This week, Time magazine’s cover warned that, “We’re losing the Internet to a culture of hate.”
The lengthy piece, by Joel Stein, profiles Jeffrey Marty, 40-year-old dad and lawyer who lives outside Tampa, who runs the Twitter account of the fictional Congressman Steve Smith, a Tea Party Republican representing nonexistent Georgia’s 15th District. But while its subject is a liberal troll, the profile spends a lot of time on the Alt-Right, Breitbart provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, the harassment of Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones, GamerGate, and other familiar controversies.
Whatever the failures of Stein’s efforts at political neutrality, the piece examines an important question: What kind of society has emerged as a result of the Internet?
Online life gives anyone with a computer or smartphone the opportunity to be anonymous and have an audience, a rare combination in offline life. It allows users to express the sorts of vulgar, obnoxious, sexual, threatening, and cruel things they would never say in real life. It’s easy to dismiss vile online comments as the impotent wrath of pathetic, lonely individuals who have been thoroughly defeated by life, and comforting, too. But in Stein’s article, Jessica Moreno, a former editor of Reddit, suggests that the rage-filled online troll may live an offline life that is disturbingly normal:
Since these people posted their real names, addresses, ages, jobs and other details for the gifting program, Moreno learned a good deal about them. “The idea of the basement dweller drinking Mountain Dew and eating Doritos isn’t accurate,” she says. “They would be a doctor, a lawyer, an inspirational speaker, a kindergarten teacher. They’d send lovely gifts and be a normal person.” These are real people you might know, Moreno says. There’s no real-life indicator. “It’s more complex than just being good or bad. It’s not all men either; women do take part in it.”
If the troll isn’t a troll 24/7, then how do we explain his actions?
Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung once described the concept of the “shadow self” — the darker, crueler side of a person’s personality or nature that they usually try to suppress, to varying degrees of success:
It is a frightening thought that man also has a shadow side to him, consisting not just of little weaknesses and foibles, but of a positively demonic dynamism. The individual seldom knows anything of this; to him, as an individual, it is incredible that he should ever in any circumstances go beyond himself. But let these harmless creatures form a mass, and there emerges a raging monster; and each individual is only one tiny cell in the monster’s body, so that for better or worse he must accompany it on its bloody rampages and even assist it to the utmost. Having a dark suspicion of these grim possibilities, man turns a blind eye to the shadow-side of human nature. Blindly he strives against the salutary dogma of original sin, which is yet so prodigiously true. Yes, he even hesitates to admit the conflict of which he is so painfully aware.
We see glimpses of this shadow self in offline life: schoolyard bullying, road rage, angry protests that turn into destructive vandalism, riots, and the crowds screaming profanities at the referee of a ballgame. Our society almost quietly accepts the idea that everyone has at least a little rage within them, and the ones that show it least are capable of explosive furies when least expected.
The Internet offers users a relatively consequence-free zone to let their shadow selves loose. Stein’s piece seems to fear that normal, well-adjusted human beings will flee the bad neighborhoods of the Internet community. He quotes Sam Altman, an early investor in Reddit, about why he chose to stop tweeting: “I feel worse after using Twitter . . . my brain gets polluted here.” Trolls, the thinking goes, have made so many corners of the Internet so vile and unreadable with their obnoxious comments, they drive more sensible people away.
But this isn’t a group of junkies and drug dealers taking over a public park. Every user of the Internet has the option of not reading the comments, blocking or muting offensive Twitter accounts, and generally curating his own experience down to the smallest details. It is easy enough to wall yourself off from people you find too toxic to abide, just as you would in real life.
Or, if things get really bad, you could just log off and go enjoy the sunshine. Would that be so bad?
— Jim Geraghty is National Review’s senior political correspondent.