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EditorialsUp Front 10/17

Up Front 10/17

I looked up the definition of ‘internet troll’ recently, (people who post inflammatory or hateful comments online) after the Electoral Commission suggested that banning them from voting could help reduce the amount of abuse faced by politicians. The commission’s comments came after the Prime Minister had called for an enquiry over complaints by MPs about online death threats and harassment. Some MPs had called for an end to internet anonymity—a call popular with many people targeted by internet trolls. However, it’s likely that the idea of banning online anonymity is a non-starter and even if it were technically possible, there would be outrage in the name of free speech and freedom of expression. The ability to be hurtful without responsibility is here to stay for as long as the internet is—and besides, it exists outside the internet too and has done since people could send an unsigned letter or leave an anonymous phone message. Nevertheless, it is fair to say the problem has become substantially worse. Writing in the Telegraph this week, Tarang Chawla, whose sister was murdered in 2015, explained how unprepared he and his family were for the backlash of victim blaming that followed his sister’s death. They were the subject of threats and abuse as well as postings of hateful, sexist, and uninformed information. It is hard for most of us to understand what motivates someone to be so unkind and often the first thought is that the troll does not experience sympathy, let alone empathy. However, it appears that one type of empathy is part of the problem. In an Australian study on cyber trolls for the journal, Personality and Individual Differences, researchers pointed out that Cognitive Empathy—the ability to understand how someone will feel in certain situations—simply means that internet trolls have a form of empathy that helps them to know how to inflict pain. This is unlike Affective Empathy, where the depth of our understanding of other people’s pain and suffering physically and emotionally upsets us. The conclusion of the study is, that alongside their knowledge of what hurts people, internet trolls are also likely to display ‘psychopathy’ and ‘sadism’. No surprise there. I suspect politicians will always face abuse and banning internet trolls from voting is unlikely to help. But when it comes to vacuous, insensitive or hateful comments, on or offline, there are more important things deserving of our energy.

 

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