Internet Trolling, Scatologia & Digital Psychopathy
I seem to have piqued a great deal of interest in law enforcement, academia, and in particular the commercial press recently regarding my views on the inherently, yet somewhat ironically anti-social nature of social media.
Before proceeding, however, I should clarify that ‘anti-social’ does not mean what most people think it means. Being reclusive, shy, avoidant, or withdrawn does not in itself constitute anti-social behavior, though most laypersons will typically be quick label this type of conduct—more accurately labeled as ‘asocial’—as being anti-social. In reality, anti-social refers to the specific, clinical definition as found in the DSM-5; namely, that anti-social behavior, as the symptomatic and diagnostic criterion for anti-social personality disorder, generally consists of three or more of the following traits:
a) Failing to confirm with social norms or lawful behavior
b) Ongoing deceitfulness, including lying, the use of aliases, or exaggerations
c) Consistent and reckless impulsivity
d) Consistent and persistent aggressiveness and physically domineering behavior
e) Reckless disregard for the safety of one’s self or others
f) Consistent irresponsibility and inability to maintain personal, professional, or financial obligations
g) An ongoing and demonstrated lack of remorse or emotional intelligence
Anti-social personality disorder—a condition marked by behavior that affects personal and professional functioning in adults 18 years of age or older—is generally understood as the prime meridian from which all criminal behavior stems, and was originally identified, classified, and subsequently pathologized in the context of traditional work, school, public, and social settings. That said, what constitutes the norm in terms of these institutional, environmental, and informally-regulated everyday relationships has changed since the identification and classification of this disorder. The emergence of Web 2.0, for instance, complete with its intuitive referrals to social media platforms as part of everyday searches, in effect integrating and parlaying these interfaces into the realm of everyday life, has since engendered a world where people are content defining themselves through two-dimensional screens displaying images of one-dimensional people—literally and figuratively. Most of my students these days have literally never known a world that antedated this model; they have never known a place or time that the rest of us now can’t remember—when social rituals required a requisite element of personal investment and personal risk through interactions that were genuine, unscripted, and tangible, and through statements that couldn’t first be previewed, redacted, or retracted.
On the flipside, those nostalgists, cynics, and laggards who lament the passing of the time before shorthand initialisms like ‘lol’, ‘tmi’, or ‘bff’ ruled the day, or prior to the asemic language of emoticons defining daily communication, have not likely come to terms with the fact that computer-mediated interactions, in particular social media, now prevail as the most genuine—though inane—form of human interaction. In fact, its ubiquitous nature has ensured that the learning curve and risk tolerance of its users has been massive as compared to the adoption of earlier technologies like the telephone, largely as a result of its going to mass market faster than any other communications platform, trend, or device in history. The result is a literal treasure trove of compressed data encompassing the real, candid, and visceral nature of human behavior (individual and group alike), that is arguably unrivaled in the history of modern science and record keeping. In short, the content of social media reveals in detail the best and worst of humanity that the real world conceals.
Dispensing with the widely-held delusion that a social contract in the form ‘netiquette’ somehow exists, the reality is that online profiles are to large extent emancipated from the stresses of the off-line world and its cumbersome rules, laws, norms, customs, and general expectations of behavior, and they in nearly every circumstance reflect and enhance the baseline personality of their creator. In the sterilized fantasy space of the online world, personality types—whether aggressive, assertive, or passive—tend to be exaggerated and intensified as compared to in everyday encounters. There are a number of reasons for this, but one of the most cogent explanations is that the Internet, and in particular social media, engenders mimetic behavior (hence the coinage ‘memes’ to refer to imitative behavior online) that is not only egocentric, but allows deviants to camouflage themselves all-the-more easily and seamlessly once tolerance levels for misbehaviour reach unusually high levels, as they do online. As Oscar Wilde wrote in 1905, noting the similarly rehearsed and artificial social masks that the charlatans of his time would don when attending society events to assert their self-perceived notoriety in mixed company: ‘Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry.’ Over a century later, it would seem this is no longer bad thing, but a daily expectation and the rule to the exception.
The reality is that the self-commodification, superficiality, and exploitative nature of social media—whether in the way of daily smartphone self-portraits in the bathroom mirror, keeping estranged ‘friends’ around like old collector’s items to artificially inflate one’s perceived popularity, or indulging in bizarre, attention seeking behavior to maximize ‘likes’ or ‘re-tweets’—blurs the line between the normal and deviant, the grotesque and the arabesque. It also spawns the perfect breeding ground (and by extension hiding place) for the most anti-social of them all: the psychopath.
