The concept of the flame war online is certainly nothing new. It's been around since before most people were even aware the internet existed. However, more people are starting to look into the issue of why people tend to be such incredible jerks online when they might be perfectly nice in person. It seems that there are few different things contributing to the effect.
First is that people somehow feel "disinhibited" when sitting behind a keyboard and monitor -- whether it's because of the supposed anonymity, the fact that you're effectively "invisible" or even the fact that there's a time lag between being a jerk and any response to it. The fact that you're somewhat separate from the response just makes it that much easier to be a jerk.
Some feel that it has even more to do with the lack of direct human contact in terms of either seeing hurt feelings or hearing someone's voice. There's just less empathy involved in seeing black and white text then seeing a physical reaction to being mean. Some of the latest research on this actually looked at how brains process messages during a conversation, and noted that in a normal conversation the person is tracking a variety of different cues in terms of how the other person is responding, and those cues help moderate what we say. Without any such cues when sitting behind a keyboard, you don't get any of the warning lights to moderate what you're saying, and the natural tendency is just to go right to the extreme edge without ever cooling off.
( EOPC has been dealing with a individuals - one on another discussion board where we occassionally posted; who have strung together a bunch of unrelated facts to try and indict us for our anonymity. Most of the facts revolve around victims we helped who they are trying to 'prove' is us. These victims went on to do a lot of work with DV victims like themselves. Unfortunately DV advocated attract just as many disordered naysayers who are desperate to place blame as we do. We are hanging in there.
If things like this are happening to you - take a breath and step back before you react to accusations or disordered or negative individuals (such as your cyberpath) who string together unrelated things in attempts to construct a 'gotcha' moment for you. If you try to defend yourself? These 'jerks' will take it as your 'admission of guilt' thereby setting up a no win situation for you. Stay in what you know to be truth and distance yourself from these types of people. We are.)
Of course, so far, it doesn't seem like the research is coming up with many good solutions to get people to moderate what they say online -- other than suggesting that using video communications might help. Other than that, perhaps just being more conscious of the fact that it really is a human being at the other end might help -- but so far that kind of "self awareness" hasn't caught on. And, even if it has, as long as one person in the group is unable to moderate his or her speech, it tends to set off many others as well.