Reflections: Don’t Feed The Troll

In a response to an exceptionally brief essay (i.e. blog post) I wrote here on the topic of shaming in social media, I received an interesting bifurcated question from Ted Engels:

What’s interesting is trying to disentangle two causative factors when looking at social arenas like 4chan and tumblr that use anonymous and pseudoanonymous avatars.

1) How much of this behavior is “innate” in the will, and can find expression only because its virtuality prevents any backlash in the real?

2) How much of this behavior is shaped by virtuality, in other words, desires that are created ex nihilo by the social space of the virtual world.

If you know any interesting leads on this question, I’d be eager to find out.

Unpacking this may take a little creativity, and more than a few words…

Points 1 and 2 above are both perspectives on the same object: virtuality.  This expands in an investigative sense in any number of directions but to attempt to keep it a little more on-topic, this expands here to: the nature of virtuality in cyberspace and (by implication) the ways in which behaviour in the virtual world is necessarily shaped or patterned by the parameters, boundaries (or freedoms) of abstraction manifested in the psychological and social identities encapsulated or generated by this notionally virtual space.

Shaming behaviours are intrinsically culturally-generated in the sense that the shaming which is conducted is always already relative to a specific moral or normative cultural frame of reference.  I am not certain that it is possible to separate the virtual and cyber from a more traditional cultural milieu (of texts, artefacts, shared narratives and pre-digital sensibilities).  There exists something of a continuum across the spectrum of traditional narratives (and their associated expressions of, or as, subjectivity or culture) and the digital domain.  The medium of expression may be different but that which is being expressed is not in essence fundamentally different, it is perhaps merely more fluid and dynamic in a contemporary frame of reference.

In the context of an analysis of shaming and moral frameworks we are clearly interested in what are essentially shared value systems.  Such shared value systems are themselves expressions of particular interpretations of object-relations, of identities and contexts – i.e. of reality.  This extrapolation of a simple logical relationship to a broader and more complex, emergent interpretation and translation of reality is no less true of political and ideological systems than of the emergent cliques and sub-cultural contexts of online communities.  We generate our realities and value systems from the same basic assumptions and implicit axioms upon which we fabricate or create ourselves (psychologically, socially) and questions of shared reality are for this reason questions of self and of subjectivity.

How much of this behaviour is “innate” in the will and can find expression only because its virtuality prevents any backlash in the real?
“Virtuality” as a concept can be misleading.  The only virtual, nebulous or insubstantial feature of this shared digital culture is in that when switching off the power on any specific device (or other network node), the local instance of that information is, for the most part and beyond any forensic wizardry applied to the RAM of the local system, lost.  A commitment to longer-term physical memory systems can record the state of such a system at any particular time but the “virtual” in this is the sense of electrical suspension, of near-instantaneous communication or digital non-locality and the extent through this to which connection and network are foregrounded.

It may be true that there exists a certain distance or notional abstraction from our corporeal and neuroanatomical selves and experiences as distinct from the assertions and identities we fabricate online but this is a difference of instance, not of identity.  The projected identity is no less an identity, regardless of the extent to which it is filtered through the text, video, image or other technical medium through which it is expressed.

Beyond the most singularly unreflective or witless amongst us, the notion that the digital expression and projection of identity can be truly inconsequential should have to be isolated to those who seek to wilfully cause harm or to otherwise benefit themselves in some delinquent way.  Seeking to cause harm through trolling or some other form of bullying is indeed quite similar to the selfish intent of any digitally enabled criminal – this primarily concerns the acquisition of some object, be it emotional, financial or of other symbolic value.  There exist very real consequences to virtual malfeasance and it remains a fact that the interpersonal reaction to an online conversation or insult can be just as powerful as that experienced face-to-face and perhaps for the same reason that incautiously composed emails can create communicative dissonance: purely textual communication (which most online narrative consists of) lacks the subtle queues of inflection and gesture that direct interpersonal dialogue benefits from.

Trolls and bullies probably gain sadistic pleasure from the degree to which consequences are for the most part divorced from the realities engendered by their actions and assertions.  Anyone other than an unrepentant sociopath can probably be convinced of the wrongness of their actions, possibly through some diplomatic counter-shaming process.  I suspect that the majority of online trolls and bullies are just jumping on the bandwagon when they participate in these acts and the consequences, virtual or otherwise, are far from their minds at the time.

There is no sense in which the normative value of a consensus morality is the central concern for a bully or online troll.  Piranha feeding at a corpse do not much care for, or even require a need to acknowledge, the reason the corpse lies before them in the water – theirs is a collectively participatory feeding instinct.  This does not indemnify a bully by metaphor or comparison but it does perhaps indicate the emergent quality of their behaviour and that not all human actions may be entirely autonomous at base.

The question above is to what extent this behaviour is innate in the will.  This is a matter of ideological as much as of philosophical assertion – my understanding of the situation is that the vast majority of human beings suffer from a deep and unacknowledged (perhaps – undiagnosed) insecurity and that the various strategies and methods by which individuals attempt to shore up their psychological defences include a suite of behaviours which often enough find themselves expressed in aggressively competitive behaviours.  Does this mean that the behaviours which privilege an explicitly aggressive or denigrating assault on another person’s reputation or behaviour are inevitable consequences of the directedness and volition that we understand to be will?  Probably – it is likely that in the online context these insecurities, perceptions, projections and assertions are channelled into patterns and symmetries which are most easily facilitated through textual (or relatively simple visual) memes.