The Hare Psychopath Checklist
The term ‘psycho’ tends to get thrown a lot when describing certain people, usually males. While psychosis is not analogous to psychopathy, and is generally the symptom of a separate and often underlying psychiatric or neurological problem, the label psycho as a truncated version of psychopath is often as misused as the term anti-social. Not surprisingly, the two are inherently connected.
While some emerging research suggests that psychopaths may actually be born rather than made, the ability to clinically and credibly label someone a psychopath requires a certain elevated score on what’s known as the Psychopathy Checklist Revised (PCL-R), sometimes referred to as the Hare Psychopath Checklist in honor of its designer (and like me, a Western U alumnus), Dr. Robert Hare.
Generally speaking, the checklist—consisting of 20 questions broken into 3 categories, or ‘factors’ as they’re known—assesses the subject’s appetite for risk-taking, as well as their propensity for narcissism and aversion to emotion, empathy, and self-responsibility, among other traits generally indicative of anti-social personality disorder. The checklist to be applied to a specific clinical subject, conducted in the way of both observations and questions, is then as follows:
Factor 1: Personality: “Aggressive narcissism”
- Glibness & superficial charm
- Grandiose or exaggerated sense of self-worth
- History of pathological lying
- Conning & manipulative behavior
- Lack of remorse, guilt, or conscience
- Shallow affect & disingenuous emotion
- Callousness and a lack of empathy
- Inability to accept responsibility for one’s actions
Factor 2: Case history: “Socially deviant lifestyle”
- Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
- Leads a parasitic and leeching lifestyle
- Shows or has poor behavioral controls
- Lacks realistic long-term goals & lives in a fantasy world
- High impulsivity
- Consistent irresponsibility
- History of juvenile delinquency
- History of early behavioral problems in childhood
- Has had a revocation of conditional release if applicable
Traits not correlated with either factor
- Promiscuous sexual behavior
- Many short-term (marital) relationships
- Criminal versatility or experimentation
For each item that applies to the subject, a score of 2 is assigned, while a score of 1 is applied for those cases when the item only somewhat applies. A score of 0 is assigned in cases when it either does not apply, or when there is no observational or empirical basis for judgment. Scoring the results of the checklist, either conducted during personal interviews or during less-credible ‘distance assessments’ is somewhat arbitrary, though it is generally agreed that a score of over 30 out of the maximum score of 40 falls within the spectrum of criminal psychopathy. For instance, Charles Manson scored a 36 on this test while ‘Monster’ Aileen Wuornos scored a 32 prior to her execution in 2002. Of course a score over 30 does not necessarily indicate that the subject is prone to escalating to serial homicide as in the case of these two test subjects, yet it does point to a certain predisposition to potentially harmful or socially toxic conduct.
What’s interesting is the number of subjects who, using the distance assessment methodology I describe above, score at the very least within the sociopath range of 25-30, and in some cases 30 or higher when examining the contents of their social media persona. In fact, social media not only enables but also celebrates most of the traits of ‘aggressive narcissism’ described in Factor 1, as well as the undesignated factor (Factor 3). It goes without saying that conning, manipulating, artificial accumulation, disingenuous greetings and remarks, boastful, overbearing and arrogant behavior, self-grandiosity, mocking people, places, or ideas, exaggerating emotions and descriptions of things or one’s experiences, and both exaggerating and lying generally are all at the foundation of the earnest social media experience.
These traits are in fact the lifeblood of what now constitutes most people’s daily and digitally-mediated social interactions and relationships, and have in effect desensitized the masses to what truly virulent and psychopathic behavior looks like. So accustomed are we to this strangley normalized rendering of psychopathy, that when truly dangerous predators emerge on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, or some other platform as a rehearsal space for their crimes—seeking validation or admiration for their perverse thoughts or plans of action—or are instead seeking out like-minded deviants or vulnerable, dependent people and thus potential protégés in those same spaces (what is generally known in criminology as Differential Association Theory), they tend to just blend in with the white noise of the all the other nonsense being spouted for attention and notoriety. This is not to say that everyone who indulges in social media is prone to psychopathic behavior or misuses these platforms for an anti-social purpose (obviously), nor is it to say that social media creates psychopaths per se; however, what we need to consider is how psychopathy has ambulated into this digital space, yet seldom remains there. Conversely, psychopathy forged or reified online will eventually have real-world consequences, and users of these spaces should not only recognize the warning signs—or pre-attack behaviors—but also recognize that social media, as the attention brought to its role in cyber-bullying has taught us, often intensifies the real-world consequences of the criminal activity that follows. As cases in Canada alone involving psychopaths like Rafferty, Twitchell, and others not yet convicted have shown, the writing is literally on the wall days, weeks, and even months ahead of their crimes, yet the warning signs typically remain overlooked.
