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What drives the online reaction after a story like Hodgkinson breaks?

Neighbor talks about congressional shooter Hodgkinson

Neighbor Fred Widel talks about James T. Hodgkinson, of Belleville, the Alexandria congressional shooter.
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Neighbor Fred Widel talks about James T. Hodgkinson, of Belleville, the Alexandria congressional shooter.

It didn’t take long for the comments to start. Soon after James T. Hodgkinson of Belleville was named the suspect in Wednesday morning’s baseball field shooting in Virginia, people from far and wide took to the Internet.

“Too many crazy psychos out there...” read one by a man from Washington state, referring to Hodgkinson – who died in a gunfight with police after shooting U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and four others at a Republican congressional baseball practice.

“You knew your husband was a sick man,” wrote a California woman on Sue Hodgkinson’s page. “Slut,” wrote another.

“Social media is an online portal where people can express themselves and share events within their networks,” said Southern Illinois University Edwardsville professor Musonda Kapatamoyo. “It works on the idea of user gratification, you get some gratification from knowing what you posted has a reaction of some sort.”

That reaction can include a ‘like,’ a comment, or a share of your post, Kapatamoyo said.

Anthony Rostain, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, said it’s hard to generalize why people post what could be taken as mean-spirited comments. Off the top of his head, he listed several possible reasons, including to air grievances or just to be noticed. They might do it as an attempt to be humorous.

In a “small number” of people, those comments might exhibit signs of mental illness.

“I hesitate to say you can discern this, except in the rants,” he said. “Sometimes these rants show delusional thinking.”

For most people, they might lash out online because “you feel in some way the world or this person has hurt you ... someone who represents a political view.”

Rostain has a number of his young patients who are cyberbullied or subjected to hateful things online. He said it’s still “kind of like the Wild West.”

“It’s amusing and horrifying all at once,” for those who are older, he said, to watch unfold.

Hundreds of comments appeared on the dead man’s Facebook page before the organization removed the page at noon on Wednesday. His wife’s page received the same treatment before privacy settings were changed. More comments were made on the Belleville News-Democrat site under stories, and yet more on the BND’s Facebook page.

Even Hodgkinson’s defunct business received comments on Yelp.

“Worthless, disgusting, DEAD pig. Thank God he was killed. Wish I could have seen him while he was alive so I could spot (spit) in his fat, horrible face,” wrote a California man in a Yelp review of JTH Inspections.

“It’s a very impulsive world, and people don’t stop and think,” said Wendy O’Connor, a doctor of psychology in Beverly Hills, California. She has written several books about relationships and technology and will soon release “Toss It To The Universe.”

“There’s no boundaries in cyberspace. So they don’t care, it’s a cry for help, they’re begging to be heard, begging to be seen,” O’Connor said.

Shannon Russell, a Belleville man who wants to be in the political process, agrees. Russell is a member of the Facebook group Indivisible Against Trump (IL 12th Congressional District), on which he pinned a missive that “strongly condemns any type of violence, including jokes about assassinating the President or other elected representatives.”

“I’ve been commenting nonstop since Trump got elected,” he said, on Facebook, newspaper websites and wherever else he can.

“I just want my voice heard.”

O’Connor said that’s a powerful motivation.

“I think the world is in pain. They’re overwhelmed and stressed out and feel very powerless about many different world issues. Now that this technology allows this vortex of cyberspace ... the anonymity allows people to get out of their box.”

There’s no boundaries in cyberspace. So they don’t care, it’s a cry for help, they’re begging to be heard, begging to be seen.

Wendy O’Connor, a doctor of psychology in Beverly Hills, California

People can behave differently online than they do in real life, said Amy Grzina, of Belleville, who commented, “While I don’t think this cartoon contributes to the ‘hate each other’ issue, commentary such as ‘typical left’ incites divisiveness,” on a cartoon by Glenn McCoy of the News-Democrat. Her comment alone sparked 17 responses in less than seven hours.

“Facebook brings out the ugly in people,” she said. “I just think social media lets people say whatever they want to like it’s an anonymous forum and the ugly comes out in people.”

There are psychology forces at work here, says Dr. Brenda Major, a distinguished professor in the department of Psychology and Brain Sciences at the University of California Santa Barbara.

“It’s a combination of extremism and confirmation bias, and then this anonymity that people feel. Then when one person creates it, there’s another psychological process called modeling,” Major said. “Maybe it gives you a little bit of a thrill.”

“I think sometimes these are normal, they are psychological process that we can all fall prey to.”

Those processes do not necessarily mean mental illness is in play, both doctors said.

“Can someone be normal and call (Sue Hodgkinson) a slut?” O’Connor said.

“A comment can be a comment, or it can be something more disturbing. Which is the scary trick thing, how are we to differentiate.”

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