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The Devil Lives on Social Media
No, I am not joking.
Yes, I mean literally.
SOMETIMES IT IS EASY to think that social media platforms bring out our worst impulses. A quick scan of any Comments Section reminds one of the Internet's bane—trolls. If only they did not exist, then social media would be "good."
But what if it is not trolls who make social media bad? What if social media platforms are bad because social media is trolling? And it always has been? What if, even though our society enjoys entertaining the idea that most people on social media are having pleasant interactions, that that is actually not the case at all, and that most people are trolling? YougovAmerica.com recently took a poll determining that only 28% of online users admit to trolling. And yet, complaints abound about the Internet being a very negative and unsafe space, to the tune of 64% of Americans saying that social media have a mostly negative effect on the way things are going in the U.S. today.
So why the gap between 28% troll activity and 64% of Americans thinking social media platforms have a negative effect? One explanation could be the different ways generations use the Internet. The YouGovAmerica article also found that Millennials (ages 30–49, roughly) were twice as likely to engage in malicious online activity than those 55 and older: Gen-Xers (50–64) and Boomers (65+). And the Pew Research Center has found that roughly 83% of Millennials and Gen-Zers (18–29) use social media sites while only 60% of Gen-Xers and Boomers do the same. This makes sense, since Millennials were the first generation to have access to social media during their formative years. So now the reason for the gap gets a little clearer. If only 28% of users troll, but more than half of those are Millennials and Gen-Zers, and Millennials and Gen-Zers go online more often than Boomers and Gen-Xers, then you can see why people might seem to experience trolling more than 28% of the time they go online. Research into online behavior has recently revealed that the problem is less that there are Internet trolls per se, and more that random people at times tend to engage in Internet trolling. The most progressive research is acknowledging that a "troll" is less a noun for a subset of people who are, than a verb that people do.
But why do people troll online more than in person? The most commonly mentioned reason is anonymity. People feel more emboldened to do nasty behavior if they know no one will find out it was them. There is a noted psychological study about this that tried to explain malicious anonymous behavior. The study allowed people to give other people electrical shocks, and the study found that those shocks lasted longer if the people giving the shocks were disguised.
But the follow-up question is this: Why do people want to cause strangers harm? Psychologists labeled this term sadistic personality disorder but, again, conservative psychologists tended to want to identify certain people as sadists rather than acknowledge that people that they would otherwise diagnose as mentally sound sometimes practiced sadistic acts. But what if, in fact, there are actually fewer clinical "sadists" out there than there are people engaging in random acts of sadistic behavior? What if the online space presents a forum in which people who would not typically be diagnosed as "sadistic" engage in sadistic behavior because they know there is no chance of them suffering the social stigma of "someone finding out?"
And what if—and this is the crux of this essay—what if for the generation who grew up with the Internet, the online space has become the place where they intentionally go to engage in malicious behavior that they would not engage in IRL? to "exorcise their demons," in a manner of speaking? What if ghosting and cyberbullying and trolling are ways for some people to play-act in a naughty context without the repercussions of real-world consequences? What if that is what the Internet has become for them? acts of vile behavior that thirty-year-olds try on and then toss off once they log out? I am not saying this is the case, but if that is what the Internet has become, then it has literally become Hell.
I am not joking about this. Merriam-Websters defines hell as "a nether world in which the dead continue to exist," a realm inhabited by "the devil and the demons in which the damned suffer everlasting punishment." [Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Ed. (Springfield: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2020), p. 578]
How is that not social media in 2022?
Forget associating Hell with an actual physical place full of brimstone and fire. It is a "nether world," a world beneath the one we inhabit daily. Not a physical space, but certainly just as real as one. Is that not a fitting description of virtual reality?
And what of this claim that Hell houses the dead? Not so with the Internet, you might say. Especially so with the Internet, I would say. Even though the dead do not engage currently on social media, the words of anyone who has ever said anything on social media have never gone away. They are still there, somewhere, waiting to be read, ready to toss new loads of vitriol off at someone who finds it. The Internet is Hell because, unless it is inscribed in their estate plans, no one ever deletes the Tweets of the dead. The World Wide Web has been around since 1991. How many who used the Internet have died since 1991? Countless thousands. And were they only nice people? No. The dead do live on the Internet, probably in a far more impactful way than they live IRL, which is mostly in our hearts, memories, and pictures.
"Demons?" Trolls. But unlike our displaced imaginary, the demons who inhabit social media hell are not "evil spirits" that come from an ancient Greek belief in "supernatural beings," as Merriam-Webster's defines them (MWCD, p. 332). Today's real-life demons are us; or, rather, Us Online.
Are we "the damned?" Or do we damn ourselves when we log on?
And is it all "suffering?" To begin my research for this article, I entered the terms anonymous communication psychology negative impulses into an Internet search engine. But putting a term like negative in my search actually skews the type of data I was going to get, because it presupposed the conclusion of my story. The only way to get objective data would be to do another search and then this time replace negative with positive.
