Trolling & Pathocracy

Kathy Sierra was recently driven offline by harassment and death threats for a second time. Last week she wrote a full account of what happened, so I won’t try to summarize it all here. One part of Kathy’s statement stood out to me for other reasons, though. Kathy had previously introduced the idea of “the Koolaid Point.”

My wildly non-scientific theory was this: the most vocal trolling and “hate” for a brand kicks in HARD once a critical mass of brand fans/users are thought to have “drunk the Koolaid”. In other words, the hate wasn’t so much about the product/brand but that other people were falling for it.

For these rounds of misogynistic threats and harassment that we’ve seen over the past few years, the “Koolaid” seems to be nothing more than the idea that women can be developers, or designers, or even just have opinions about computer games. When someone appears to have a following, they become a target. Kathy explains what you can do once you become a target for this sort of harassment:

If you’ve already hit the Koolaid Piont, you usually have just three choices:
1. leave (They Win)
2. ignore them (they escalate, make your life more miserable, DDoS, ruin your career, etc. i.e. They Win)
3. fight back (If you’ve already hit the Koolaid Point, see option #2. They Win).

This came out not very long after a paper in Personality & Individual Differences by Erin Buckels, Paul Trapnell, and Delroy Paulhus titled “Trolls just want to have fun” had made the rounds on news sites and social media. Most of these had over-stated the paper’s claims, saying that internet trolls are sadistic, Machiavellian psychopaths. The paper noted that the enjoyment of trolling correlated with the “Dark Triad” of personality traits (sadism, psychopathy, and Machiavellian behavior), especially sadism. This is a far cry from actually diagnosing a person as a psychopath, and we should be careful to mind that distinction, but the paper does support our common intuition that there is a sadistic and even psychopathic element to the sort of trolling that Kathy’s talking about.

Psychopaths are defined first and foremost by a “shallow affect.” They are not without emotion, but the intensity of their emotions seems blunted. This includes moral feeling or conscience, as well as empathy, leading to the sort of amoral behavior we associate with the term. It also leads to the risk-seeking behaviors often seen in psychopaths. They become desperate to feel something, so they seek out the most intense feelings possible. Often psychopaths speak with contempt about “normal” people, who they tend to see as inferior because they are restrainted by irrational impulses like empathy or conscience.

Polish psychiatrist Andrzej Łobaczewski fought for the Polish Home Army during World War II, and later lived under the Communist regime. This experience turned his attention to psychopaths and their influence on society. Psychopaths show an incredible talent for climbing social hierarchies, which can allow their influence on society to greatly outweigh their small numbers. For example, psychopaths are far more common among CEO’s than the population at large. Łobaczewski called his body of theory “political ponerology,” studying how psychopaths form society in their own image, which he called a “pathocracy.”

Pathocracy doesn’t mean that everyone involved is a psychopath, but it does mean that it is structured in such a way that psychopathic behavior is rewarded. While Łobaczewski focused on relatively short-term processes of ponerogenesis, it seems to me that the moment that you accept a hierarchical society that you have set ponerogensis in motion. After all, psychopaths climb social hierarchies more adroitly than the rest of us, and from the top, how could they avoid using their influence to change things in ways that make the most sense to them?

I was reminded of this as I read Kathy’s account. Of course the trolls always win. We’ve turned the internet into the latest manifestation of pathocracy. The trolls involved may or may not be psychopaths themselves. That is largely immaterial. We have created a system that rewards psychopathic behavior, so whether we’re psychopaths ourselves or not, we’re still stuck playing a game by the psychopaths’ rules.

I don’t know what we do with this. I don’t think it’s a problem with Twitter, or blogs, or even the Internet itself. It might be a problem we find on the Internet because the Internet is part of the larger pathocracy of our society.