Is There a Link Between Sociopathy and Social Media?

Drawn to new apps and platforms, people are livestreaming and recording an astonishing array of repugnant acts. Welcome to the anti-social network.

By Mike Mariani, published September 5, 2016 - last reviewed on November 16, 2017

Illustration by Edward Levine

Late on a Sunday night earlier this year, two young men from Columbus, Ohio, started live-streaming their antics using the social media app Periscope, which allows users to shoot live video from their phones. Feeds are broadcast to devices with the app, and users can tune in to men delivering sermons in their home offices, teenage girls surreptitiously recording themselves in class, and people spouting their passionate Monday Motivation speeches.

But on the night of February 21, the young men in Columbus aspired to something more incendiary than selfie videos of personal mantras or stoner roast sessions. Brandishing a gun in one hand and a smartphone in the other, Yusuf Conteh took to Periscope with his friend Damon Rosmond. In the video, the two men stood in front of a bathroom mirror, Conteh holding up the gun and Rosmond waving around wads of $100 bills. At one point, Conteh aimed the weapon and pretended to shoot, mimicking the sound of a pistol firing—dom dom dom dom dom dom dom dom—like a kid playing with his toy gun. 

But what made this live-stream more unnerving than mere violent fantasy was its rapid escalation toward reality. During the video, Conteh and Rosmond announced that if their feed reached 100 viewers, they would go out into the neighborhood and start shooting indiscriminately. When they accrued this number of viewers, they left their residence in the North Linden section of Columbus and got into their car with the gun. 

Killer App 

Conteh and Rosmond, both 20, starred on the Whetstone High School football team in Columbus. And each was enrolled in college: Rosmond at the University of Toledo, Conteh at Morris Brown College. They posted videos of themselves freestyle rapping together. They look like typical high school students. Except, perhaps, for their social-media footprint. Conteh and Rosmond each have well over 4,000 friends on Facebook, and their pages are filled with shirtless selfies and status updates dotted with emojis. 

On that Sunday night, somebody watching Conteh and Rosmond’s live-stream recognized the gravity of the situation unfolding. A man viewing the feed from South Carolina sent a message to No Thiefs Allowed, a California-based crime-tip website. The website contacted local authorities, and Columbus police were able to track down the two men by using landmarks from the video and details on Periscope. Who knows where this violent new brand of live theater would have led without the tip. County prosecutor Ron O’Brien says that his first thought was that the men just intended to shoot the weapon in the air, but “you could [also] take it to mean they were gonna shoot up houses, cars, people.” 

On May 10, O’Brien announced that a grand jury had returned indictments on the two men for five charges stemming from their nighttime outing, including improperly handling firearms in a motor vehicle, inducing panic, and improperly furnishing firearms to a minor—in the live-stream, they handed the gun to a 2-year-old. According to a press release filed by O’Brien’s office, if convicted the men could each face more than five years in prison. Conteh and Rosmond, who could not be reached for this story, are currently out on bonds of $75,000 each. 

Periscope was originally conceived as a way to document the world in real time, to play global correspondent to a population democratized by social media. The app’s creator, Kayvon Beykpour, came up with the idea while in Istanbul during the 2013 protests in Taksim Square. When he checked into Twitter, the platform’s limitations quickly dawned on him. People could tell you what was happening in 140 characters, but they couldn’t show you. In that moment, when a very specific social media void was felt, Periscope was born. In a 2015 interview with Business Insider, Jessica Verrilli, a Twitter strategy director who helped her company acquire Periscope, described how she was blown away by the possibilities of the app “when I witnessed a major fire in San Francisco, a child’s first steps, and a man’s cancer treatment.” 

But log on to Periscope or Meerkat and the landscape is a little different. You’ll find hundreds of people trying to transform their lives into stages. Though the odd live-stream can feel thrillingly clandestine—one feed streamed the early stages of a police perimeter after a shooting, long before local news stations arrived—the vast majority of feeds are self-directed. People are not broadcasting their world so much as they are broadcasting themselves. Whether it’s young girls seeking an anonymous male gaze, social media impresarios building their brands, or randos starring in their own tiny, prosaic Truman Show, Periscope is first and foremost another platform of the self. 

Illustration by Edward Levine

Look at Me 

Research is beginning to suggest a correlation between the heavy use of social media platforms and the Dark Triad—a cluster of personality traits that includes psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. These traits have existed independent of selfies and status updates for centuries and proving any sort of causal connection remains elusive, but it seems possible that some relationship exists.

It’s important to note, however, that while studies have linked time spent on social networking sites with the dark traits, these personality types are certainly not the only predictors of heavy social media use. Other studies have found that extroversion and openness to experience were also associated with time spent on social media platforms. 

Nevertheless, W. Keith Campbell, a psychologist at the University of Georgia, notes that social media have created a great environment for self-obsession to thrive. Although society in general doesn’t condone an individual who is laser-focused on his own appearance, opinions, and achievements, social media platforms are perfect hotbeds for the self-absorbed. 

