After the deaths of David Bowie, Prince and actor Alan Rickman in 2016, grieving fans flocked to public comment threads on social media to pay their respects in what has been likened to a virtual wake. But many also arrived to find a toxic space where so-called “grief police” mocked them for lamenting the loss of a stranger, chastised them for emotional rubber-necking or even dissed the dead.
That’s the key finding of a study published this week by CU Boulder researchers who analyzed more than 7,000 Facebook comments to gain insight into how people mourn death in the internet age. Their conclusion: People are surprisingly mean to each other online even in times of tragedy, but some technological fixes could likely make things better.
Jed Brubaker, an assistant professor in the Department of Information Science, co-authored the study with ATLAS PhD student Katie Gach.
“What this research starts to speak to are questions of how we want to design our systems now that they are handling the entirety of our social lives—not just the happy birthday parties but the harder moments, too,” Brubaker said. “How can we design them in a way that helps us be kinder to each other?”