Cyber bullying and anti-social online behaviours have been making headlines more and more recently, with the ever-increasing integration of the internet into our daily lives it’s hardly unexpected. Paul Bernal took to the stage at New Scientist Live this year to give what I assumed at first to be an analysis of human behaviors online and how big a bunch of bastards we really are, but instead the talk he gave was very different and exceptionally difficult to argue with.

Anti-social behavior has undoubtedly existed ever since the early days of human evolution. Since we began to be capable of coherent thought and developed verbal communications we’ve almost definitely been hostile towards our fellow individuals. As our means of communication developed and we began to formulate written words we’ve just increased the number of ways we can spread malicious rumors and out-right lies about others. Hostility is nothing new, and honestly, neither is anti-social behavior.

“Fake News” and “Trolling” have been discussed at great length by many people in many different forums, all reaching the conclusion that they are overly negative and a detriment to human society, hell even human psychology. Rates of depression amongst younger generations are at an all-time high and this can easily be attributed to the exposure to online bullying, but is social media being used in a way other than that which it was intended?

Well… honestly no, not really. It’s just another written form of communication, that’s able to reach millions of people instantaneously; Instead of more “archaic” forms of media such as the newspaper or other earlier forms of communication. An example was given in the form of Vlad The Impaler. Vlad was definitely not that great of a person, but was he as bad as everyone perceives him to be? Possibly not, Vlad’s reputation could be a result of an early form of “fake news” where malicious rumors were circulated via a pamphlet designed and printed onto paper then circulated amongst the populous by Vlad’s numerous enemies.

New Scientist Live 2018: Anti-Social Media with Paul Bernal - n3rdabl3
Was he really that bad?

Of course, poor Vlad is not the only example of this, there are notable cases such as Cardinal Mazarin, who was the subject of many Bard’s tales about him, painting him in none too pleasant a light. Theodore Fontaine was known as a foreign correspondent for German newspapers; He wrote a story talking about a fire in London with vivid details as though he was there, despite having not left Germany at the time of the event. “Fake News” is certainly nothing new, and neither is trolling or the malicious circulation of false information in order to slander someone’s character.

The concept of Emotional Contagion comes into play. Emotional Contagion is the idea that people will begin to mimic their peer’s emotional states due to proximity and exposure unconsciously. These can be applied to online interactions as well, so it stands to reason that if one person is subjected to negative actions online, then those they interact with will pick up on those emotions and responses, adopting them themselves. A study into this concept was conducted by manipulating individual’s Facebook feeds; Participants feeds were either filled with emotionally charged posts and date or suppressed in order to evaluate the amount of time spent viewing it.

The results showed that people spent longer viewing the emotionally charged content rather than the duller suppressed feeds of information. These findings should come as no surprise to anyone, after all, we much prefer watching or reading something that evokes an emotional response. This information has been adapted by media companies in order to help develop targeted adverts for the user, filling their content with more of the stuff they like to see, suppressing everything else.

What is genuinely quite terrifying however is the fact that “fake news” pieces are often found to be more widely believed than the actual facts. We humans have a terrible habit of seeking out information to support our own arguments and then discarding everything else. This often leads to information being taken hilariously out of context, and due to the whole Chinese Whispers effect, it becomes so distorted and removed from what it once was it spews misinformation all over the place. Once an idea or piece of information begins to spread it’s discouragingly difficult to get people to believe the actual facts when everyone, everywhere has told a different story.

New Scientist Live 2018: Anti-Social Media with Paul Bernal - n3rdabl3

Information and date received and viewed in this way has a nasty tendency to generate polarisation. Just look at the whole “Vaccines cause autism” debacle, to call it a debate would be nothing short of ludicrous as this should never have become a topic for debate in the first place. However this is the world we live in, you’re either for vaccines and their life-saving benefits or you’re against them because of their completely unfounded effect on developing children. There was ONE paper written by Wakefield AJ et al, that allegedly found a link between early stage vaccinations and the development of autistic traits in later life. We are unable to provide a direct link to this paper as it has since been retracted.

That one study exploded across media platforms and lead to a mass hysteria of people believing that if you vaccinate your children they will definitely develop autism at a later stage in life. The fact that the author of that study has since had their medical license revoked and doctors and professionals from all over the world have repeatedly published papers and articles disproving their findings remains completely overlooked. People seek only to justify their positions and arguments rather than the truth behind their actions. Why people wish to believe that vaccines harm their children and put their lives at risk is beyond me, but hey, it’s their kid’s funeral.

The question is, what can we do about fake news? How do we solve it? Many solutions have been prevented and many have failed. With something like this I don’t believe there ever will be a way to solve it, fake news has been around for millennia and will likely continue to do so. It will adapt and evolve as our forms of sharing information develop, like an unstoppable juggernaut of bullshit.

Many sites have attempted to identify and flag unvalidated and false news posts and stories. However, they found this approach to be counterproductive, as humans are pretty dumb and we’re a curious bunch; we often want to know what the lie is. Where media has been flagged as false, there was actually an observable increase in people clicking and accessing the information. Is this part of human curiosity or more of a conspiratorial streak where we wonder what it is they don’t want us to see? Although thinking like that inevitably leads to bullshit movements such as The Flat Earth Society…stars know how those clowns got any traction but whatever floats their boats I guess!

