Cybermen, The Colorado Tragedy, and the Sociopath in the Comment Thread: Don't Add to the Crazy

We still know nothing of the motives of the demented gunman who perpetrated the horrors at the screening of The Dark Knight Rises on Thursday night—and my heart goes out to the victims of that tragedy.

But I think it’s important to note that earlier that day, the Rotten Tomatoes movie review site had to disable comments on the film The Dark Knight Rises because of death threats against movie reviewers who hadn’t loved the film.

Yeah. Death threats. Over reviews. People got so heated in the comment thread they were threatening to kill reviewers of a film they’d never even seen.

Mob behavior is always dangerous, but mobs form more easily out here in Cyberia. When they spill over into real life, real tragedy happens.

I’m not saying there was a cause and effect situation with the Rotten Tomato Dark Knight Rises death threats and the horrific event in Colorado, but in a larger sense they are linked. The guy didn’t choose to attack the audience at a screening of Magic Mike or Ted.

Violent acts are usually preceded by violent talk. And there’s an awful lot of it these days.

Since I’ve been urging new authors to become active in social media, I think it’s important to mention something about its perils. When I started interacting online a few years ago, I seriously didn’t have a clue about the evils that lurk in the dark corners of the Interwebz.  

They are many. With the anonymity afforded by the Webz, people say things they’d never say in person.  Especially if they’re using a “screen name” or posting as anonymice.  (Radio host Dave Congalton had a great discussion about the dangers of anonymous comments on his show on July 17th. You can listen to a podcast here.)

For some the Web is the opposite of “Cheers”—it’s a place where nobody knows your name. Anonymous posters may feel as if they’re wearing cloaks of invisibility, and can do whatever comes into their heads and never suffer consequences because its’ “not real.” (Another reason I urge writers to use their own names in all their online activity.)

Anonymous posters may perceive the others they interact with as “invisible” too—after all, a series of digits is not a person. They forget those digits represent actual human beings with real feelings.  

They can also represent real sociopaths.

In her bestselling self-help book, The Sociopath Next Door, Dr. Martha Stout says that one in every twenty-five people fits the DSM criteria for “anti-social disorder” –people defined as “sociopaths.”  These are people who have no conscience and no capacity for empathy.

That means in every comment thread or forum with more than twenty-five entries, a sociopath could be lurking. Your hyperbolic comment or snarky post may be taken literally by a demented person—which can lead to tragedy.  

So we need to weigh our words and check our facts just as carefully online as we do when we’re speaking in person.

Also, the anonymity of the Webz can make perfectly nice, sane people suspend their own empathy when they get riled into thinking they’re supporting a just cause, dissing a “public figure” and/or defending one of their own.

People will stop by a forum or a blog, let an incendiary remark spark their rage--and suddenly they’re part of an army of socipathic Cybermen bent on destroying everything in their path.

I’ve been swept up in some Cybermen armies myself, which I regret deeply. (For the non-Whovians out there, Cybermen are a fictional army of villainous cyborgs from the TV show Dr. Who.  They have human brains, but no emotions aside from the occasional bout of rage.) 

Some of my own Cyberperson behavior happened when I let myself go along with the crowd in a blog thread and didn’t check facts. Other times I got involved when I jumped in to defend someone.

Unfortunately, whatever our intentions, if we’re swimming in the cesspool, we’re part of the stink.

Sometime last year I saw a blogpost about an author who is one of my idols. He was accused of “unethical” behavior by a self-appointed group of amateur “literary police” who seem to be remarkably unschooled in the business of publishing. Dozens joined in the comment thread, each in higher dudgeon than the one before.

The result was a dogpile of stupid and nasty. A mass temper-tantrum. It made me furious. So I pounded off a comment to defend my hero.

Trouble was, I was so angry, I hit enter too soon and my comment sounded as if I was agreeing with the meanies.  

I got an email a moment later from my idol. It said “Et tu, Anne?”

I don’t know when I have felt like such a worm. I went back to the post and tried to clear up what I had said, but the damage was done. The classy writer forgave me, but I didn’t really forgive myself.

A few months later I personally became the target of the same literary Cybermen army. Their rage had been sparked by posts and tweets by a few people who misinterpreted one of my pieces on this blog.

I endured a similar dogpiling of hate and self-righteous rage—almost all anonymous.

Including actual death threats sent to my home by people who said they were "watching me" and "had a gun."