Social Media, Paraphilia & Psychopathy
The baroque and artificial nature of social media is also closely tied to illusion and fantasy, the latter in particular being what’s known as the ‘centeredness’ of the psychopath. In the cases of psychopaths who graduate to serious violent offences, including serial homicide as the most commonly associated crime category, we find that three of the four commonly identified serial killer sub-types of organized offenders (visionary, hedonistic, power-control), have a centerdness of misplaced, obsessive, and pathological fantasies, typically of a sexual or pseudo-sexual nature. Devious sexual acts, fantasies, or compulsions that drive an offender in this fashion are what are known as paraphilia, which are themselves divisible into two distinct classifications: preparatory paraphilia, that serve as the gateway behavior or fetish of a psychopath, and attack paraphilia which are the devious acts that forms part of that actual killing or victimizing process, and usually surface once the preparatory paraphilia become tiresome, no longer stimulating the psychopath’s need for attention, excitement, power, control, or some combination thereof.
Once again, consider the checklist of preparatory paraphilia as they now present in an online form, particularly in the context of social media:
Erotomania: Unreasonable or unreciprocated love for, or obsession with a total stranger, ie: the linchpin of most social media ‘creeping’ activity, and the basis for probably most random or unsolicited friend requests.
Exhibitionism: Exposing one’s body in any capacity to others, usually without their approval, and in an attempt to gain attention and self-arousal through shock value and/or eliciting comments, whether good or bad ie: the strategy behind impulsively uploading and/or sharing of lurid self-portraits on Facebook timeline, Instagram, or Twitter.
Voyeurism: Excitement or arousal from being able to watch others, usually in a personal or private environment, without their knowledge or consent (I shouldn’t even have to explain how this one connects).
Last but not least, we come to what is known as scatalogia. Recognized as one of the most alarming preparatory (or pre-attack) forms of paraphilia for decades, in part due to its being mythologized in films featuring psychopaths who rely on this fetish and their ensuing ‘paraphilic attachment’ to specific victims (Black Christmas, Halloween, Scream, et al.), scatalogia (sometimes cited as telephone scatalogia) has historically involved making obscene, harassing, or hang-up phone calls to either random targets, or a specific victim, in advance of an actual attack. Historically, the fear induced through the use of vulgar language, threats, or labored breathing by making an anonymous landline telephone call provided the psychopath with a sense of power, control, excitement, and ritualistic repetition that appeased their sexually deviant proclivities for the short-term. In some cases, though not all cases as depicted film, television, and urban legend would have us believe, these calls escalated to actual attacks once the associated stimulation began to wane, or once a victim stopped answering the phone, involved the police or telephone company, etc… That was then, this is now.
The Troller as Paraphilic Psychopath
With the demise of the conventional home telephone and rise of the Internet, there emerged a new breed of psychopath whose twisted, sadistic fantasies would still find conduit through which to incite annoyance, fear, loathing, and hostility as a means of excitement. The psychopathology and social dysfunction that inspires scatalogia obviously predated the landline telephone, and it now also postdates it, with pre-attack behaviour consisting of obscene and threatening language having now been transplanted into a digital milieu that still allows this same type of anonymous, cowardly, and remote harassment and intimidation to continue unabated, and yet also strangely tolerated.
The rise of the Internet ‘troll’, a psychopath and scatalogist by definition, and a deviant who epitomizes the worst of social media and the open-source modularity of the Internet in general, has simply changed the medium through which this preparatory paraphilia is now finding an outlet. The coinage ‘troll’, as a truncation of ‘troller’, of course describes someone who for self-gratification, self-entertainment, or a sense of empowerment, provokes confrontations and heckles insults, profanity, and threats from the safety of an online pseudonym, and generally sabotages otherwise innocuous and peaceful online profiles through the hypertext approximation of an obscene or harassing phone call. Trolls can typically be found lurking in any open-access forum, such as newspaper or chat room comment boards, but are typically indigenous to social media like Facebook and YouTube where user groups and channels respectively are targeted for harassment and humiliation that is typically unprovoked, and very much emblematic of the same features that defined unwanted, perverse, and paraphilic communication (and attachment) by telephone in years past.
