Explainer: Is social media making people meaner or just bringing out what's always been there?

Social media -  whether you love it or hate it there's no arguing over its influence and presence in our lives. 

From connecting with friends and family to endless entertainment, there are plenty of positive aspects to the different platforms. 

But anyone who has spent any time online will know it can be a charged and sometimes toxic environment. 

From petty squabbles over the latest celebrity gossip to extremism and hate speech, it can get nasty. 

And while every company attempts to ensure its guidelines are followed, people are still able to regularly hurl abuse at each other with little or no consequences. 

In May Amber Heard said she believes social media vitriol was partly to blame for her losing a high-profile-defamation case to her ex-husband Johnny Depp. 

The contentious case captured the world's attention and Heard faced months of constant and vicious online abuse. 

In November more than 130 people and organisations specialising in women's rights advocacy, domestic violence, and sexual assault awareness signed an open letter in support of her. 

The letter, which was signed by prominent feminist Gloria Steinem, cited "grave concerns" about Heard's vilification during the trial and still "ongoing online harassment". 

"Much of this harassment was fueled by disinformation, misogyny, biphobia, and a monetized social media environment where a woman's allegations of domestic violence and sexual assault were mocked for entertainment," the letter noted. "The same disinformation and victim-blaming tropes are now being used against others who have alleged abuse."

It's one of many examples which can sometimes make it feel like social media is making us all treat each other worse. 

This is backed up by a recent survey which found bullying, misinformation, safety risks, fakeness and distressing content are some of the reasons young people are limiting their social media use. 

The survey, which included 871 young people aged between 14 and 24 in the United States, found more than half had deleted or thought about deleting their social media accounts.

Most were also acutely aware of the negative impact social media can have on their mental health. 

With all that in mind it can be easy to write social media off as the problem but in reality, it's more complex. 

Auckland University social sciences lecturer Dr Sarah Bickerton told Newshub social media is simply a tool that allows people to behave in ways they always have. So while we might like to blame it on technology, unfortunately human nature is also at play. 

Bickerton said people have always had the tendency to treat others worse when they can distance themselves from their humanity, and social media is the perfect tool to do that. 

"This is a historical thing. We've done this throughout human history when we can dehumanise a group - to not think about them as individuals, to think about them as merely evil and wrong and bad,'' she said. 

Bickerton said while social media helps people distance themselves, it's not unique. But she said because it is relatively new, we are still developing a set of morals and values around what is and isn't acceptable online. 

It is also exposing people to hateful content on a much greater scale - which is why it can feel so overwhelmingly negative. 

"It's not necessarily about social media - there are things about social media that can make this worse, the scale and the speed it can operate at [for example]. 

"But even that is more an increase in things we've already been experiencing through television and radio. So it's not wholly new, it's an increase in the stuff we've already been doing."

And hateful content online doesn't affect all people the same. Minorities and women are much more likely to be targeted both in their everyday lives and also online. 

Bickerton said for people who are used to being treated well in their everyday lives, social media can feel extremely negative. But for people who are exposed to prejudices or hatred regularly it just adds to what they already experience. 

"For Māori in New Zealand merely not being online won't somehow disconnect them from dominant narratives in society that disparage Māori. Likewise, women can't go offline and not experience misogyny."

Your ability to bubble yourself away from these kinds of things is in itself a privilege.

Another factor that can make people more confident in treating others poorly online is the perception of anonymity it creates. 

"If you feel like you are distant from that person, the concept of the consequences of your actions are also something you are distanced from," Bickerton said. 

It's a view shared by Auckland University associate professor of psychology Danny Osborne, who told Newshub perceived anonymity can be very powerful. 

"There have been court cases over the years where parents were bullying kids in their kid's schools.

"These behaviours are things you wouldn't see normal people engage in… But because they're online and they perceive themselves to be somewhat anonymous, you wind up seeing this kind of bullying behaviour." 

Osborne said while some people will simply enjoy being offensive and hurtful, many others might just not realise the impact of their actions because it's not face-to-face. 

Another reason social media can be so aggressive and confrontational is because people with more nuanced views are less likely to engage. 

"People are only responding to things they feel strongly about… You don't comment on the mundane, you comment on the things that are personally highly relevant to you," Osborne said. 

This is backed up by a study by Princeton University which found for every moral-emotional word used in a social media post, it increases its transmission by around 20 percent.

What part do algorithms play? 

So while social media may not be fully to blame - it can certainly exacerbate the issues and one of the biggest ways it does that is through algorithms. 

Broadly speaking social media algorithms are used to promote certain content depending on what the company wants to achieve - which for most social media companies is engagement. 

And these algorithms play a huge role in online behaviour, Auckland University research fellow Andrew Chen told Newshub. 

An unintended consequence of optimising for engagement is negative content is very engaging. 

Chen said while the mix of content online is fairly balanced, people tend to notice the negative more. And because they notice it more, they engage with it more and companies are incentivised to promote it. 

"They want people to stay on the website for as long as possible," Chen said. "The longer you stay on the website, the more advertising you can be served, and the more money the company can earn. 

"So how do we get people to stay on the website for as long as possible? We get the algorithm to optimise for engagement."

But regardless of whether social media is to blame or whether it's our fault, most experts agree on one thing - regulation is needed. 

Sarah Bickerton said without regulation social media can and does do real harm. 

Bickerton said governments and policymakers around the world need to introduce legislation to help mitigate some of the consequences of negative interactions online - similar to the way other media such as television has regulatory standards. 

"We can't just rest on our laurels. We actually do need to do something because if we don't do something, that's going to have massive negative ramifications," she warned. 

And she said it's a risk policy makers around the world are increasingly aware of. 

"There is an international conversation happening around policy and because social media is global, this needs to be an international conversation because we can't do it by ourselves."