This week I was introduced to one of the bloggers who had dissed me. She had no inkling of the tsunami of crazy she had unleashed. She’d simply meant to be snarky and funny and had believed the voices of “righteousness” who accused me of some sort of deviousness I hardly understood.

UPDATE: here's an absolutely awesome graphic by author Dalya Moon in response to this post. Dalya, you're my hero!

It’s important to remember we judge others by what we know. A kind and truthful person expects kindness and truth from others; a manipulator sees deviousness behind every smile; and a sociopath will project the contents of his own damaged soul onto the entire population. That means when you habitually accuse others, you’re saying more about yourself than you are about the people you accuse.

Luckily the snarky blogger turned out to be a kind and truthful person who had expected her sources to be the same. She apologized sweetly and publicly and I’m sure we’re going to be friends.

But unfortunately, words can’t be unsaid. I have to stay away from the places where the anonymous Cybermen army lurks.  A lot of writers’ forums are off limits for me, because any mention of my name lets loose the verbal violence.

True sociopaths don’t mind being seen as evil—they’re usually pretty proud of it. But their Cybermen minions are convinced of their own righteousness, which justifies everything they do, no matter how cruel. They are not rational, so trying to reason with them is futile. They explode in rage when you show kindness to one of their victims or ask them to “have a heart”—because they don’t. They have disabled their own capacity for empathy.

I once saw a thread on a news story about a man who’d murdered his two year old baby in its crib. An anonymous commenter said it served the child right for not carrying a gun. Yeah. I wish I’d known how to do a screenshot then, because it was hard to believe my own eyes. I almost fired off a comment like “have you ever MET a two-year-old?” Until I realized either the guy was being ironic, or he was acting like a two-year old himself. And as any parent (or even an aunt) knows, you do not argue with a two year old. You give him a time-out.

That was when I stopped reading comments on news stories. It’s where the Cybermen live.

But if you’re dealing with social media, eventually you’re going to run into Cybermen, anonymous sociopaths, and even some armed two-year olds.

Here are two things to remember when you’re dealing with an Internet meme of “righteous rage”.

1) Never join in a brawl.

Joining in a barroom brawl just makes it bigger. Either you’ll appear to be joining in the attack on the victim, or you’ll be offering yourself as an even juicier target. (And the sheriff is going to haul the whole tootin' lot of you off to the hoosegow. Go watch some old Western movies.)

2) The old adage is right: “Never argue with a drunk or a fool.”  

Of course I have no idea if the people making death threats on Rotten Tomatoes—or the armed two-year-old—were consuming alcohol, but they were drunk: on rage. So are the Cybermen armies. Psychologists who specialize in anger management say that anger can flood the brain with endorphins very like the high of alcohol or cocaine. 

One in every 25 people may be a sociopath, but I’d say that here in Cyberia, even more than that will engage in sociopathic behavior. Certainly the people who attacked me (and my idol) didn’t show a shred of empathy.

I would urge everybody who interacts online to weigh your words as heavily as you would if speaking in person—because you’re closer to the “real world” than you think. 

And if you see a dogpile of crazy heaping on some designated victim—whether it’s a reviewer, fellow writer, or even someone who's "fair game" like a celebrity or a politician—take a deep breath, step away from the keyboard and repeat the Golden Rule. 

If you have turned into an empathy-free Cyberperson, and you don't believe that “others” deserve the same respect you want for yourself, get off the Internet. Go hang out with some real people in the real world. Or pet a real dog.

You aren’t actually a sociopath—remember? Your actions have consequences, even if you feel invisible.  

What happened on Thursday night shows that we live in a world full of unspeakable violence.

Don’t let yourself add to it, online or off.

I’d love to have you weigh in here, scriveners. Let’s try to keep political and incendiary statements out, lest we activate an army of sociopathic Cybermen


On a much happier note: I have a spectacular announcement.  On August 5th, we will have a very, very special guest on this blog.  Academy Award-nominated actor Terence Stamp, who is also a novelist and memoirist, will be here talking about his writing process and his new publishing company.

You know how I’m always talking about the importance of Social Media? Well here’s an example. An iconic movie star has asked to visit the blog of little old moi because here in the e-age, blogs can be as important as The New York Times in reaching the public.

See why you need to have a blog searchable by your own name, with your contact information displayed prominently?  

Also: I've been making a few little tweaks to the template here, since some readers have pointed out the font and links have been a little hard to read. So I changed fonts and darkened the link color. Let me know what you think!

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