When Trolls and Crybullies Rule the Earth

How technology reshapes consciousness.

Over the past several years, teenage suicide rates have spiked horrifically. Depression rates are surging and America’s mental health over all is deteriorating. What’s going on?

My answer starts with technology but is really about the sort of consciousness online life induces.

When communication styles change, so do people. In 1982, the scholar Walter Ong described the way, centuries ago, a shift from an oral to a printed culture transformed human consciousness. Once, storytelling was a shared experience, with emphasis on proverb, parable and myth. With the onset of the printing press it become a more private experience, the content of that storytelling more realistic and linear.

As L.M. Sacasas argues in the latest issue of The New Atlantis, the shift from printed to electronic communication is similarly consequential. I would say the big difference is this: Attention and affection have gone from being private bonds to being publicly traded goods.

That is, up until recently most of the attention a person received came from family and friends and was pretty stable. But now most of the attention a person receives can come from far and wide and is tremendously volatile.

Sometimes your online post can go viral and get massively admired or ridiculed, while other times your post can leave you alone and completely ignored. Communication itself, once mostly collaborative, is now often competitive, with bids for affection and attention. It is also more manipulative — gestures designed to generate a response.

People ensconced in social media are more likely to be on perpetual alert: How are my ratings this moment? They are also more likely to feel that the amount of attention they are receiving is inadequate.

As David Foster Wallace put it in that famous Kenyon commencement address, if you orient your life around money, you will never feel you have enough. Similarly, if you orient your life around attention, you will always feel slighted. You will always feel emotionally unsafe.

New social types emerge in such a communications regime. The most prominent new type is the troll, and in fact, Americans have elected a troll as the commander in chief.

Trolls bid for attention by trying to make others feel bad. Studies of people who troll find that they score high on measures of psychopathy, sadism and narcissism. Online media hasn’t made them vicious; they’re just vicious. Online has given them a platform to use viciousness to full effect.

Trolls also score high on cognitive empathy. Intellectually, they understand other people’s emotions and how to make them suffer. But they score low on affective empathy. They don’t feel others’ pain, so when they hurt you, they don’t care.

Trolling is a very effective way to generate attention in a competitive, volatile attention economy. It’s a way to feel righteous and important, especially if you claim to be trolling on behalf of some marginalized group.

Another prominent personality type in this economy is the crybully. This is the person who takes his or her own pain and victimization and uses it to make sure every conversation revolves around himself or herself. “This is the age of the Cry-Bully, a hideous hybrid of victim and victor, weeper and walloper,” Julie Burchill wrote in The Spectator a few years ago.

The crybully starts with a genuine trauma. The terrible thing that happened naturally makes the crybully feel unsafe, self-protective and self-conscious to the point of self-absorption. The trauma makes that person intensely concerned about self-image.

Psychologists have identified the kind of emotional intelligence that makes internet trolls so mean

online behavior that indicated a propensity to troll—such as agreeing with the statement, “Although some people think my posts/comments are offensive, I think they are funny.”

.. The researchers were looking for particular traits including social skills, psychopathy, sadism, and two types of empathy: affective and cognitive. Having high cognitive empathy simply means they can understand others’ emotions. Having high affective empathy means a person can experience, internalize, and respond to those emotions. The “trolls” in the study scored higher than average on two traits: psychopathy and cognitive empathy.

So even though “trolls” exhibit one kind of empathy, coupling it with psychopathy ultimately makes them nasty

.. participants were asked to agree or disagree with a set of statements such as, “payback needs to be quick and nasty.”

.. High levels of cognitive empathy make these people adept at recognizing what will upset someone, and knowing when they’ve pushed the right buttons. The lack of affective empathy allows trolls not to experience or internalize the emotional experience of their victims.

.. “Results indicate that when high on trait psychopathy, trolls employ an empathic strategy of predicting and recognising the emotional suffering of their victims, while abstaining from the experience of these negative emotions,” the researchers wrote. They added that because psychopathy is associated with thrill-seeking and impulsivity, it’s possible that “creating mayhem online is a central motivator to troll.” They also found that trolls were likely to be high in sadism—the will to hurt others—and were more likely to be male.