How Internet Trolls Censor, Assault and Moralize (All for the Greater Good)

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW
If everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking. ~ Benjamin Franklin

Whether in person or through digital means, basic human decency matters to me. After all, how we treat others is a measure of ones character. This is especially crucial when differences of opinion come in to play. It’s during those times, depending on the topic or the issue at hand, that the impulse to malign, belittle and cast aspersions can be strong. If one has a basic sense of humanity, one’s aggressive impulses will be responsibly managed so that instead of regressing into a vitriolic rant a meaningful message will be conveyed. Perhaps even a thoughtful dialogue will ensue.

As I shared with Jen Kim for her Psychology Today article about the the right way to “win” an argument, “to be the bigger person, we must demonstrate a willingness to find common ground and achieve resolution, even if each person’s reality differs.”

Indeed, actively listening to another’s viewpoint is an essential skill that allows for conflict resolution. Making concerted efforts to diplomatically address disparate concerns is certainly ideal when possible.

Unfortunately this is more the exception than the rule.

It’s pretty obvious that folks are more prone to lash out rather than tactfully share ideas. This is especially true online. The sadistic thrill achieved when targeting someone for any arbitrary reason incites internet trolls to launch provocative rhetoric and cyber assaults.

Wikipedia describes an internet troll as, “a person who starts flame wars or intentionally upsets people on the Internet. Typically they do this by posting inflammatory and digressive, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog), with the intent of provoking readers into displaying emotional responses and normalizing tangential discussion.This is typically for the troll’s amusement, or to achieve a specific result such as disrupting a rival’s online activities or manipulating a political process.

Certainly, it’s no surprise to those of us who have any sort of exposure on blogging platforms or social media that individuals can be ruthless in their virtual interactions with others. I certainly have had the misfortune of encountering cyber trolls who leave disparaging, malicious comments. Given that sadistic gratification through cyber-bullying and violent video gaming (Greitemeyer, 2015) are a common occurrence, and a study conducted in 2017 (Sest & March) revealed that a combination of traits of sadism and psychopathy are typical of internet trolls, my response is to simply block folks who exhibit those traits.

Regrettably many take the bait and participate in random emotionally charged exchanges that culminate in a mob mentality. Aggressive social norms quickly take hold as hateful cyber communication infiltrates a throng of followers.

The French sociologist Gustave Le Bon coined the term ‘Group Mind’ to describe how a collective singular mind emerges when a crowd assembles. Le Bon explained how individual responsibility, proclivities and choices are eclipsed by the desires and urges of the crowd, causing the eradication of individual critical thought. Under these conditions rational discourse is replaced with group shaming.

Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, who achieved acclaim as the “father of public relations” due to his masterful understanding of the psychological workings of propaganda, wrote about how collective collusion with a dominant ideology results in US-THEM posturing. Indeed the principle, “if you are not for us, then you must be against us” has infiltrated just about every conceivable belief system known to man.

Le Bon and Bernay’s analysis of the mob mentality is exemplified in the aggressive posturing of political correctness and cancel culture. By championing shaming and cruelty, under the guise of moral superiority, folks submit to the will of the group. This incites boycotts, marred reputations, social ostracism and destroyed livelihoods. In the spirit of moral relativism, it’s all chalked up to ‘the greater good’.

The witch hunt of tenured NYU media professor Mark Crispin Miller reveals how cancel culture and PC culture has made an art out of defaming other’s moral standing, while usurping jobs and destroying lives. When Miller, in his propaganda course (how ironic) noted scientific studies suggesting that masks aren’t effective in stopping the spread of flu-like respiratory diseases, he found himself under investigation. Apparently a Twitter accusation posted by a student in Miller’s class ignited disciplinary action.

When academic freedom is threatened by an inflammatory comment made on social media we indeed have a much bigger problem than engaging in discussions around controversial views.

Nevertheless, policing and criminalizing trolls is not the answer. In fact it’s ironically part of the problem. Of course there are extenuating circumstances such as cyber stalking and threats which warrant prosecution, but statutes that circumscribe freedom of speech contribute to silencing any form of expression. We’ve already seen this happen with investigative journalism. The tragic plight of Julian Assange is exemplary of this phenomenon.

Likewise, the 4th amendment is on very shaky ground given the secret authorization Bush signed in Oct. 2001. Allowing the NSA to engage in warrantless surveillance of large volumes of Americans’ phone content and e-mail messages set a scary precedence. NSA Agents within the National Security Agency (NSA), have anonymously told the New York Times that the spy agency monitors millions of e-mail communications and telephone calls made by Americans. When whistleblower Edward Snowden endeavored to reveal crimes perpetrated by the Federal government he was silenced by both the Bush and Obama administrations.

It stands to reason that mass surveillance and assaults on privacy and freedom of expression have become routine. Operation Mockingbird has resurfaced with a vengeance. The manipulation of collective beliefs and opinions has taken on new dimensions with the internet. In this landscape trolls function as soldiers on the front lines, disseminating vitriol and a divide and conquer stance.

While it might seem logical that shutting them down with greater mass surveillance and persecution is the answer, it will only perpetuate the control and prohibition of storylines and alternative views. Yet isn’t that already happening? What is staged and what is random is indiscernible. Makes me wonder in my paranoid way what the real agenda is.

As we see, the greater the fear the more justified our government sponsored corporatized media is in banning, persecuting and censoring those who deviate from popular opinion. The escalation of censorship under another name (i.e.- managing domestic terrorism) may appear virtuous, but at the end of the day it may just be part of a much larger sinister design.

Censoring that which we disagree with serves the same function as the psychological defense of repression. What is forbidden from consciousness festers underground and finds a circuitous means of expression. The greater the repression the more destructive the eruption or expression of what is denied. Likewise, when the powerful moral guardians and gatekeepers censor what is deemed unacceptable, access to information and hence the capacity to think critically becomes compromised. This inhibition of thinking and creativity negatively impacts our general well-being. We implode and explode.

When righteous opposition under the guise of moral panic legitimizes rampant cruelty, and we collectively ascribe to the notion that it’s virtuous to assault those who possess views that deviate from what is considered ‘moral’ and correct, we’re in trouble.

As Dr. Carl Jung wisely stated in his Seminar on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, There is no morality, no moral decision, without freedom. There is only morality when you can choose, and you cannot chose if you are forced.

Accordingly, we are only as free as we are able to exercise self governance. Otherwise we are driven by fears that compel us to relinquish thinking for ourselves. This puts us at risk for carelessly latching onto groupthink narratives and imminent scenarios of the populace melding with artificial intelligence, euphemistically referred to as Transhumanism.

Images of cyborgs and avatars comprising the work force and genetically modified foods being consumed by genetically modified post-humans complete this dystopian reverie. Under the pretense of radically enhancing God’s design by creating a more empathic race of people, social control can be assured. I personally prefer individual liberty, should that be a choice in the matter.

Bottom line is that, “human nature is potentially aggressive and destructive and potentially orderly and constructive.” (Margaret Mead). Prioritizing our capacity to responsibly manage this energy is critical. The offensive, or opposing viewpoint must be intelligently engaged with and to some degree even tolerated if we are to sustain our civil liberties. Essentially, as long as we are able to think and focus, troll tactics will have little impact. If not, the new war on extremism and radical thinking will continue to encourage government tyranny in the guise of national security and morality.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY

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