In one study, researchers found that the more socially aversive characteristics subjects possessed, the more time they spent on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Another study, carried out in 2013 by researchers at the University of Michigan, found that tweeting was moderately associated with a sense of superiority, while posting on Facebook corresponded with exhibitionism

Certainly, recent dystopic headlines demonstrate young people’s pursuit of an audience. 

On September 10, 2015, 18-year-old Christal McGee was on Snapchat while driving with several of her coworkers on a highway outside of Atlanta. She had enabled Snapchat’s speed filter, which allows users to track how fast they’re driving while snapping a photo on the app. At around 11:15 P.M., McGee began accelerating her Mercedes Benz C230. With Snapchat tracking her speed, she inched past 80 miles per hour, then 90, then 100. 

Her attention divided between the road and her phone, McGee didn’t see the Mitsubishi Outlander that was pulling onto the highway. Unable to break in time, she slammed into the Outlander with such force that the vehicle landed all the way across the four-lane highway, in an embankment. At the moment of impact, McGee was going 107 miles per hour. One of the passengers in her vehicle said that prior to the crash she had hit 113 on the Snapchat filter. The driver of the Mitsubishi, Wentworth Maynard, was severely injured and spent five weeks in intensive care. He suffered permanent brain injury, requires a walker and a wheelchair, and is suing both McGee and Snapchat for the accident. The lawsuit alleges that McGee was speeding while on Snapchat, in pursuit of one of the app’s “trophies.” After the accident, when McGee was in the ambulance, strapped to a gurney with her face caked in blood, she returned to the app to snap a selfie. The caption read: “Lucky to be alive.” 

In 2011, psychologist Chris Carpenter of Western Illinois University published a study looking at social media and qualities such as exhibitionism, entitlement, and exploitativeness. The study’s most publicized finding was that grandiose exhibitionism predicted self-promoting behaviors on Facebook, including posting selfies, updating status, and fine-tuning personal information. But his study also found that grandiose exhibitionism predicted both the number of friends one has on Facebook and, perhaps more intriguingly, the frequency with which the participants accept strangers as friends. The more grandiose one’s sense of self, the stronger the desire to expand one’s social network and potential audience, even if it means accepting friend requests from complete strangers. 

Despite the findings, Carpenter is reticent about whether the rise of social media has the capacity to alter people’s personalities. This sort of query gets into the “fundamental questions about how personality develops and is expressed,” he says. However, he does add that though some personality traits are more heritable than others, social media “may give existing traits a greater outlet and may serve to strengthen some and weaken others by rewarding their expression.” 

One of the reasons qualities such as entitlement, vanity, exploitativeness, and exhibitionism may be increasing is because the overarching personality type that is tied to them, narcissism, is not distressing or undesirable to those who possess it. It’s an ego-syntonic behavior. Unlike behaviors that are discomfiting or problematic, such as fighting depression, ego-syntonic behaviors are consistent with one’s personality and sense of self. In other words, self-absorbed behavior is gratifying to the self-absorbed. “It’s just that he’s annoying everyone else around him,” Carpenter says. People are not going to seek treatment for their excessive vanity, sense of superiority, or grandiosity: They like how it makes them feel. 

Studies have confirmed what many would argue is obvious, that Internet-mediated self-obsession has enjoyed a steady surge over the last 10 years. This growing fascination has brought about a new attitude toward the trait so thoroughly associated with young people: Self-obsession isn’t something that twenty-somethings are particularly ashamed of anymore. “They’re proud of it,” says San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me

Katherine Ramsland, a forensic psychologist and expert on extreme pathology, believes a similar cultural shift is underway with psychopathy. “There has been a trickle-down effect from the idea of a psychopath or a Machiavellian being a monster; now he is the well-adapted person, the person who can succeed and get ahead,” she says. Once met with scorn, psychopaths have developed a kind of subversive cachet as their profiles have risen in television (The Jinx, Dexter, Hannibal), publishing (The Wisdom of Psychopaths, Almost a Psychopath), and Internet media, where the think-piece intelligentsia diagnose politicians and dash off “counterintuitive” commentary extolling the virtues of vices. “Some antisocial behaviors are being praised,” Ramsland says. 

Illustration by Edward Levine

The Dark Triad 

Less than a week after Conteh and Rosmond threatened to spray bullets from their car, 18-year-old Marina Lonina used Periscope for her own shocking broadcast. On February 26, Lonina and a friend met a 29-year-old man named Raymond Gates at a mall in Columbus. The following evening, they all gathered at Gates’s home. Gates pulled out a bottle of vodka and the three started drinking. That night Gates pinned down Lonina’s 17-year-old friend and began sexually assaulting her. Instead of trying to intervene or contacting the police, Lonina live-streamed the assault on Periscope. Ignoring her friend’s pleas for help when she was being raped, Lonina laughed giddily as hearts spilled onto her phone’s screen, indicating likes from viewers. It wasn’t until a friend of Lonina’s saw the stream that the authorities were finally notified. Alongside Gates, Lonina is now facing kidnapping, rape, and sexual battery charges, among other crimes, and if convicted she could spend more than 40 years in prison. 

Lonina seemed unable or unwilling to grasp the gravity of the atrocity taking place in front of her. The live audience she was amassing through Periscope trumped rape and reality itself. But why? What new, toxic variation on fame-seeking behavior drove Conteh, Rosmond, McGee, and Lonina to commit such antisocial acts? 

