What Trolls Are Doing to Our Politics, Our Culture... Our Brains

As one who writes cultural commentary and political news for a living, I'm often knee-deep in the churning world around me, obligated by virtue of my job description to pay attention, make note, keep fingers on various pulses of stories that often stir reaction and debate. Which means I'm privy to an inordinate amount of commentary from responding readers, to my pieces and those of others, and what I've learned is that online readers are some of the nastiest, negative, juvenile, poop-throwing participants in contemporary conversation you could possibly imagine. Offline readers might be, as well, but I don't hear from them. And certainly not all those reading online are bad, but the good ones tend to be a quieter bunch; the unfortunate majority are firmly and persistently in the Culture of no and, whether they know it or not, it's taking a toll on them and everything they touch.

In an article published in Psychology Today called "The Most Dangerous Word in the World," a case is made for the subtle and not-so-sublte changes to the brain that occur when that brain's owner focuses on the word "no." Or, to extrapolate further, focuses on the negative, the half-empty, the angry, the critical. This is not just a matter of new-agey "watch where you direct the Universe," this is hard, cold, MRI-driven data and it bears our attention. From writers Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman:

If I were to put you into an fMRI scanner -- a huge donut-shaped magnet that can take a video of the neural changes happening in your brain -- and flash the word "no" for less than one second, you'd see a sudden release of dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters. These chemicals immediately interrupt the normal functioning of your brain, impairing logic, reason, language processing, and communication.

In fact, just seeing a list of negative words for a few seconds will make a highly anxious or depressed person feel worse, and the more you ruminate on them, the more you can actually damage key structures that regulate your memory, feelings, and emotions. You'll disrupt your sleep, your appetite, and your ability to experience long-term happiness and satisfaction. [... ]

Negative thinking is also self perpetuating, and the more you engage in negative dialogue -- at home or at work -- the more difficult it becomes to stop. But negative words, spoken with anger, do even more damage. They send alarm messages through the brain, interfering with the decision making centers in the frontal lobe, and this increases a person's propensity to act irrationally.

That last paragraph pretty much sums up the entire online commenting experience!

But let's think for a moment about "negative dialogue." On a societal level, particularly since the internet opened comment features under most offerings, negative dialogue has become the norm; the loud, persistent, often vicious norm of most online interaction. In fact, the degree of irrational response exchanged online is so high, so automatic, that one expects any article, no matter how logical, fact-based, positive, or even neutral, to be immediately ripped apart by trolls who seem bent on the task. Like well-trained pack dogs, marauders of mob mentality, this sub-culture pummels our societal dialogue with "no" in its every permutation, from insults and personal attacks, to snark, sarcasm and passive-aggressiveness; to outright threats and open hostility. Given what we've just read from Psychology Today, the question has to be asked: What is this doing to the brains of this growing and ever more vocal contingent? What is it doing to evolving (devolving) cultural discourse and interaction, fed by ever-more content of that ilk?

In truth, it's imbuing those brains and those activities with the exact sort of impaired, dysfunctional misfirings the good doctor described. Negativity begets more negativity and as we present more forums for this churning, bilious and constant commentary, the cumulative effect is toxic, creating a "bully" atmosphere with no room for authentic expressions of positive thought, certainly not without triggering a corresponding sucker punch designed to damage and denigrate.

Case in point: there is surely no one in their right mind who could find anything critical to say about Antoinette Tuff's astonishing talk-down of a would-be school shooter in Georgia and yet, upon hearing that President Obama called to thank her for her quick thinking and compassionate, life-saving intervention, commenters rose in an uproar to snark about the event, denouncing the President for not calling Chris Lane's family (the Australian athlete shot by "bored" teenagers) in an attempt to suggest reverse racism. Even the media chimed in, with criticism of what Obama hadn't done rather than commending him for taking the time to call a woman who'd done something extraordinary.

But that's just one incident; the list is truly endless. Frankly, online trolls have become perfect tools for politicians, willing puppets ready to parrot those to whom they're loyal, happy to do the dirty work of ripping into opponents as instructed, tacitly or otherwise. No one on the dais even needs to get their hands dirty.

But as the PT piece points out, the more one traffics in negative thought and expression, the more a 'neural propensity" for negativity grows. Meaning, the more one sits at a computer spewing savage, hateful criticism, the more one translates life through the filter of hostility and personal attacks, the more one builds brain pathways toward greater and greater negativity. In fact, as online commenters, media pundits and politicians have grown uglier and more malicious, the more the bar seems to have moved, making "ugly" more accepted, more accessible. People read, hear, watch, and -- in the case of trolls -- spew ugly every day and the neural pathways of our "cultural brain" are responding in kind. That can be no small reason why we are sprouting more hate groups (many of them post-Obama race-hate organizations), dealing with more sexism and abuse in both civilian and military life; why we have George Zimmermans, corrupt politicians, race baiters and boys shooting strangers out of boredom. Why we're creating a civic culture in which conspiracy theories, paranoia, fear and nihilism reign over any kind of productive collaboration and activism.

But what do we do? Do we ignore them? Push back? Engage and debate? Speak louder? I don't know... I'm still figuring it out. I do know, despite publishers' encouragement to do so, I have, by and large, stopped engaging with commenters. The ugly can sour your soul and curdle your stomach and after reading the PT article, I'm all the more vigilant about preserving the health of my own brain activity! But I was delighted to read that our publisher here, Arianna Huffington, has come to many of the same conclusions and will be doing away with the anonymity of commenters, hopefully encouraging more civility as a result. I applaud the move.

Until then, I'll just keep doing what I do: encouraging those in my circle to find the positive, the hopeful, the "yes"; potentially inspiring activism and the pursuit of change while still pushing against the Great no. Maybe, if society turns against this bilious, brain-battering behavior, we'll ever-so-slowly advance to a less hate-filled, poop-throwing cultural community. Despite that distant, negative holler -- "Nah, that'll never happen" -- I maintain it would be delightful if it did.


Follow Lorraine Devon Wilke on Facebook, Twitter, Rock+Paper+Music, and Addicting Info; details and links to her other work at www.lorrainedevonwilke.com.