Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Pathology of the Internet Terrorist

If you've followed my recent posts about internet delinquents, you've probably noticed that they have many qualities in common: relentlessness, a willingness to blame the victim for their oversteps and a steadfast refusal to apologize.
Apologizing is easy. You type a few well-chosen words, you say you erred and you express remorse. One would think that delinquents who fall into the public spotlight would find it easier to apologize than sacrifice their reputations. But they don't. Why?
For a while I thought it was a pride-related issue. Perhaps low self-esteem made any humbling gesture too expensive for the person. But that still didn't explain their willingness to cling to obviously faulty ideas at the expense of their reputation, clearly causing more damage. 
I entertained the notion that denial was at work: the same "big lie" that makes alcoholics so skilled at fooling others. In the cases of delinquents driven by substance abuse, this is a highly plausible contributor.
Then I encountered the thinking of Robert Burton, a neuroscientist and author of On Being Certain. I think some of his ideas shed light on internet delinquency.
One of his fundamental thoughts is that for many people, being right feels good, and may feel so good as to approach an addiction. The same parts of the brain stimulated by feeling right are also activated by cocaine, nicotine, amphetamines and gambling.
A second observation is that normally within the brain, a thought deemed right is checked by an" independent, involuntary assessment of that thought." I believe he is referring to what common parlance calls the "reality check."
People deficient in that checking mechanism are over-confident. We often call them pompous know-it-alls.
It may also be that the checking mechanism is functional, but that the person has developed a dependency on the sensation of believing themselves to be right.
Burton calls this the "certainty bias."
It seems to me that high pressure situations are more likely to bring out the certainty bias. A particular type of internet user tends to become more certain when they have said something and it's been found wrong. In the next stage of the pathology, they try to shift the blame, and move from discussions of the matter at hand to distractions.
This is important, because it suggests that banning delinquents from forums may simply increase their delinquency, even if all they do is take it somewhere else. Instead, it may be wiser to label such peoples' posts: this person uses unsound reasoning, blames others for own mistakes, will argue they are right without supporting evidence, behaves erratically, is a frequently discredited contributor. This generally makes this type of person "deprive" the community of their participation by loudly announcing their departure. They usually return, however, so an experiment might be performed in which members in good standing could opt to delete posts carrying delinquency warnings. The presumed effect is that milder cases will exercise self-control, and severe cases will be exposed to public scrutiny. Over time, delinquents tend to move away from public scrutiny, sometimes congregating on a small site and commiserating endlessly about how right they are and how wrong everyone else is.
Understanding why delinquents behave as they do, and learning to understand the difference between delinquent conduct and intelligent debate is important. It has become fashionable for people to dismiss almost any argument as "internet drama," as if they are above participation in something juvenile. Juvenile arguments do happen, it's true, but they pose much less threat to the functioning of communication than people who sabotage, discredit and embarrass the others with pathological actions. A very large amount of PR damage is done by a very small portion of the the "community," so the reward for managing their terrorist inclinations is high.
A more passive-aggressive form arises when an individual mistreats others, often out of the public eye or covered up by saintly actions that are loudly broadcast. When a complaint arises, this sort demands proof of wrongdoing. Of course, most would rush forward to learn what they have done, but this type doesn't need to. He knows exactly what he is doing, and his ability to fool the majority of observers for an extended period gives him the confidence to proceed. Against someone who knows how he operates, however, he is playing a game with a high mistake rate, and the very popularity which was supposed to shield him is fractured by a rising tide of people raising objections that would not otherwise be expressed. Rather than flame out, these would-be heroes tend to sink slowly under the burden of a thousand cuts, finally making a self-pitying post, grabbing their ball, and going home. At an extreme, John Wayne Gacy is this type, and was tricked in prison into turning on his manipulative, long-denied homosexual persona in an attempt to seduce an interviewer. His behavior during those sessions was remarkably revealing, the closest the victims' families will come to a confession. 