The Dark Triad, a concept established by Delroy Paulhus and Kevin Williams at the University of British Columbia in 2002, combines the three dark traits, which are interrelated but distinct. In their early work, Paulhus and Williams set out to show crucial differences among the three characteristics, developing a taxonomy. Paulhus says they wanted to counter the notion that “there’s only one bad person, a bad person who has all bad traits.” If only it were so simple. People are complex, with selfish behaviors and adaptations varying in both degree and kind. 

Psychopathy is characterized by high impulsivity and low empathy; narcissism is the personality trait of individuals with an inflated sense of their own self-worth; and Machiavellianism is characterized by manipulative and exploitative behavior. As forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner puts it, Machiavellians reflect “the capability of a more advanced intellect…using nuance as a destructive art form.” (See “The Real Narcissists,”)

Since its inception, the concept of the Dark Triad has gained considerable traction, and not without reason: Here was a new way to understand “evil” in the larger, everyday population. The Dark Triad doesn’t focus on the people committing heinous crimes and serving long prison sentences; instead it considers the average liar, cheat, and manipulator living among us. “These so-called parasites can break all our rules but survive by taking advantage of others,” Paulhus says.

In December 2014, Jesse Fox of Ohio State University published a study looking at whether the Dark Triad was a predictor of the amount of time men spent on social networking sites and the number of selfies they posted. Her article is known for being the first academic study on selfies, but its conclusions have broader implications. While Fox did find that both psychopathy and narcissism predicted the number of selfies posted, she also established that all three Dark Triad traits were correlated with the amount of time spent on social networking sites. “Social media...really captures a unique environment in that you can manipulate so much more about how you’re communicating with other people,” Fox says. 

Social media is uniquely conducive to Dark Triad traits, she explains, because it allows users to meticulously control how they present themselves, allowing them to communicate with others in selective, deliberate ways. Looked at another way, interaction on sites and apps lacks the spontaneity and artlessness of running into somebody at the gym or in the grocery store; self-serving motives can drive each and every decision on social media. There is even something Machiavellian about seemingly empathic behavior online: When we friend and follow other people, or like their Facebook and Instagram posts, we may be strategically cultivating our own following, developing a reciprocity that reinforces our own number of followers and likes. 

Illustration by Edward Levine

Seducing the Brain 

Psychopathy and Machiavellianism could also be described as ego-syntonic—when behaviors are compatible with the needs of the ego—because of the social advantages they confer and the gratification individuals derive from them. People who score high on the Dark Triad traits are not incurring mental suffering for their baleful social adaptations. It is, in its perverse way, rewarding. “We’re very Pavlovian,” Fox says. “It goes back to conditioning, and this is just one of the most disturbing forms of conditioning that happens. People get this jolt, this experience of approval and immediate validation every time they get a like or a viewer, and they cannot turn off that sense of reward.” 

A 2013 study by German researchers supports Fox’s Pavlovian hunch. In it, the authors found that individuals who spent more time on Facebook had higher levels of activity in the nucleus accumbens—the brain’s reward center. Perhaps social media not only activate the reward center of the brain, but over time train it to respond more intensely to social praise. 

Those who possess dark traits enjoy shortcuts to achievement and success. Machiavellians manipulate those around them to reach higher perches of power, and psychopaths trample over others to get what they want. People with these and similar attributes focus on themselves above all, and so it should come as no surprise that they take the most selfies. But why pathologically callous people—if such a blanket term can be used to describe individuals who are more self-centered, manipulative, and less empathetic—would spend more time on social networking sites in general is less apparent. 

The 2013 study may help elucidate the connection. Individuals who possess the dark traits are self-centered, almost exclusively pursuing their own social rewards. Social networking sites are fast becoming one of the most powerful ways to reap those rewards, as evidenced by brain scans. As indicated by Conteh and Rosmond, who promised to shoot up a neighborhood if they got a large enough audience; McGee, who risked several lives and grievously injured another driver because she wanted to document her thrill ride and nab a digital trophy; and Lonina, who was so intoxicated by social validation that she watched her friend being raped and did nothing, we are homing in on the instant gratification—in feedback and likes—that social media offer at the expense of everything else around us. It stands to reason that these traits would flourish on social media because such people are happy to seek personal reward and satisfaction through such platforms. 

Research exploring the relationship between social networking sites and the Dark Triad is still in its infancy, and as Fox says, it’s a treadmill, because of how rapidly new platforms develop and old ones evolve. But studying the connection between social media and the Dark Triad is promising as it moves the conversation past narcissism. 

In June, after months of media coverage connecting McGee’s speeding to Snapchat, police charged the teen with serious injury by vehicle, a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Conteh, Rosmond, and Lonina, all under 21 years old like McGee, are facing charges that carry maximum prison sentences ranging from five to 40 years. 

Meanwhile, Snapchat recently surpassed Twitter in daily active users, boasting over 150 million, and Periscope, which launched a little more than a year ago, announced this spring that it had exceeded 200 million broadcasts. 

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