Friday, May 31, 2019

David Brooks Plagiarism Watch: On Trolls

Troll by Nicola Robinson, 2014, seen as a personification of change in midlife,

Not a lot of obviously objectionable material in today's David Brooks ("When Trolls and Crybullies Rule the Earth"), bringing together the ghost of a pretty interesting idea on the cultural consequences of the shift from privately consumed print media to group-absorbed online media with the observation that there are a lot of unnecessarily mean guys on the Internet, which is true.

The interesting idea is from a theologian called L.M. Sacasas writing at an online journal called The New Atlantis riffing off a famous idea from the late Walter Ong, S.J., in his 1982 book Orality and Literacy, about the Renaissance-era universalizing shift from oral to print culture:
In oral cultures, communication happens almost exclusively in the presence of others. The speaker’s audience is always before the speaker; indeed, it is literally an audience, a gathering of those near enough to hear. This physical presence means, as Ong noted, that oral cultures were more agonistic than literate cultures. Mutual understanding and the search for knowledge are labors of face-to-face interaction, and labors that may arouse the passions. “By keeping knowledge embedded in the human lifeworld, orality situates knowledge within a context of struggle.”
Writing, on the other hand, “fosters abstractions that disengage knowledge from the arena where human beings struggle with one another.” Writing also abstracts the speaker from the audience, which therefore ceases to be literally an audience. The two are no longer present before one another. Communication tends to lose the heat of the moment.
The Internet, Sacasas suggests, restores something like the ancient presentness to communication:
When we type out our statuses, link to articles, post memes or images, we do so as if we were members of literate but pre-digital societies, for we are not present before all those who will encounter our messages. Yet, given the immediacy with which the messages arrive, we are in an important way now much closer to one another. We might say that we have an “audience” whose immediate presence is constituted in time rather than space.
Brooks, of course, begins by pretending to have gotten the Ong material out of his own reading, in paragraphs 1-3—

Over the past several years, teenage suicide rates have spiked horrifically. Depression rates are surging and America’s mental health over all is deteriorating. What’s going on?
My answer starts with technology but is really about the sort of consciousness online life induces.
When communication styles change, so do people. In 1982, the scholar Walter Ong described the way, centuries ago, a shift from an oral to a printed culture transformed human consciousness. Once, storytelling was a shared experience, with emphasis on proverb, parable and myth. With the onset of the printing press it become a more private experience, the content of that storytelling more realistic and linear.
—and then scuttles on in grafs 4-5 to Sacasas, like a hermit crab climbing into a new shell, as a vehicle for his own completely different claim ("I would say" meaning he's not going to tell us what Sacasas says or even show any awareness of what it is):
As L.M. Sacasas argues in the latest issue of The New Atlantis, the shift from printed to electronic communication is similarly consequential. I would say the big difference is this: Attention and affection have gone from being private bonds to being publicly traded goods.
That is, up until recently most of the attention a person received came from family and friends and was pretty stable. But now most of the attention a person receives can come from far and wide and is tremendously volatile.
Chart via Wikipedia. While increasing suicide rates since the early 2000s are a matter of concern in all age groups, teen suicides are still far from the peak they hit in the early 90s; it's the 45-to-64s who can be said to have "spiked horrifically". David Brooks is 57, by the way, and has been getting much more attention from far and wide since he broke up with his family and, according to an obscure passage in The Second Mountain, friends.... 
...and it's not because of the Internet.

It's in the discussion of trolls that he gets to full-on plagiarism, when he writes that
Trolls bid for attention by trying to make others feel bad. Studies of people who troll find that they score high on measures of psychopathy, sadism and narcissism. Online media hasn’t made them vicious; they’re just vicious. Online has given them a platform to use viciousness to full effect.
Trolls also score high on cognitive empathy. Intellectually, they understand other people’s emotions and how to make them suffer. But they score low on affective empathy. They don’t feel others’ pain, so when they hurt you, they don’t care.
without telling us what studies he's referring to. I can say pretty positively that most of the findings are from the results of an Australian study by Natalie Sest and Evita March, "Constructing the cyber-troll: Psychopathy, sadism, and empathy", that appeared in Personality and Individual Differences, December 2017—

Trolling is an online antisocial behaviour with negative psychological outcomes.

Current study predicted trolling perpetration from gender and personality.

Trolls more likely to be male with high levels of trait psychopathy and sadism

Trolls have lower affective empathy, and psychopathy moderates cognitive empathy.

Results have implications for establishing education and prevention programs.
(he may have gotten the narcissism from Erin E. Buckels, Paul D. Trapnell, and Delroy L. Paulhus, "Trolls just want to have fun" from Personality and individual differences, September 2014, or maybe just made it up as convenient to his purpose).

But I don't know where Brooks lifted it from, other than that he doesn't want to tell us. My best guess is that it's Luke O'Brien's wonderful profile of the young Trump-lover Andrew Anglin, "The Making of an American Nazi" (The Atlantic, December 2017)—
In recent years, psychologists have found a powerful connection between trolling and what’s known as the “dark tetrad” of personality traits: psychopathy, sadism, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. The first two traits are significant predictors of trolling behavior, and all four traits correlate with enjoyment of trolling. Research published in June by Natalie Sest and Evita March, two Australian scholars, shows that trolls tend to be high in cognitive empathy, meaning they can understand emotional suffering in others, but low in affective empathy, meaning they don’t care about the pain they cause. They are, in short, skilled and ruthless manipulators.
Perhaps he doesn't want us to think about Trump's connections to Nazis, or "Machiavellianism" (which used to be one of his lectures in the Yale Grand Strategy course and he may have learned he doesn't know anything about it). Clearly he doesn't feel like Googling Sest and March. Any way around it, it's another case of true plagiarism.

I do like Sacasas's concept of the Internet as allowing a kind of return to some of the features of an oral-culture space, the presentness of everybody, and on the other side the dislocation of memory:
Under these conditions, the function of externalized memory shifts. It is no longer for recording the past or preserving knowledge, but now for acting in the present. Memory loses its context and story. It neither integrates a society, as the rituals of collective remembering in oral societies did, nor does it sustain an individual’s experience of the self, as writing did in the age of print. Memory, much of it highly personal, is “there,” but without the person necessarily remembering. This allows memory to become weaponized. It exists in massive and accessible databases, ready to be resurfaced, without context and without warning, in a newly contentious field of public discourse.
That's too pessimistic. Memory is also ready to be re-contextualized, rewoven out of the scraps the trolls make of it, collectively, like the work of a gossipy sewing bee, and the biggest thing is how democratized it is, available to all. In pre-print culture, memory was a monopoly of the ruling class, and the first democratization of the Gutenberg revolution was a colossal thing. Now that you don't even need a building with books in it, just a phone, it may be equally colossal. But it certainly has an integrating function, in the comments at Alicublog or on Twitter, where everybody's sharing, and nobody knows you're a dog, and no tyrant can tell you they know better if it's not true.

The Internet is really like a big old Irish bar where common culture is being created all the time, full of stories and music. Fights do break out, and bad people lurk, but it's also the locus for sharing, donating, spreading crucial information, showing affection, building communal stories. Except you never need to end up drunk or go home with somebody you're not married to. You'd think Brooks would love the communitarian aspect, but he can't handle what he sees as the aggression. What it really is is the threat to his own status as a wizard in the print world, that's getting lost, as everybody learns what a fool he is.

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