While typically cited as little more than a nuisance and a necessary evil of the Internet’s global reach and newfound affordability among the crazies and societal flotsam of the world who, historically speaking, would typically never have had access to or interest in computing activities, the reality is that trolling as a digitally-mediated rendering of scatalogia is just one more element of social media that appeals to psychopaths. Whether luring children, engaging in cyber-bullying, or simply rehearsing crimes through preparatory and escalating acts of deviance, trollers as the interlopers of the Internet are now able to find a strength in numbers that, as social pariahs and sexual deviants, had previously eluded them, their having previously been limited to rehearsal acts carried out in the much riskier real world. And while the real world carries with it real consequences that occur in real time, there are of course no police officers patrolling online in any tangible capacity—at least not in terms of social media—and even if there were, the ability to obtain IP information (provider, subscriber, etc.) is fundamentally limited without evidence of an obvious criminal act having been committed. Even then, obtaining that information by way of (in Canada anyway) a Warrant to Search under section 487 or a Production Order under section 487.012 of the Criminal Code takes time and multi-jurisdictional resources that often elude serious investigations already underway in earnest, including transcontinental cyber-crime cases.
It is also interesting to note that—once again going back to serial offenders as the group that is perhaps the most frequently associated with psychopathy and paraphilia—a ‘troller’ is one of the four identified classifications of serial attacker (typically serial killer) based on geographic profile. For instance, a ‘hunter’ tends to search for suitable victims in their immediate and familiar environment; a ‘poacher’ is a transient who searches out targets while on the road and out of their normal habitat where they are not known and able to blend in with strangers and other passers-by; and a ‘trapper’ tends to have some existing acquaintance with their victims and lure them to their fate. Conversely, a ‘troller’, in keeping with the traditional profile, is someone who acts opportunistically, often recklessly. A troller—when dealing with serial offenders in particular—is in the simplest terms a predator who acts and attacks often at random while carrying out their day to day activities, and whose main modus operandi is variable and defined solely by the plane where their own motivation coupled with the vulnerability of a suitable target meet. These types of offenders tend to act at random and not leave any evidence suggestive of a specific victimology or motive, in part why they are so unpredictable, dangerous, and difficult to catch. Like the trolls of the Internet that have inherited this same moniker, certain media platforms, websites, and profiles (cyber victims) seem to be similarly selected based on their vulnerability, accessibility, and the ability of the troll to fulfill the compulsions of their associated scatalogia by inciting anger, fear, or withdrawal, whether in the way of disabling comments, shutting down a site, deleting an account, or just opting out of the space altogether. In any of these scenarios, the psychopath is validated and empowered and the paraphilia continues unabated until it theoretically, like the scatalogia of old, allows the offender to transition to a more tangible and direct form of domination.
While trollers—certifiably psychopathic or otherwise—tend to have their social media profiles immediately dissected and publicly analyzed by news media, law enforcement, and academia after the commission of a serious crime, the reality is that the etiology of psychopathy that is spawned in the real world and then raised online suggests that social media needs to combed proactively for offenders in waiting. Not unlike how citizens have taken ownership of monitoring activity in their own communities and neighborhoods in the absence of a ubiquitous police presence (Neighborhood Watch, Citizen Academy, Citizens on Patrol, etc.) so too do the lawful and ruling majority of pro-social users of these virtual spaces and social media environments have a duty to monitor those same spaces for the types of suspicious or threatening behaviour that would raise alarm or demand intervention in the off-line world. Simply put, the online environment should be seen as an aggravating rather than mitigating factor with respect to someone’s bizarre and often paraphilic behaviour. In the wake of recent mass shootings in the US in particular, the media is always quick to point out potential ‘warning signs’ and ‘clues’ about a suspect’s mindset that were left on social media sites as an omen of their impending madness, or as cryptic teasers that foreshadowed the commission of their horrific crimes, but that went unnoticed. The more appropriate question is, whose job is it exactly to notice, and importantly, take action.