr felt comfortable tweeting something racist. Conservative political commentator Dinesh D'Souza thought it was OK to make fun of Parkland students crying after watching Florida lawmakers reject a ban on assault weapons: "Worst news since their parents told them to get summer jobs." Rapper Meek Mill's 2015 Twitter rant accused Drake of not writing his own raps.

"Twitter is just a sea of words—it's a lot of people just talking at each other," Dr. Emma Seppälä said. "And Sometimes people feel safer on Twitter because it's more anonymous."

Seppälä is a research psychologist with Stamford and Yale. She said the feeling of anonymity on Twitter combined with few pictures create a mob mentality and a lack of empathy.

"What we're seeing is a phenomenon called depersonalization," Seppälä said. "When you can't see someone's face, when you can't see how they respond to a rude or hurtful comment, it's easier to do so, it's much easier to say whatever they think."

Dr. Jennifer Golbeck, a computer scientist and a professor at the University of Maryland, studies social media.

"There's definitely a group of people who once they start having feelings and they don't have anyone around them to give them what they need, Twitter is a great place to go because you get a lot of feedback right away," Golbeck said.

Both experts said President Donald Trump's Twitter use is also helping to drive the mean-spirited dialogue on Twitter.

"A leader sets the tone so the way the leader acts is the way that people often think it's OK to act," Seppälä said.

"He definitely has embraced that part of Twitter," Golbeck said. "And I think brought a lot of other people along with him who feel like it's a place where they can do these more inflammatory things and it's expected."

Seppälä and Golbeck agreed that research studies are having a hard time keeping up with the psychological and societal impact of Twitter and other social media because it changes so quickly.