The Psychology Behind Our Obsession With ‘Hate-Following’ People On Social Media

We go out of our way to avoid people we don't like IRL, so why do we seek them out online?

You feel a familiar pang of irritation. That opinionated, insufferable wagon is giving out on Twitter again. You open Facebook and scoff audibly at that couple who are always sharing gushy status updates professing their love for one another. Don’t they know how embarrassing that is? On Instagram, you leave an eye roll emoji under an influencer’s pic. She’s posting #spon content again.

And there are others online that you can’t stand too: your ex boyfriend’s new girlfriend, that mean girl from high school, a guy who ghosted you. The list goes on. You actively dislike these people, and yet, you continue to follow them. But why? Why do we purposely seek out people we dislike and make hating them a sport that both enthralls and enrages us?

Consider this: The Kardashians are one of the most followed families on social media, and they’re also arguably one of the most hated. (Spend a hot second scrolling Kylie Jenner’s Instagram account for a tiny snippet of the flack she cops on a daily basis.) Meanwhile, Twitter, online forums and comment threads are filled full of vitriol aimed toward people we think we’re better than, be it reality stars who fill column inches on the Daily Mail or Theresa May and her Brexit strategy.

Then there’s here on home soil. In Ireland over the past year, a number of social media accounts gained staggering popularity for witch-hunting the country’s influencers and exposing their supposed shady practices, while their comment sections ran rife with speculation, criticism and ridicule. Turn to any social media platform, and you don’t have to look too far beyond the likes and the love hearts to see something more sinister.

We may be continually warned about who we follow on Instagram and the knock on effect these accounts can have on our self esteem – think influencers, fitness models, celebs and accounts of that ilk – yet rarely do we consider just how damaging it is to engage with people we dislike. We don’t hang out with people we don’t like in real life so why, I ask chartered psychologist Dr Sean O’Connell, are we surrounding ourselves with them online? And crucially, just how bad is it for us? From a psychological standpoint, “It can be a range of factors,” he confirms.

We might feel that they have wronged us in some way, that we can’t challenge them, or that we are holding on to some ‘unfinished business’ with them. It can be jealousy, envy, resentment. A significant factor is comparing and contrasting, especially in social media.

One theory suggests that hate following people can give us a sense of moral superiority. We feel smug because we’d never slip up or do something stupid the way this person has. Ask yourself this: how often have you screenshotted a Facebook status or Instagram caption, sent it on to your mates and asked “What is your one at?” Truth is, sometimes other people’s stupidity makes you look good, and interestingly a recent study out of Ohio University seems to back this up. The study found that social media users suffer a 5.6 decrease in self esteem score if they use Facebook daily. Are we turning to people we feel we are better than to recoup those losses?

This comparison theory takes on more significance when we look at the types of people we hate follow. More often than not it’s our peers, who, let’s face it, make an easy measuring stick. (Look at your one from school, she didn’t just get more points than you in the Leaving Cert, she’s driving a better car than you now too.)

Then there are the people higher on the pecking order than us: influencers, celebrities. Hate following them might be more a way of taking them down a peg or two, to bring them down to your own level. Perhaps, hating people online is just another way of levelling the playing field.

Crucially, says Dr Sean, one of these variations of hate following is potentially more harmful to our self esteem than the other. “I would ask anyone doing this what exactly appeals to you about this activity and what do you feel the purpose of it is,” he warns.

For example, are you hate following an ex-partner or their current partner, a colleague from a previous company, or a celebrity. There’s a strong likelihood that those nearer in your social circle, as opposed to celebrities, are followed for more unhealthy reasons.

But what’s so harmful about hate following anyway? Surely, when it comes to social media, it’s all just a bit of harmless fun? “Think about how you feel when you’ve done it. Then think of doing it every day,” Dr Sean advises.

Now think about the time you have spent on this. Does it contribute to anything meaningful? Does it create harmful ways of treating yourself, like comparing and contrasting, talking to yourself negatively, influencing your perceptions of day-to-day life, etc? In essence, is this habit or action something you can look back on and say ‘I’m glad I spent my time doing that’?

Interestingly there seems to be two camps when it comes to hate following: those who never do it, and can’t comprehend why you’d waste your time being irritated by someone you don’t like, and those who do it regularly. Nay, they make a point of it. I turned to my friends and asked them for their differing perspectives on this. Are their social media accounts a happy place to be? “By and large, yes,” says Vanessa, 31, who falls into the former camp. “If I see someone or something that irritates me I’m generally very quick to hit mute or unfollow. I spend less time eye rolling at my phone that way.”

Natalie, 31, on the other hand, admits that she spends a disproportionate amount of time and energy focusing on the people she dislikes online. “I suppose it’s a bit of a pastime really,” she explains.

I love a bit of a gossip and deep down, if we’re being honest, we all like to think that we’re better than other people. When I see someone write something stupid online or post something that’s blatantly Photoshopped, I guess I feel a bit smug like ‘Look at this dope. I’d never do something like that.’

Tellingly however, Natalie reckons it might be time to give it up. “A friend pulled me up on it recently actually,” she explains. “She said I’m always giving out about someone on Instagram or somebody I had an argument with on Twitter and that it’s draining to listen to. I hadn’t noticed just how negative I was being until she pointed it out. I don’t know, maybe I should stop.”

For Dr Sean, refocusing your attention could be the key to quitting. “Once you start focusing more on you, and less on other people, in my experience they fade into the background,” he notes. Maybe the best thing to do then really is to just hit the unfollow button. Or at the very least keep hate following strictly confined to celebs.

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