Mob Violence, ‘Fluid Morality’ and Sociopathy

The NYT Magazine is running an article this weekend titled “Malwebolence,” about internet ‘trolls’ who enjoy causing harm to others, either because it’s just fun — they speak of “the joy of disrupting another’s emotional equilibrium” while “you chat with friends and laugh” — or perhaps because they have the notion that they are helping others learn how to handle explosives by blowing them up in their faces. One troll says his passion is ‘pushing peoples’ buttons’ and he “frames his acts of trolling as … sociological inquiries into human behavior.” He also says: “‘It’s not that I do this because I hate them. I do this because I’m trying to save them.'” It seems fairly obvious through the article that this particular troll is trying to save himself, as well, though it may be too late: “‘Am I the bad guy? Am I the big horrible person who shattered someone’s life with some information? No! This is life. Welcome to life. Everyone goes through it. I’ve been through horrible stuff, too.‘ ‘Like what?’ I asked. Sexual abuse, [he] said.” At age 5 he was molested by his grandfather [his mother confirms this] and three other relatives.

The article’s author, Mattathias Schwartz, asks his readers at one point:

“Does free speech tend to move toward the truth or away from it? When does it evolve into a better collective understanding? When does it collapse into the Babel of trolling, the pointless and eristic game of talking the other guy into crying ‘uncle’? Is the effort to control what’s said always a form of censorship, or might certain rules be compatible with our notions of free speech?”

Free speech may be one issue to consider; it’s not what immediately interests me reading this article. My interest is primarily in the proliferation (or so it’s asserted) of mob violence online, what motivates and triggers it, and how it proceeds. As Schwartz says, attempting to respond to his own free speech query:

“Why inflict anguish on a helpless stranger? It’s tempting to blame technology, which increases the range of our communications while dehumanizing the recipients. … But while technology reduces the social barriers that keep us from bedeviling strangers, it does not explain the initial trolling impulse. This seems to spring from something ugly — a destructive human urge that many feel but few act upon, the ambient misanthropy that’s a frequent ingredient of art, politics and, most of all, jokes. There’s a lot of hate out there, and a lot to hate as well.”

Online mob violence, imo, is no different from in-your-face mob violence except perhaps, as Schwartz points out, it’s considerably facilitated by anonymity and breadth of coverage. But the motivations, the triggers, and the process are the same in either case.

That ‘trolling’ is highly mimetic and is often mob violence is evidenced several times in the article:

  • The Internet is “a mass medium for defining who we are to ourselves and to others.” Yet another way to explore and  express who we are, vs. everyone else, through blogging perhaps more than through message boards, at least as the boards are used by most people.
  • “Trolling has evolved [perhaps the wrong term] from ironic solo skit to vicious group hunt.” “Technology, apparently, does more than harness the wisdom of the crowd. It can intensify its hatred as well.
  • The victims are seem as utterly deserving of their fate, complicit in it, inviting it — “You, the troll says, are not worthy of my understanding; I, therefore, will do everything I can to confound you” — as is shown in this interchange between a troll and Schwartz:

“‘You have green hair,’ he told me. ‘Did you know that?’
“‘No,’ I said.
“‘Why not?’
“‘I look in the mirror. I see my hair is black.’
“‘That’s uh, interesting. I guess you understand that you have green hair about as well as you understand that you’re a terrible reporter.’
“‘What do you mean? What did I do?’
“‘That’s a very interesting reaction,’ [he] said. ‘Why didn’t you get so defensive when I said you had green hair?’ “
If I were certain that I wasn’t a terrible reporter, he explained, I would have laughed the suggestion off just as easily. The willingness of trolling ‘victims’ to be hurt by words, he argued, makes them complicit, and trolling will end as soon as we all get over it.”  

Another troll put it even more bluntly and graphically:

“‘Trolling is basically Internet eugenics. … I want everyone off the Internet. Bloggers are filth. They need to be destroyed. Blogging gives the illusion of participation to a bunch of retards. … We need to put these people in the oven!‘”

No one else is seen as innocent, therefore no one else is seen as a true victim and no one is seen as a perpetrator. Everyone else is seen as deserving of destruction at the hands of trolls, who, in some cases, see themselves as performing a meritorious service.

  • That same troll implied that the mob (or a segment of it) is ripe for a leader and is waiting for a sign:

“‘We’re waiting,’ [he] said. ‘We need someone to show us the way. The messiah.’
“‘How do you know it’s not you?’ I asked.
“‘If it were me, I would know,’ he said. ‘I would receive a sign.’
“Zeno of Elea, Socrates and Jesus, [he] said, are his all-time favorite trolls. He also identifies with Coyote and Loki, the trickster gods, and especially with Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction.”

Beyond the indications of mob violence and mimesis, there’s also an indication of antisocial personality disorder (sociopathy) — an individual personality disorder, quite apart from the group phenomenon of mob violence — in some of their comments about what’s right and wrong, though even these might be echoed (often not out loud) by ‘normal’ people. It’s the rationale, the feelings (or lack thereof) and the destructive actions, unchecked by any sense of true compassion for others, that together paint a particularly disturbing and illuminating picture:

“I asked [one troll] whether a person is obliged to give food to a starving stranger. No, [he] argued; no one is entitled to our sympathy or empathy. We can choose to give or withhold them as we see fit. ‘I can’t push you into the fire,’ he explained, ‘but I can look at you while you’re burning in the fire and not be required to help.’ [Metaphorically, though, according to this article some trolls have pushed some people into the fire — their actions, usually en masse, have contributed to the deaths, job losses and relationship losses of others. They haven’t simply sat passively by. They’ve set the fire, fanned it and then watched others struggle and writhe. Examples in the article.]

Asked “Is there anything that can be done on the Internet that shouldn’t be done?,” he didn’t have an answer.

Another troll justified his desire to “kill four [billion] of the world’s six billion people in the most just way possible” with his fear that “we are headed for a Malthusian crisis.”  (He’s the one who said he’s waiting for a messiah.)

Schwartz ends the article by quoting some message board commenters trying to discern what makes people bad or good. “Finally,” he says, someone types: “‘I’d say empathy is probably a factor.‘”

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