Other approaches included that of blocking “fake news” sites, but this system could be heavily abused by users, leading to verifiable and actual news sources being reported and blocked by those ever so hilarious trolls (we’re getting to them soon don’t worry). The other issue is that they’re often fighting a losing battle, for every one post that is blocked and taken down there are another 5 waiting to take its place. Combating such a force isn’t just impossible but it’s nonsensical too! There’s no clear way to win and every attempt either has the opposite effect or is just pissing into the wind. “Fake News” is not something that can be suppressed or beaten and thanks to the flaws of the human psyche, it seems like we don’t even want it to be stopped.

So what about Trolling? What’s the deal there? Trolling is the “art” of purposefully rustling someone’s jimmies in order to get a reaction, often making wildly inaccurate and over exaggerated claims or statements. This is the bait, and the “fish” is whichever poor schmuck rises to it and responds. There’s no reasoning with a Troll, they exist simply to piss you off, the only way to render them impotent (which they probably already are) is to ignore them, something they’re masters at getting you not to do. Hell just look at the Flat Earth Society, admittedly they’ve gone a little too far but what started out as an elaborate joke is now somehow being taken somewhat seriously. At least, I hope it was a joke.

New Scientist Live 2018: Anti-Social Media with Paul Bernal - n3rdabl3

Trolling has had some pretty serious consequences and some pretty insane headlines and cases. There was a whole “SWAT-ing” thing where Twitch viewers would get a SWAT team to raid streamers houses live on air, with “hilarious” consequences. Brenda Leyland is possibly the best worst example of trolling, where a woman who claimed that Madeline McCann (it’s a whole big thing but long story short kid goes missing while in Portugal, parents probably killed her and covered it up) was dead. This caused a huge media backlash and the woman was harassed incessantly for two days before committing suicide.

Trolls are bad, mmmkay? The above is an extreme case but it’s by no means an isolated incident. The worst part is that it wasn’t even internet trolling, it was the freaking mainstream media that caused the whole thing. They’re meant to be the good guys, although as we’ve already seen that’s not true in the slightest and journalistic integrity doesn’t seem to mean dick nowadays.

Trolls hound their victims relentlessly, piling on the pressure by involving their friends and “allies” along the way. Milo Yiannopolous is another famous case of trolling where he attacked the Ghostbusters reboot movie. Let’s be honest, the movie wasn’t great but that’s not an excuse. The abuse thrown around was so intense it caused some people involved to delete their accounts for a time. Nothing unheard of but it’s still pretty disgusting behavior.

New Scientist Live 2018: Anti-Social Media with Paul Bernal - n3rdabl3
It wasn’t great but people went over the top

The issue is that this isn’t technically a misuse of the platform. The internet has enabled people to voice their opinions the world over, reaching larger and larger audiences. It’s a numbers game really, more people are going to see what you’re saying and inevitably have an issue with it, or they’re going to needlessly be a dick about it, it’s a sad fact of the matter really. People are pretty terrible people most of the time and giving them more ways to talk shit about people is only making the matter worse.

So, how do we combat trolls and their nasty trolling habits? Many methods have been proposed and attempted with little to no positive results. Taking a leaf out of the South Park plot book there was an attempt to reduce trolling by sharing users real names, however this had huge implications for new users and somewhat surprisingly it had the opposite effect; People operating under their own names seemed to become more venomous and hateful in their comments rather than timider and toning it back.

Others have attempted to place the trolls under surveillance but they’re wily bastards and able to slip the net pretty easily. Almost as if they’ve been practicing. More widely though there have been calls to improve the platforms themselves, but this comes with a range of issues that the trolls twist back on their victims. Abuse reporting systems are pretty standard for a lot of social media services, however, enhancing the reporting system also allows the trolls to use this feature to report their victims for anti-social behavior just as much as their victims can report them.

Then comes the idea of just outright banning the offenders, but again this comes with the issue of where do you draw the line? What do you classify as abusive behavior? Online “discussions” are often filled with colorful language and creative insults, but the majority of it is bullshit. Having grown up with the good old days of Xbox Live lobbies, I’ve heard my fair share of shit-talking, it’s all pretty harmless where people engaged in yelling as loudly as they could at the enemy team. It was competition spirit at its best and worst, but Trolls are an entirely different breed, taking things too far more often than not.

What it comes down to is weighing the pros and cons, do the pros of banning or abuse reporting and similar methods outweigh the cons from them? Ultimately though we need to accept that the internet is pretty flawed in this respect and people will always find a way to be absolute bastards, it’s what we do. Although it disagrees with most of my principles, perhaps we need to begin helping people to develop coping mechanisms rather than attempt to shield them from the assholes. It’s treating the symptoms and not the cause which I hate, but people are people, we will always be hate-filled meatsacks and trying to hide that is going to get us nowhere. Instead, we could help better equip people to deal with the detritus of humanity so that when they do encounter trolling then they are able to handle it rather than crumble under the pressure, after all, that’s what the Trolls want.

I am by no means saying that cyberbullying and “fake news” are good things, they are just fundamental flaws of the human condition. We would rather read some horror story that’s overblown fear-mongering bollocks than we would something that’s been peer-reviewed and finds its basis in solid scientific method. Humans are horrible and we spend much of our time spreading outright lies and slander about our fellow man to make ourselves look better by comparison. It’s not pretty and it’s not ideal, but sadly it’s like that and that’s the way it is. Trolling and “fake news” have existed as long as humans have been able to communicate and create cohesive thought, it’s evolved over time as our methods of communication and information sharing have changed. They are nothing new, they are just receiving more publicity in this age of information.

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