Pin It
Ingrid Goes West (Film Still)

Why does hate-stalking feel so good?

Many of us rail against irritating social media posts from people we hate – so why can’t we bring ourselves to unfollow?

I’m scrolling through Twitter when I’m seized by a sudden and urgent desire to be hateful.

I look up the profile of someone I vaguely know who has a frankly unbearable social media presence. I’ve muted them because reading their tweets is the visual equivalent of hearing nails rake down a chalkboard, but that hasn’t stopped me from typing their name into the search bar every now and then as a little treat.

I flick through their tweets and revel in loathing. I’m savagely pleased when I see that one of their tweets has flopped and got no likes. They’ve also shared a sweet photo with their partner – ‘cringe,’ I think. I screenshot a particularly annoying post and WhatsApp it to a friend with an accompanying message reading “why tf do they tweet like they’re a celebrity???”

Am I deranged? Maybe, but I’m not an anomaly. Hate-stalking is common: maybe scrutinising a stranger’s questionable life choices makes you feel validated about your own decisions, or maybe in the depths of lockdown you whiled away the hours by self-righteously tutting at posts documenting a rule-breaking birthday party, or maybe you’re just pleased to see that your ex’s new partner seems like a boring loser. It’s essentially schadenfreude for the digital age: in 2015, Elle aptly called hate-stalking “one of the most socially acceptable forms of insanity.”

Like me, 30-year-old Tom likes to indulge in the occasional hate-stalk. “They’re usually friends of friends or someone I’ve met a handful of times,” he says. “This makes me sound like a dick, but [seeing content from people I dislike] makes me think ‘at least I’m not this annoying or pretentious’.”

Jemima*, 25, hate-follows an influencer. “They’re just one of those annoying, white, skinny, middle-class, able-bodied, cis, straight people who keep going on about how hard their body confidence journey has been,” she says. “I’m sure that’s true, because she’s a woman and it sucks for all of us, but it’s just extremely annoying to see a tiny, white blonde woman position herself as this voice for the whole body confidence movement. I’m just like: fuck off!

Dr Daria Kuss is an Associate Professor and cyberpsychologist at Nottingham Trent University. “With the vast amount of information that is available about individuals online, we are able to witness whole life stories unfolding on our screens,” she says. “Through the content that is being made available, we may feel that we know the person: we know what they do on a daily basis, who their friends are, and what kinds of opinions they have. In certain cases, it is possible to develop strong feelings against a person based on the content they make available on their social media pages.”

So why don’t we just unfollow, mute, block? “Because I’m obsessed,” Jemima gushes. “I get a weird rush from how fucking stupid I find her posts.” For Tom, things are a little more complicated, as he knows the people he hate-follows in real life. “As they’re friends of friends I feel like they’d be confused as to why I’ve unfollowed,” he explains. But like Jemima, he admits that it feels strangely good to hate on them too: “It would make more sense to just mute them, but I get a weird kick out of being annoyed by their content.” 

From a neurobiological perspective, love and hate both activate the same brain circuits,” Dr Kuss continues. “This means that we may experience a rewarding feeling when we hate-follow people, and the expectation of this can trigger future instances of checking the profiles of people we may not like.”

Algorithms work in a similar way, as they can’t tell whether you’re interacting with someone because you like their content or loathe it. So, if you’re frequently visiting someone’s profile, social media platforms will usually assume that you want to see more of their posts, which in turn feeds our urge to keep looking at content from people we hate. Jemima tells me that she visits the Instagram profile of the influencer she dislikes so frequently that her story usually appears first in the bar at the top of Jemima’s newsfeed, ahead of her closest friends. “Instagram knows I love to hate her,” she says.

“From a neurobiological perspective, love and hate both activate the same brain circuits. This means that we may experience a rewarding feeling when we hate-follow people, and the expectation of this can trigger future instances of checking the profiles of people we may not like.” – Dr Daria Kuss

Arguably, people are also genuinely becoming more insufferable and irritating on the internet. It’s certainly true that all of us are increasingly aware of our own ‘personal brand’, whether consciously or subconsciously. As Olivia Yallop says: “There is a macro-level shift towards the kind of ‘influencerification’ of the everyday consumer [...] everyone is going to become an influencer.”

On one end of the spectrum, this might mean innocuously positioning yourself in front of a window so you have a natural glow on a Zoom call or using a filter on an Instagram post. On the other end, this might mean earnestly ‘confirming’ your new relationship or publicly humble-bragging about a life achievement (à la “personal news klaxon!” or “I did a thing!”) or – shudder – unironically referring to your 2,000 followers as ‘fans’.

As annoying as these posts are, it’s important we keep our emotions in check. “We need to be aware of the potentially detrimental impact this may have on our mental health and wellbeing,” Dr Kuss says. “Hate-following people online may lead to negative comparisons with others online and correspondence bias if our own lives aren’t able to measure up to the lives of the people that we follow.”

Plus, as Dr Kuss also points out, we rarely actually know these people. Often we’re merely experiencing a parasocial relationship with them, where repeated exposure to their content causes us to feel like we know them personally. Usually, parasocial bonds happen between public figures and their fans – as is the case with Jemima and the influencer she hate-follows – but given the “influencerification” of everyday people, we’re also prone to forming parasocial bonds with acquaintances that we follow on social media like Tom has.

In reality, these people we randomly hate are probably nice, or at least harmless. As aforementioned, we’re all essentially cultivating personal brands, and there’s always a disconnect – sometimes big, sometimes small – between someone’s obnoxious social media persona and their actual personality. Provided we keep this in mind, there’s really very little harm in privately tattling about someone’s internet identity. Sure, bitching isn’t nice or good or productive, but as Tom says, it’s “human nature.”

Even Dr Kuss acknowledges that there are benefits to hate-following, as at least it means we’re not trapped in an echo chamber. “In the present day and age, we are increasingly presented with content on our social media feeds that is in line with our own thinking and opinions,” she says. “Following people we disagree with may allow us to be exposed to different perspectives and worldviews, ultimately enriching our life.”

For some people, though, it’s not that deep. As Jemima succinctly says: “I’m just thoroughly entertained by people being dickheads.”

*Name has been changed