While it may seem strong to mention a serial killer in a discussion of web vandalism, it is not the crime that matters, but the state of mind, for our purposes. I suspect a thorough examination would reveal that certainty bias is operative in the mind of most campus mass murderers, including the Columbine perpetrators. By backing up from such cases and looking at milder forms, we can begin to recognize people who are potentially dangerous and who need help. Acknowledging such thinking as a psychological issue worthy of treatment would require a big step that society may not be ready to make, but applying Burton's thinking to specific case studies is potentially useful as a first step toward broader understanding of these poorly explained phenomena.
In the Megan Meier suicide, a teenager girl was first flattered, then taunted by a nonexistent boy created by the mother of a schoolmate living next door. It seems like vengeance without a cause, but the taunting perpetrated by Lori Drew that caused the tragedy can be understood as a possible specimen of internet certainty bias. She found it pleasurable to taunt her daughter's perceived rival, and would be a free woman today if she did not. (She is serving 20 years.)
It's important to remember that the overall attitude toward webcomics from our peers in syndicates, politics, advertising, print comics and some comic media is that we are about a 3 from 1-10. The reason is immaturity, a high tolerance for web terrorism and delinquency, dishonesty, a tendency to group comics of various quality levels together (which may be unfair) and a general inability to extinguish our chronic issues, identify what would be an advance, and pursue it. We are viewed as a hopeless case, and only those of us with strips that are not dependent on comicdom can truly step away and pursue careers without all the baggage. My resume means I can do that tomorrow, but I'm not quite ready, yet. I'd like to document what's wrong, sort out some long-standing abuses, permanently stigmatize extreme forms of misbehavior and maybe put a book draft in the mail looking at who should be extracted from the swamp and who can safely be left to rot, among other things. As a sociological study, it's a rare opportunity, as rich as William Whyte's classic text on delinquency, Street Corner Society.
There is a big difference between certainty and truth. Certainty is an opinion. Truth we pursue endlessly, constantly dispatching incorrect notions as we strive toward perfection. Certainty accompanies doctrine, from Scientology to radical Islam to the idea that it is OK to be a jerk on the internet if you think you are correct. It's rampant during presidential elections, which is why I stay away, though the four year cycle is useful for seeing who lapses into certainty bias and who maintains their intellectual balance. For people in mental pain, it may be one of the few balms available, and they have my sympathy. The minute they begin to inflict pain on others, however, they have become of interest to me, and my compassion takes a back seat to justice.
You may have noticed that I attract an unusual number of attackers, and if you haven't, watch upcoming posts for some field reports. This has been true in my life for years. As long as I investigate and report activities which have gone unlogged for some time, I am the enemy. Some of these guys like to present deteriorating positions as if they are in some sort of feud with me, and that a handshake will resolve it. Wouldn't that be nice if it were true?
Further Reading:
Internet Trolls - a brief description useful for separating routine troublemakers from pathological cases. The main difference is the troll is spontaneous, crude and immature; the pathological person won't drop the argument, must be declared right, is not cloaked in anonymity and will devise elaborate schemes to threaten their enemies.
Short version of the above:
  • Internet delinquents may suffer from a defect of logical thinking called "certainty bias;"
  • For these people, the natural "reality check" portion of the brain may not work;
  • The parts of the brain associated with being right are also stimulated by cocaine, speed gambling and nicotine, among others;
  • It is possible that some people become addicted to feeling right, suppressing their reality check in favor of nurturing what may be a rare source of positive feelings;
  • In situations such as internet interactions, these people have difficulty backing away from an argument, admitting error, apologizing or acknowledging the human value of others;
  • This suggests that they are incurable without their own cooperation, and therefore should not be given equal status with other web users;
  • Banning them is one option, but as is widely known, is not always effective, and tends to send them elsewhere to make trouble;
  • Labeling deviant behavior on profiles by skilled moderators may be one way to protect the larger community;
  • It must be remembered that certainty bias is a likely culprit in internet-related homicides, such as the case where a mother-daughter team drove a neighbor's daughter to suicide by creating a fake love interest, then denouncing her.