The internet is about community, as much as technology. However, as a widely-reported 2006 study argued, since 1985, Americans have become more socially isolated, the size of their discussion networks has declined, and the diversity of those people with whom they discuss important subjects has shrunk. In particular, the study found that Americans have fewer close ties to those from their neighborhoods. Sociologists Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin and Matthew Brashears suggest that new technologies, such as the internet and mobile phone, may play a role in advancing this trend.
Specifically, they argue that the type of social ties supported by these technologies are relatively weak and geographically dispersed, not the strong, often locally-based ties that tend to be a part of peoples’ core discussion network. They depicted the rise of internet and mobile phones as one of the major trends that pulls people away from traditional social settings, neighborhoods, voluntary associations, and public spaces that have been associated with large and diverse core networks.
But the reality of social connectivity via the internet is here to stay. A Pew Internet Personal Networks and Community survey shined a light on people’s use of mobile phones and the internet as ways to connect with larger and more diverse discussion networks. And, when we examine people’s full personal network — their strong and weak ties — internet use in general and use of social networking services such as Facebook in particular are associated with more diverse social networks. [ The Strength of Internet Ties, Boase, J., et al., 2006, Pew Internet & American Life Project: Washington, DC ]
Social media activities are associated with beneficial social activities, such as having discussion networks that are more likely to contain people from different backgrounds. As an example, frequent internet users such as those who maintain a blog are much more likely to confide in someone who is of another race. Those who share photos online are more likely to report that they discuss important matters with someone who is a member of another political party.
The Pew study found that, when one examines people’s full personal network — their strong ties and weak ties — internet use in general and use of social networking services such as Facebook in particular are associated with having a more diverse social network. This counters the perception that technology pulls people away from social engagement.
But the internet is also about obscurity. The recent newsworthy reporting on government surveillance of internet and telecom communications has made clear that, while we rely on these two technologies to communicate and collaborate, we have long assumed such dialog occurred in private, much like the whispered exchanges in back booths of cafés or empty aisles of bookstores of the past. The fact that all traffic on these networks, mapped by the Internet Protocol address — the "I.P." address — can be traced to originator and recipient, has largely been ignored by the vast populations using these tools. The obscurity we find with anonymous logins and random user names can be liberating. One can speak freely about topics often found uncomfortable in one's existing social circles, or ask questions that an immediate circle of friends, relatives or colleagues might not answer. But this anonymity is also a free pass to sling vitriol.
Anonymous communications play an important role in political and social discussion. The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that the right to anonymous free speech is protected by the First Amendment, such as the 1995 Supreme Court ruling in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission:
Protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse. Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical minority views . . . Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. . . . It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society.
This tradition of anonymous speech ispredates the United States. Founders Alexander Hamilton James Madison and John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers under the pseudonym "Publius " and "the Federal Farmer" spoke up in rebuttal.
But the ease by which anyone can fake a name and voice any opinion — no matter how controversial or bigoted — without threat to their reputation is a driving forces behind the prevalence of hate speech online. Free speech does not mean freedom to disparage, libel, or foster hatred.
Anonymity on the internet desensitizes participants in a discussion. Such behavior, while rampant, is not found in the entire population of on-line commentators. Most so-call "trolls" might be easily classified as sociopathic narcissists, showing a callousness and lack of empathy for the objects/subjects of their derision. Unable to empathize with the pain of their victims, and perhaps having only contempt for others' feelings of distress and readily taking advantage of them, leads such participants in discussion threads to trample over the feelings of others. This reflects poor behavioral controls, found in the typical impulsive nature that can be observed in such personalities. Perhaps from the rage and abuse some of these participants have experienced, alternating with small expressions of love and approval, to produce an addictive cycle for abuser and abused. This may as well as foster a sense hopelessness in the victim, who finds an outlet in the obscurity of the vast whorl wide web, but engendered by a believe they are all-powerful, all-knowing, entitled to every wish, with no sense of personal boundaries, nor concern for their impact on others. Particularly with harsh words, submitted so quickly with a click of a mouse button.
Ultimately, people are behind the I.P. addressees that connect us all. What is low-cost approach to decrease the systemic negativity? Empathy, the cure for "trolling".
Wired magazine recently reported on a human rights group that introduced a new version of CAPTCHAs, those little boxes that make you type in a word to prove you are human before you can comment or register for a site. The new version doesn’t just present a scrambled word to be deciphered, but instead forces a person to choose the right word to unscramble based on the proper emotional response to a human rights violation. Civil Rights Defenders, the Swedish-based group that developed the tool, hopes the Civil Rights Captcha will help sites block spiders and bots, while letting humans in — and hopefully educating the humans at the same time.
More about trolls…
Machiavellianism (willingness to manipulate and deceive others), narcissism (egotism and self-obsession), psychopathy (the lack of remorse and empathy), and sadism (pleasure in the suffering of others). In the study, trolls were identified in a variety of ways. One was by simply asking survey participants what they 'enjoyed doing most' when on online comment sites, offering five options: 'debating issues that are important to you,' 'chatting with others,' 'making new friends,' 'trolling others,' and 'other.' The study recruited participants from Amazon's Mechanical Turk website and two measures of sadistic personality were administered (PDF): the Short Sadistic Impulse Scale and the Varieties of Sadistic Tendencies Scale. Only 5.6 percent of survey respondents actually specified that they enjoyed 'trolling.' By contrast, 41.3 percent of Internet users were 'non-commenters,' meaning they didn't like engaging online at all. So trolls are, as has often been suspected, a minority of online commenters, and an even smaller minority of overall Internet users. Overall, the authors found that the relationship between sadism and trolling was the strongest, and that indeed, sadists appear to troll because they find it pleasurable. 'Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others. Sadists just want to have fun ... and the Internet is their playground!' The study comes as websites are increasingly weighing steps to rein in trollish behavior but the study authors aren't sure that fix is a realistic one. 'Because the behaviors are intrinsically motivating for sadists, comment moderators will likely have a difficult time curbing trolling with punishments (e.g., banning users),' says Buckels. 'Ultimately, the allure of trolling may be too strong for sadists, who presumably have limited opportunities to express their sadistic interests in a socially-desirable manner.' Perhaps posting rights should only be unlocked if you pass a test.
Reading, specifically works of fiction, can lead to greater empathy. A study by a Washington and Lee University psychology professor has demonstrated that reading a short work of fiction can lead readers to empathize with the work’s characters, to detect subtle emotional expressions more effectively and to engage in pro-social behavior. Dan Johnson, assistant professor of psychology at Washington and Lee, published the results of his study in the November 2011 edition of the journal “Personality and Individual Differences.”