Trolling and shaming is probably facilitated to some extent by the anonymity or pseudo-anonymity and mask of the avatar, of the fake profile or of geographical remoteness of location but this anonymity may fractures and take on multiple dimensions in an online context.  School bullies, torch and pitchfork-festooned mobs or revolutionary insurgencies all benefit from a certain anonymity of identity granted by their shared and uniformly unscrupulous conduct, by that volitional-blending experienced in the collective context.  From a victim’s point of view, it may appear (or reveal itself as culturally axiomatic) that the kind of behaviour featured in online trolling is perfectly well accepted, normative social conduct.  The trolls of course know this, not necessarily at a conscious level, but it remains an unfortunate fact of our shared reality that collective victimisation and organised aggression (for reasons perhaps ultimately stemming from insecurity and its associated fundamental uncertainties) is endemic to human cultural systems.

Relative digital anonymity perhaps provides the mask (or white hood) and camouflage of notionally untraceable isolation, of remoteness and geographical separation from consequences and while this may provide courage to the troll or the mob.   The tools and technologies to lift this veil of aspirationally anonymous indemnity, to track and identify these trolls – these tools must have to exist at the level of major law enforcement and government agencies.  The severity of the crime of online victimisation may have been classified as delinquent in comparison to the big-ticket evil towards which law enforcement and government agencies must have to direct their technical assets and resources.  This presumptive technical capacity to uncover the identity of the perpetrator of conspicuously wicked acts may to some extent reign-in the behaviour and extent of much online trolling.

Online trolls and bullies possess a certain pack mentality and while this is expressed in prefabricated ways through the available channels of a shared virtual culture, it may be a deeper tendency apparent as the inevitable self-interest of animals in any environment undergoing competitive selection pressures.  Trolling may be a digital display of herd instinct, itself an emergent pattern of behaviour, arguably most readily apparent in those of most innate or adoptive insecurity – those undergoing the hormonal perturbations of adolescence, suffering dysfunctional or dissonant symptoms of mental health or experiencing the sweeping thrall of political or (other) ideological identification.

How much of this behaviour is shaped by (…) desires that are created ex nihilo by the social space of the virtual world?
Some of this has been addressed above but there still exists a little room for extrapolation upon the second part of this part of the larger question, that is, how is trolling and online shaming (a.k.a. bullying) shaped by the desires or motivations that are created by the social space of the virtual world?  The virtual world provides the channels and literal circuits for behaviour, the medium for communication and assertions of belief and opinion.  The emotional content and culturally normative function of shaming remotely is not fundamentally different from emotional or physical intimidation, threat or violence enacted in physical proximity.  Again, and as mentioned earlier, this is (as with remote digital expressions and projections of subjectivity) a difference of instance, not of identity.

All desires, as with all those who desire, are contingent and culturally, historically located constructions.  The expression of intentional harm or the belittling emotional harm of shaming probably does take different specific forms but as a general concept remains identifiable regardless of context.  A Roman soldier verbally or physically intimidating or injuring a member of a Christian sect is as identifiable sans context as is the life-altering burden of thousands of abusive messages received online and shaming or vilifying some unfortunate individual or another – historical and cultural context vary but the intentionality (and effect) remains what it is.  I do not believe that there is anything specifically unique about online trolling, it is perhaps just that the technical medium of mass communication creates the potential for vaster clouds of swarming individuals and that this sheer immensity of scale manifests as a peculiarly effective emotional and psychological weapon in any specific instance.  As a lived experience, crucifixion (in any medium or at any scale of effect) is not something any sane person would willingly choose to undergo.

A desire for completeness, narrative continuity and psychological or corporeal security tends to manifest itself in ways that probably privilege tendencies towards what are, if not aggressive, certainly competitive shared social spaces.  Personally, I think that the myriad expressions of tribalism and insecurity apparent in shaming behaviours are innate to cultural systems.  There exists a certain immaturity of collective identity which may not at the scale of billions of individuals be able to resolve itself without friction in the way it may do so at a village or small town level.  At a smaller scale, interpersonal frictions, social niche identification and competitive behaviours are still likely to be an issue but without quite the far-reaching extent that tweeting something silly can cause millions of anonymous, remote individuals to set upon a person’s identity and reputation like multitudinous swarming piranha upon a dead animal.

Physical remoteness from a victim of shaming or bullying probably allows for a certain amount of dehumanisation of that victim and perhaps also a subsequent participatory desensitisation experienced through the shared group experience of the bully.  The act of shaming or belittling another human being, and even more so en masse, probably says far more about the bullies and trolls than it does about the shamed victims.  Our collective immaturity as expressed in this manner indicates that we have not very well dealt with our individual discontinuities and their associated insecurities, that these large-scale digital lynchings can be expected to continue, indefinitely and ad nauseum.


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