Glibness and superficial charm. Manipulation of others. A grandiose sense of self. Pathological lying. A lack of remorse, shame or guilt. Shallow emotions. An incapacity to feel genuine love. A need for stimulation. Frequent verbal outbursts. Poor behavioural controls. These are just some of the things that social media are encouraging in all of us. They’re also a pretty comprehensive diagnostic checklist for sociopathy – in fact, that’s where I got the list.
Social media are often blamed for a coarsening of discourse on the internet – for the depressing and seemingly exponential rise in libellous, abusive and unpleasant behaviour between human beings unencumbered by worries about consequences. In fact, the problem has been around a lot longer than that. And social media is only turbocharging a fundamental structural problem with people and the internet: the mediating layer, we might say, of a screen and keyboard encourages us to write unspeakable things to other human beings that we would never dream of saying in person.
There has always been abuse on the internet, but, before the social revolution, it was largely restricted to anonymous comment threads, message boards and chat rooms. Any site owner who allowed anonymous comments could reasonably be held responsible, morally and legally, for the content appearing on his site. But now there is a disturbing bleed from anonymous hatred to defamatory and spiteful language being posted under the authors’ real names using their social networking profiles. It’s as if our usual moral safeguards are being broken down by a terrifying new online landscape in which the default mode of communication is a form of attack.
What’s disturbing about this new trend, in which commenters are posting what would previously have been left anonymously, is that these trolls seem not to mind that their real names, and sometimes even their occupations, appear clamped to their vile words. It’s as if a psychological norm is being established whereby comments left online are part of a video game and not real life. It’s as if we’ve all forgotten that there’s a real person on the other end, reading and being hurt by our vitriol. That’s as close to the definition of sociopath as one needs to get for an armchair diagnosis, though of course many other typical sociopathic traits are also being encouraged by social media.
We are all by now accustomed to the periodic whinging of public figures after another round of drive-by shootings on Twitter. But the problem isn’t restricted to those who put themselves on a public platform. Just take a look at how people are talking to each other as well. Frankly, it’s terrifying, and it occurs to me that one of the great challenges of the next decade will be how we, as a society, manage those people unable to manage themselves.
It’s clear that existing hate speech laws are inadequate for the social media era. And if we decide, as we perhaps might, that a lifetime ban on the internet is unworkable and disproportionately punitive, given the centrality of the internet to our professional and personal lives these days, what on earth are we to do? No one has yet offered a convincing answer. In the meantime, we are all, bit by bit, growing ever more fearful of the next wave of molestation.
Together with other commentators, I have in the past argued for verified identities on social networks, so those responsible for abuse and persecution of public figures and the vulnerable might be held accountable for their actions. That seems redundant when trolls are now so brazen they don’t care about disapproving words from their loved ones back inside Facebook when they leave furious missives using that social network’s commenting system elsewhere on the internet.
So perhaps what’s needed now is a bolder form of censure after all, because the internet is not a universal human right. If people cannot be trusted to treat one another with respect, dignity and consideration, perhaps they deserve to have their online freedoms curtailed. For sure, the best we could ever hope for is a smattering of unpopular show trials. But if the internet, ubiquitous as it now is, proves too dangerous in the hands of the psychologically fragile, perhaps access to it ought to be restricted. We ban drunks from driving because they’re a danger to others. Isn’t it time we did the same to trolls?