The Curious Psychology of Hate-Following People Online
08.28.18

“Even being hated was fun.”
– Spencer Pratt, The New Yorker

Hate-following is a thoroughly modern pastime, a lush blend of gossip and technology. Subscribing to the social media accounts I find most objectionable gives me the reward of clucking “tsk tsk” during my nightly soaks in the tub. It’s an opportunity to mutter “herd immunity” as many times as I want while I scroll through an unending stream of anti-vaxx threads (yes, I subscribed just so I could hate on them) all from the secrecy of my phone.

There are many flavors of hate-followers: the self-righteous, the jealous, the scapegoaters. And between reality television and social media, there are a whole host of people and events to which we can collectively say, “WTF?” My flavor of hate-following is rooted in an innate need to give unsolicited advice. Empirically, I know that I don’t have all the answers; spiritually, however, I’m Dear Abby reincarnate. If, for example, I were a bachelorette on NBC’s The Bachelor, I’m sure I would remind the homme du jour that his constant call for openness isn’t an appropriate measure of authenticity. If I were a rich kid of IG, I’d lecture my peers on the importance of charity, generosity of spirit and extending their shoe collections beyond the purchase of a 12th pair of Rockstuds. If I were tall, I would encourage fellow models with my impeccable posture.

This is why hate-following is so enticing: It’s a chance to share my opinions in secrecy without having to exert energy to defend them. An eye roll directed at the tone-deaf caption of an image clearly posted to display not the writer’s heart, but rather their assets, provides a bit of release that I would never dream to leak out into my everyday life.

Lately I’ve wondered, though: Is the activity of following certain unlikable figures on Twitter or Instagram really as innocent as letting off a little steam or capturing a momentary boost to the ego? Or does it, perhaps, reveal a budding cultural addiction to drama?

People gossiping about celebrities is old hat, of course, but now we all have access to the global stage via social media. These networks and their cousin, reality television, seem to have opened a Pandora’s box for the kind of laissez-faire approach to fame and the criticism (warranted or not) that comes along with the limelight. Take, for example, GOMI and Reddit’s r/blogsnark. Both are spaces where people have formed communities centered around their dislike of certain bloggers; both carry a distinctly hate-follower tone of mutual annoyance as the congealing agent. (Funnily enough, r/blogsnark has a thread dedicated to snarking on GOMI — meta-hate-following at its finest.) With tribalism and social media both on the rise, perhaps it’s no wonder that posting on forums like these has become a national pastime.

Researchers have observed that receiving likes on Facebook lights up the same neural pathways as an addiction to cocaine. If our reward centers can so easily be tricked into a sense of pleasure, I wonder if hate-following casts a similarly drugged-up glow across our gray matter. It’s conceivable that hate-following creates a false sense of power over the people we see “doing life wrong” (according to our own predilections).

It’s also been said that we all have an internal emotional thermostat with settings established through experience. Because of this, some psychiatrists believe that humans can form an addiction to chaos (“drama” for our purposes). Often, this form of addiction begins after someone lives through a sustained period of unrest. Once peace is restored, the individual will feel discomfort; for them, “peace” is being on edge. It is from this idea that I pin my initial red thread and begin to draw it down to…

…here: Psychologist Leon Festinger’s social comparison theory, which states that humans have an innate need to compare themselves to those around them. Push another thumbtack into a study released last year by Iqra University, which found that, “One hour spent on Facebook daily results in a 5.574 decrease in the self-esteem score of an individual.” Bridge the red thread of conspiracy of the two prior observations to research that came out of Ohio State University in 2014 that found that people feeling vulnerable are more likely to seek out the profiles of those they deem as “less than” in some regard. Throw in evidence of social media’s addictive quality, and the counterplot funnels nicely into a singular truth: Social media feeds off of vanity and insecurity, which build over time and trap us in perceived dramatics, thirsting for more opportunities to clutch our pearls at the expense of our own serenity. In other words, social media is an efficient feedback loop for the dissatisfied masses, one where ingesting a constant stream of dramatic content only increases our appetite for more.

Personally, I’m beginning to wonder if all this gossip and self-satisfaction chains us up in ways that are more than just good fun. What if my internal thermostat is adjusting upwards to prefer the blazing heat of wine-throwing antics permanently? Fortunately, there’s a straightforward way to cut the cord of discontent: Simply press “unfollow.” You’ll know I’ve finally done it when I post a photo of me in a bikini, drinking a green juice and self-righteously extolling the benefits of a #socialmediafast for the sake of #wellness, y’all.

Rachel Siemens is a writer living in Portland, OR. Follow her on Twitter @_RSiemens and Instagram @siemensrachel.

Collage by Edith Young.

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