There are many types of people who have been demonised in the age of social media – computer users who take refuge in anonymity to post extreme or offensive views. Jamie Bartlett wanted to talk to the people behind the masks.
So begins a printed transcipt from a BBC radio program printed on BBC’s online Magazine. The piece, produced by Jamie Bartlett, is entitled, “Who are the people in the dark corners?”
Loosely, the extracted transcript is an expose of those nefarious internet denizens who live in the “shadows” of the digital realm (or the dark corners). In his investigation, Bartlett interviews three of those notorious, archetypal shadowy figures we ascribe to the underworld of the “dark” internet, cloaked in notorious, apocryphal mystery. It makes for more entertaining “investigative” reporting if you can exaggerate the dubious, legendary qualities of your subjects, however undeserved such infamy may prove.
In this story, Bartlett talks to Paul, an online anti-Muslim demagogue who the author vaguely terms a “neo-Nazi” in a preamble to the news segment. Paul is anonymously well-regarded in the nationalist, anti-Muslim world of the English Defense League’s cyber presence, but who turns out to be a retiring, unemployed keyboard jockey who avoids public displays of rallying around his cyber beliefs. Then, Bartlett describes Zack, a man in his 30’s who has cemented his formidable presence as an internet troll. Zack articulately sums up his trollhood: “[It’s] not about bullying people. It’s about unlocking situations, creating new scenarios, pushing boundaries, trying ideas out, calculating the best way to provoke a reaction.” Lastly, he speaks to Michael, a man in his 50’s who explains (rationalizes) his descent into the seedy world of child porn. Michael weakly explains how his fascination with child porn (which resulted in his being convicted of possessing 3,000 images of it on his computer) began “innocently” with his understandable and legal dabbling in adult porn. He explains how his devolution of porn interests gradually turned to younger subjects as internet pop-up ads slowly lulled him into that criminal netherworld.
Three figures from the dark corners of the internet.
Patently perverted, perverse and depraved, lurking behind the walls of the grand Main Street of the internet and all its shopping and parenting sites and culinary forums. It’s an homage to this “internet” that it is now old enough, established enough, to have finally matured into the civic conglomeration of humanity such that it now can house dilapidated nooks and crannies that are home the most vile and despicable among us. Just like anytown U.S.A.
Where the people live in corners, in the murky shadows; the people who anonymously usurp the anonymity of the internet for nefarious, destructive purposes.
As Bartlett reported, “There were two Pauls, and that allowed him to behave online in ways he wouldn’t have offline. This phenomenon was first spotted in 2001 by the psychologist John Suler. He called it the “online disinhibition effect”.
From behind a screen we don’t look at or even think about the people we communicate with, and so feel strangely free from the social mores, norms and rules that ordinarily govern our behaviour.”
As happens when we share the roadway with other drivers, hidden by anonymizing panes of auto glass and tint, the internet likewise saps us of literal, identifiable humanity, and in the process, creates pockets of darkness and mystery that increase the ominous secrecy of those lurking beyond our sight or comprehension. I found the Paul subject the most similar to what I picture this niche of the internet to represent. There is a swath of internet groups who, while not criminal or dangerous, still involve themselves in lines of belief and expression which much of society might consider dangerous by nature of its unpopular and blasphemous outspokenness about subjects best left unsaid. The ideas from this corner of the blogosphere can never be uttered in polite, modern society, yet, it observes that which most people do, in the privacy of their own guilty minds.
In many ways, I think it’s a bit “cool” to be part of this dark corner of the internet in that some of what I write would elicit revulsion from the keepers of socially conscious society, and anger from others who accept blindly this same society’s decree about how we should all think uniformly according to the social “script” of the day. I’m hardly the cutting edge trailblazer, nor do I pretend to be, but I like to believe I am part of that “swath” of darkness that respectable internet denizens tsk-tsk from the altar of misplaced moral superiority.
Ultimately, the internet, like automobiles on the roadway, shrouds strangers behind a blanket of dehumanization that allows you to appraise without really knowing that which you are appraising: one of the worst harbingers of tyranny any human can assume.
Bartlett concluded that ultimately, much of this conflict can be overcome if we could only relate to others on an intimate, face-to-face basis. But ultimately, the internet’s greatest horror is its faceless indifference.
“Technology is neither good nor bad,” Kranzberg’s First Law of Technology tells us, “but nor is it neutral.” The internet lowers barriers, making it easier to sate every curiosity, to make it less difficult to say and do things we wouldn’t in real life. Sometimes that allows us to explore deeply held desires, sometimes it stimulates behaviour that otherwise would have remained dormant. Often it’s somewhere in-between.
I’m not making excuses for these people. I’m aware of the misery they have caused, and that whatever the internet has allowed, in the end they are responsible for their actions and behaviour. Whether they know it or not, these people have caused devastation for others. And certainly there are far worse characters hiding online than these three, using the anonymity the net provides to destroy people’s lives.
But they aren’t always the evil demons you might imagine. It’s important to understand how people end up where they do, without condoning what they do. That may help us limit the damage they cause.
Most of the chief protagonists in my book I met online first, and offline second. I always liked them more in the real world. By removing the face-to-face aspect of human interaction, the internet dehumanises people, and our imagination often turns them into inflated monsters, more terrifying because they are in the shadows.
For me, at least, meeting them in person re-humanised complex, awkward, and usually annoyingly likeable people. Next time you come across a digital monster, remember there is a person behind the avatar, and he or she is unlikely to be how you imagine.