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Revenge Porn & Internet Trolls: Examples of Why We Need a Different Internet

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WHO WE ARE-The Attorney General of the state of California recently announced the arrest of a revenge porn artist. According to the criminal complaint and the resulting media firestorm, this guy made money by extorting $250 payments from women. He stole revealing pictures from their computers and put them on line, then demanded payment to take the pictures down. The Attorney General was not pleased. 

At a different level, less personally injurious but more irritating to the rest of us, we have the tens of thousands of amateur typists who engage in the act known as trolling. That's the practice of sending comments to internet discussion sites that are meant solely to enrage, and thereby to provoke furious reactions. 

A recent study by a Canadian group reveals that internet trolls are basically petty sadists who score markedly high in psychopathy and a couple of other kinds of nastiness. These results probably don't tell us anything new about humanity, but they fit right in with the need to redesign the internet. 

A little about the psychological study. A group from the University of Manitoba surveyed internet users in the attempt to tease out the mental states of those who are referred to as trolls. The term itself is of a somewhat ambiguous origin, combining the idea of a fisherman trolling for victims and the thoroughly different idea of an ogre who lives under a bridge and attacks the unwary. If I understand correctly, the origin of the term comes from the fishing analogy, but the mental image of the predatory ogre was just too good to pass up, so both images are attached to this particular kind of predation. 

The psychological study is titled Trolls Just Want to Have Fun, and was published in a journal called Personality and Individual Differences. You can go to a medical library and look it up, but Mother Jones magazine has a pretty good summary that you can find here.  

The authors refer to something they call the dark tetrad. Translated into basic English, the term refers to something with four sides to it, and in this case, the authors throw some seriously technical words at us -- sadism, psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. Translated into regular English, these words refer to (1) taking pleasure in the suffering of others (2) the lack of remorse and empathy (3) egotism and self-obsession and (4) the willingness to manipulate and deceive others. 

Not a nice set of characteristics. Most of us have run across somebody with one or more of these traits at some point in our lives, and a lot of us still bear the scars. They exist in the workplace and in sports, and perhaps to an accentuated extent in both business and politics. For the purposes of this discussion, the dark tetrad also characterizes a large number of people who are drawn to internet discussion sites to engage in trolling. When the authors looked at internet users and sorted out the self-confessed trolls from the non-trolls, it turned out that the trolls are more likely to be characterized by the dark tetrad. 

Luckily for the rest of us, there aren't that many of them, but even a few percent adds up to a lot of misery when you consider that their main enjoyment in life comes from making the rest of us irritated and uncomfortable. The fact that they gain enjoyment from doing this to total strangers, and over topics that they themselves don't even care about, is what the word sadism was invented to describe. 

If you look at the other elements of the tetrad, they describe people who are shallow, selfish, uncaring, manipulative, and unusually lacking in conscience. We should recognize one other important point. The people who engage in sadism as a chronic activity didn't get that way after they found the internet. They were always that way, and they aren't just whimsically dabbling. They started out as sadists, and the internet just happens to be the playground where they choose to have their fun. 

Trolls work at their craft. Some go on fairly public sites like Yahoo and jump right in with remarks that are racist, or misogynistic, or both. A favorite sport seems to be finding evil things to say about the president. They tend to be characterized by an ability to insult anyone who disagrees with them, and then to keep coming back with more insults when they are challenged. 

The result of this kind of activity, which actually involves a particular level of skill on the troll's part, is the extended "flame war" that internet discussion sites have become famous for. Some flame wars go on for hundreds of back-and-forth comments. It's a social game in which the troll seems to keep score according to how many naive and innocent victims get sucked in. 

Not all people who are accused of trolling are of this type. There is a separate category of people who have some partisan ax to grind, and attempt to skew a discussion by pretended sympathy. "It's too bad that a guy like Obama can't possibly win the presidency because of his admitted history of drug use." 

"It's too bad that George W. Bush cannot possibly win his party's nomination because of his weak military record." 

This is referred to as "concern trolling" and, while irritating, is actually meant to achieve something tangible, even if it is only to intimidate people about candidates or politics. 

It's the real trolls we ought to be doing something about, just as we ought to be making it more difficult for anonymous misogynists to get away with online rape threats and murder threats. 

The most logical way to begin to achieve some semblance of law and order on the internet is to provide the option of participating in an internet where it is impossible to be completely anonymous. 

Then, those of us who wish to participate in a newly civilized forum will be able to opt in, and those who wish to remain in the wilderness may perhaps be able to continue. What this change would accomplish would be to allow the owner of a discussion site to ban the particularly trollish people and to make it stick. There is a partly effective approach available under the current technology, but it is vulnerable to the truly malicious types who learn how to do workarounds and hacks. 

I wrote about the technical issues of creating a revamped internet previously, and you can find the argument here. [http://www.citywatchla.com/recent-posts-lead-stories/6366-replace-the-internet] 

Things didn't have to be the way they are now, and perhaps the system should have been engineered to be more secure along the way. Whatever the mistakes of the past, we ought to consider the fact that we have been laboring along under the assumption that this system is forever, rather than questioning our underlying assumptions and coming up with some needed repairs. 

But we won't have that newer, better internet unless or until a few serious people break out of the box and begin to challenge the currently unquestioned assumption that the internet can't be changed into something different and something better.

 

(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for City Watch and can be reached at [email protected]

-cw        

 

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 12 Issue 14

Pub: Feb 18, 2014 

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