Is Social Media Inevitably Sociopathic?

We need a neurobiologist on the Supreme Court

Posted Jun 01, 2015

Wikipedia Commons
Source: Wikipedia Commons

June 1, 2015

“The Supreme Court on Monday made it harder to prosecute people for threats made on Facebook and other social media, reversing the conviction of a Pennsylvania man who directed brutally violent language against his estranged wife.” The New York Times, June 1, 2015  

The ruling has been called cryptic, throwing “everyone from appellate judges to Facebook users into a state of uncertainty.”  That’s certainly one quote from Justice Clarence Thomas that I can agree with!  The uncertainty lies in Chief Justice Roberts’ majority opinion, which holds that the intent and state of mind of the alleged threat-maker must be taken into account.  It’s not enough for a “reasonable person” to feel that comments are threatening, or that words were thrown around “recklessly,” without concern for how they would be perceived by those who heard or saw them.  The justices declined to rule on the First Amendment issues in the case, and limited their opinion to the criminal intent questions.

Look out below!  Make a threatening comment on Facebook or Twitter, and simply say you had no actual intent to harm or threaten someone, and the Supreme Court seems to have your back.  Until it doesn’t.  Who knows?

I doubt that the Supreme Court took neurobiology into account in their decision-making process.  Emotional Intelligence expert and psychologist Daniel Goleman has coined the term cyber-disinhibition to describe how people can become socially inappropriate without the inhibiting cues of presence:  facial expression, tone of voice, body language, etc.  When we aren’t face-to-face, and we become enraged or distressed, we are more likely to type words onto a screen that could be considered aggressive, bullying, antisocial, and crude. 

We hold each other’s worst impulses in check when we’re face-to-face, and we encourage each other’s pro-social behavior.  Attachment drives human evolution and successful bonding, from parents and children to couples to communities.  We change each other’s brains and biology with attachment.  Throughout our human history, attachment has been built on physical presence.  What will happen to us when we rely on typed messages on screens to “connect”?

It’s still an open question whether disinhibiting environments and influences lead to disinhibited real world behavior.  There is evidence that violence in media can lead to aggressive behavior IRL.  One intriguing recent study in Violence and Victims showed that readers of aggressive manga were more likely to become physically aggressive themselvesViolent video games are linked with aggressive behavior in teens.  I haven’t seen any studies about social media aggression being linked to actual aggression – but it seems possible, at least.

While Facebook and Twitter have community standards, they are notoriously hard to enforce.  Moreover, there are plenty of other places where the aggressive spread their messages.   There are cesspools of hatred on the internet.  How are these affecting community and socialization?  Are they a release valve, or are they propagators?  I think more of the latter.  (UPDATE 7/16/15:  The recent Reddit contoversies underlie this point.)

I would hypothesize that the ability to express antisocial attitudes online only reinforces them.  And attitudes precede behavior.  Disinhibited online aggression creates an emotionally and potentially physically hazardous real world environment for us all.    Moreover, threatening words online have harmful effects even if uncoupled from actual physical aggression.

What’s the answer?

We’re still early in the internet age.  Jon Ronson, author of “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” believes that we’ll mature out of the worst of our bad online habits.

I’m more doubtful.  I think our human brains need a lot of shared presence and embodied relationship to mature.  Perhaps most of us have stray aggressive thoughts.  But when we’re allowed to feed them online, they only grow.  I’ve already written about how social media encourages us to be more opinionated than related, and how anger spreads more virally in social media than other connecting emotions.

I think the only antidote is unplugging and conducting our relationships primarily IRL.  Naturally, there will be moves to legislate against threats online, as I hear they do in Europe.  That’s all fine and dandy, but it’ll be like playing whack-a-mole. 

Perhaps we have to realize that disinhibited, disembodied, online communication is inherently problematic.  It tends to make us combative and confrontational, and keeps us from resolving our frustrations in real world relationship, and growing in compassion, wisdom and the ability to get along with different perspectives on issues of substance.  I just hope it doesn’t take a tragedy to drive this point home.

Update:  You may also like my viral op-ed in the New York Daily News:  Deactivate Facebook, Become Human.

ALSO:  The International New York Times published my letter on this topic on April 13, 2015:  

"The problem is not that Twitter has broken windows – it is that social media is a broken window.  We are retreating from face-to-face conversation and relationship because we crave the facsimile of constant contact online.  But without the physical cues of presence, some people transform into disinhibited trolls.  Our compassion has always been deepened through real world engagement.  Social media is a siren that pulls us away from that engagement.  It might as well be called anti-social media."

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