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The sociopaths of social media

Merriam-Webster defines a sociopath as a person suffering from Antisocial Personality Disorder. The A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia, in turn, describes Antisocial Personality Disorder as an “often criminal” mental health condition of unknown cause “in which a person has a long-term pattern of manipulating, exploiting, or violating the rights of others.” More practically, a sociopath is someone who can be charming, even engaging, while flattering and seemingly enjoying the company of others. He or she is, however, utterly unconcerned with others’ feelings. The sociopath is often arrogantly self-absorbed, prone to breaking the law whenever the mood strikes him or her and does not feel guilt or remorse for lies, thefts, or harm done to others. Sociopaths are also susceptible to substance abuse problems.

These days, “personality disorders” are what we call people’s negative personality traits. For example, no, your significant other isn’t a raving, irrational monster; he or she simply has Borderline Personality Disorder. No, your friend isn’t a timid, hyper-sensitive Nancy who can’t handle criticism and who weeps at even the faintest hint of failure; he or she is an Avoidant personality. Why, no, that guy you met online who does nothing but email pictures of his man-junk while posting Facebook and Twitter pictures of himself with his shirt off isn’t a vain, latently homosexual weirdo; he has NPD, which everyone knows means Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It’s not his fault.

You can choose to believe that cousin of yours has some form of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or you can choose to believe that he needs to be punched in the face until he stops insulting family members at reunions. The modern psychological and medical establishments seem ready, willing and more than able to excuse any number of character flaws as “diseases” or “disorders,” diagnosis of which implies a lack of responsibility on the part of the “sufferers.”

The modern, social media-connected world has done more than connect countless friends, family members and strangers with the many sociopaths in their midst. Arguably, connectivity through the Internet is generating more sociopaths, fostering this “disorder” and swelling the ranks of manipulative, remorseless miscreants throughout society.

A self-described sociopath from Brazil writes, “The Internet is powerful because it forces us to a much more subtle and interesting game over people. It’s the game of words, no facial expressions, no voice altering, no changing the way you carry yourself, just pure words creating havoc among our friends.”

You read that correctly. Not only are there entire online communities devoted to a twisted kind of fellowship among those who believe themselves sociopaths, but these people consider what they do a game played among “friends” whose purpose is to cause havoc. Implied in the Brazilian sociopath’s statement is also the fact that Internet sociopaths are self-centered and even self-obsessed, causing “havoc” because they enjoy the attention this confers (either directly or swirling around them as the locus of the social chaos they’ve created).

Internet lawyer Mike Young argues that the Internet isn’t creating sociopaths. “Instead,” he counters, “you see sick and twisted individuals using the Internet as another weapon to inflict pain on others. Being anonymous makes it easy. It’s easy to get into a flame war online with these types … and that’s a losing proposition because they thrive on it. You lose a little part of yourself when you tread in their world of irrationality.”

That, of course, brings us back to the Internet and social media. The more connected you are, the more connected you remain, the greater the possibility you will find yourself interacting with a sociopath. You’ll know the sociopath readily enough once you become enmeshed in an online argument with him or her. The one of you with a “personality disorder” will argue illogically and irrationally, lying at every possible opportunity and accuse you of every ill he or she commits.

Sociopaths are adept at projecting their flaws on others while manipulating the people around them through selective flattery and distortions of the truth. They will commit libel, slander and defamation; they will engage in criminal threats and legally actionable falsehoods without a second thought; they will attack your character; they will threaten the safety of your family; they will describe sexual and non-sexual violence against you.

And that’s just while they’re getting warmed up.

Internet sociopaths are so experienced in online manipulation that what they do is akin to extortion. The sociopath will hector, harass and harangue a victim until that victim grows weary of the conflict. Seeking peace, the victim may try to extend an olive branch, offering a kind of forced civility or simulated friendship. Our social media have already redefined “friend” as “someone with whom I have passing interests in common” or even “someone to whom I am ostensibly connected for some reason both of us have forgotten.” It isn’t too far a leap from this to “forgiving” the lies, threats and machinations of an online sociopath in the hope that befriending such a person will earn you a cessation of hostilities.

This is precisely what the sociopath wants. Once he has beaten you down and convinced you to be his “friend,” he will continue to sow havoc because he enjoys the reflected heat and light of flame wars. He basks in the glow of negative attention, perhaps even preferring it to the false positive attention his victims offer by way of appeasement.

We have all experienced this, even if we weren’t aware of it. Every one of us who has had an argument online has argued with a sociopath. We see evidence of their shirtless vanity, their duck-faced “selfies,” their center-of-the-universe status updates every day. We have endured their threats and calls to violence. We have absorbed their lies. We have watched them manipulate those around us. We have cursed their irrationality even as we sought in vain to explain it in rational terms.

Amoral behavior has no moral explanation. You won’t find one. Acknowledge the existence of Internet sociopaths – and tread carefully through the online seas in which they swim.