In the on-line world I call Cyberia, trolls, scammers and manipulators are making trouble and affecting most of our lives, like it or not. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, seems like a fundamentally decent human being. Still, even with his forward vantage on the Cyberian frontier, he was apparently quite naive about the “evil that lurks in the hearts of men.” In the story A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess describes a violent dystopian subculture influenced with memes targeted at disaffected youth by Slavic psycho-warriors whose purpose was to sow seeds of chaos and disorder in Western society. I think somebody in Russia must have read Burgess’s book and said, “Hey, we could do that!” Well, how does that work?
A realistic description of today’s virtual environment includes Imps, Trolls, and Ogres – a nice Norse hierarchy of heinous villains. Most of the tawdry comments currently imputed to Trolls are actually posted by Imps. In the story The Imp of the Perverse, Edgar Allen Poe wrote about that voice in the back of your head that councils rash, selfish, hurtful, idiotic actions. Imps are thoughtless, malicious, multitudinous and repetitious. But they don’t create content. Trolls do that, then they send their menu of mendacious memes to a willing army of cyber-jerks.
Trolls are creative, but they couldn’t reach the Imps if they didn’t have some real strategy and backing behind them. This is where the Ogres encourage the world of “A Clockwork Orange.” The Ogres organize the Trolls to infect Imps with resentment, fear, entitlement, greed, violence and bad behavior in general. Chaos ensues. There are a variety of Ogres, ranging from Saudi Princes to your least-favorite news outlet. But let’s look at the Russian troll farms to see how it works. Vladimir and his buddies are the Ogres and we know that their intentions are no good. They start a Troll Farm in Leningrad where the Trolls sow their dragon teeth across Cyberia. The Imps pick them up and plant them. Does it work? Last year, during election season, hundreds of thousands of Imps in the Lone Star State “friended” and repeated a Russian meme encouraging Texas secession. Hell yes it works.
Why does it work? As simians not long removed from the saber-tooth infested savannas, we react to fear on a biological level. Whoever effectively stimulates our biological responses has first dibs on our attention. Americans, as purported devotees of the revolutionary Age of Reason, flatter ourselves that we are beyond such simplistic response to stimulus. We decry, for example, mud-slinging political campaigns. But face it, the loudest monkey in the tallest tree still gets the first banana. Whatever merits he might garland as a judge, primatologists would have noted Brett Kavanaugh’s figurative chest pounding in front of the Senate as a common chimpanzee male dominance display. They would also recognize the submissive way the committee snuffled and bowed. Primate Behavior 101.
What can be done? Monopolies and tyrannies have their answers. Are there other answers? Here’s my suggestion. When something burns you, don’t clap back. Instead, raise a mental warning flag, take a deep breath, and consider whether what the Old Cowboy said still pertains: “Never approach a bull from the front, a mule from the rear, or a fool from any direction.” Don’t automatically repeat whatever “talking points” the Imps are mindlessly yawping. Quoting the Old Cowboy again, “If you treat a horse mean, don’t be surprised if he learns his lesson.” And Imps, and all they represent are, by definition, mean. Don’t go there.
You have Better Angels, too, and they are your only real defense against the Imps, Trolls, and Ogres of Cyberia. I don’t know what your Better Angels might tell you. They’re a different bunch from mine. But I’ll tell you this. Obey your Better Angels and you will probably be a happier person. This can be a tough nut to crack for young Cyberians since reasoned decision-making is the last brain function to mature. But really, anyone can do it with some self-awareness, a little discipline, and maybe your help. It’s a simple choice – Better Angel or Imp of the Perverse. Your call.