But strangely, I got roughly the same results. Most scholars actually already acknowledge and research both the positive and negative effects of social media. Among the most beneficial effects is a sense of security and privacy when going online, in knowing that whoever you speak to is not going to go off and physically attack you. This is an extremely powerful feeling for people who are used to feeling vulnerable, and this might be one of social media platforms' most significant draws—they are the great equalizer. On social media, no one is taller, bigger, stronger, or richer than you. Your emoji has the same social weight as all the other avatars you could have randomly chosen.
In addition, many young people credit the Internet for turning them on to life-changing social trends, empowering them with knowledge in a way they did not receive IRL. For many, the online engagement and organizing around climate change has created a life's passion. This also makes sense, since social media platforms now allow us to connect with causes and networks that otherwise it might have taken years, or never, to find. In addition to this, there are the millions who go on daily to both unconsciously and intentionally spread a positive tone and messaging on the Internet, simply because that is their life's mantra and ideology. They are in a silent war with Those Who Troll. These people refuse to stoop to the troll level but sometimes directly counter the negative comments. For these people, social media is a miraculous, life-changing technology that keeps you in contact with friends, loved ones, and potential contacts across great spans of physical distance. In the end, it is up to the resolve of people like this to save the Internet. It will depend on whether they refuse to bow down to a culture that somehow made mean snarkiness cool and instead continue to appeal to our better natures. Social media platforms could not be all suffering, because they empower many people in this way.
But is the empowerment limited to the virtual world? Does being social media savvy make you better prepared to deal with bullies in real life, who actually can cause you physical harm? One Gen Zer's Masters thesis found online found the opposite to be true, claiming that her generation was actually less adept at navigating social interactions. Despite this, the young scholar acknowledges that for her generation, the "world practically revolves around Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, YouTube, Tumblr, and many other social media platforms." And this makes sense for society's youngest, and therefore most vulnerable, demographic. Since no one is forced to deal with the threat of physical or economic oppression online, it might be natural for Gen Zers to grow an affinity for these spaces. Logging on becomes the sociological equivalent of saying "sticks and stones can break my bones (in real life), but words can never hurt me (online)." But this, as any psychologist can tell you, is an outright lie. Words can hurt you and, as anyone who has ever been psychologically or emotionally abused can tell you, it can take far longer to heal from mental wounds than from physical ones.
"Everlasting?" Nothing is ever truly gone on the Internet.
"Punishment?" What are we punishing ourselves for? Our relentless assault on the environment? Our creation of nuclear weapons? Our mistreatment of animals? Our mistreatment of ourselves through racism, sexism, and homophobia? Are we so mad at the mess we have created of the world that we have actually created a virtual world where we can go and scold ourselves without anyone knowing?
Merriam-Webster's defines the Devil as "the ruler of hell." (MWCD, p. 342)
If you were the Devil, alive today, where would you make your realm? A lake of fire? Look at the potential of living in a metaphysical communication realm people reserve for their worst impulses, where the demons are invisible, and where the echoes of the dead haunt the living.
If the Devil did not exist before 1991, I believe it is possible that we might have created one. But it does not have pointy ears or a tail. It is not even a white man, like Malcolm used to say. Instead, the Devil is composed of megabytes, and he rules over a realm of ones and zeroes; one humans regularly dip into and out of while riding on the subway. That is this modern world.
But it does not have to stay this way. We can maintain the same level of decorum online that we do in real life. The follow-up question is this: Does God live on social media as well?
Well . . . yes. But God does not use the same arsenal as the Devil, eschewing deception and the shadows. Instead, God asks the Devil to come out into the open to fight, directly countering online culture with a new culture of fearless interaction. Or, at least interaction in which people care less about the scrutiny of strangers. That is possibly how the Internet Revolution will come, when trolling is simply met with boredom and ridicule. Demons only have the power we give them.
It does not have to be the way it is now. It just takes will power and personal accountability to change the world, virtual or no. Are these minerals too rare in the modern world?
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I have a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from UCLA, a Master of Arts in History from Cal State University--Los Angeles, and a Doctor of Philosophy in African Diaspora History from Indiana University. I spent nine years as a public school teacher first in East New York, Brooklyn, and then in South and East Los Angeles.
My dissertation topic was on slave resistance, as well as the construction of race. Although I am considered a resistance scholar, I am primarily interested in creating community dedicated to effecting global change through the promotion of justice and freedom for all living things. So I consider myself a "freedom scholar."
I am originally from Queens, New York, but I currently reside in Jacksonville, Florida, where I am the Assistant Professor of History at Edward Waters College, Florida's first HBCU.
Profile Pic: Kate Hallock
All other photos by: Ronnda Cargile Jamison
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