How the Internet Normalized Donald Trump and Broke American Politics

The distinction between the online world and real life is thinner than we imagine. So when comment trolls run rampant, our national discourse cannot help but be changed.

Mary Aiken:  So in Europe we’re fascinated with your election – Hillary and Trump. Goodness. And everybody that you talk to says well how is Trump being so successful? Why on earth are people tolerating sexist, racist, hate speech? And there’s a good answer for it. I wrote a piece recently for Time and I discussed why Trump is having the sort of success that he’s having at the moment. And it comes down to one thing. Trump is a troll that has jumped off the Internet and into the real world. And the reason that so many people are tolerant of his extreme statements, this name calling, this horrible, nasty, even sadistic behavior is because the online environment has normalized this type of behavior. In cyberpsychology we point out that what happens in the cyber world impacts on the real world. What happens in the real world impacts on the cyber world. And this is certainly true in terms of Trump’s behavior. There’s a great study titled "Trolls Just Want to Have Fun" and you should read it because it talks about the dark tetrad of personality. The study found that people who say that they like to troll actually score high on an index that measures Machiavellianism, an index that measures psychopathic traits, an index that measures narcissistic traits and sadism. And the study found that trolling was a manifestation of everyday sadism. And election aside I know it’s important but I’m more concerned about a bigger issue. The issue is that people like me spend our time trying to teach kids to be nice to each other online. But it’s very hard for us to win that battle when politicians use cruelty and sadism as a strategy and appear to gain ground because of it.

So cyberspace is an environment. It’s somewhere where you go. It’s an immersive environment – chat room, forum, it’s a place. And what happens there is that behavior can become normalized. So as human beings we’re social creatures and we learn from others. So if it appears that everybody is doing something it can seem that it’s okay. And it’s become very difficult with the pervasive penetration and accessibility of the internet to draw the line between something that’s an evolving behavior and that’s become almost a social norm. And sadly online trolling has become almost a social norm. The problem is when that behavior cyber migrates into the real world. And Trump and the way he behaves is a classic example of cyber migration.

The distinction frequently made between the online world and real life doesn't hold up under scrutiny, says cyberpsychologist Mary Aiken. What we do in the real world reflects online, and what happens online invariably seeps into our daily life, if not overwhelming it from time to time. This plasma membrane, which separates online and real life, is mediated in one direction by what is called "cyber migration," i.e. the transaction in which what we do on the Internet affects our real lives.


So how has the dampening, or completely destruction, of civic discourse in online comment forums changed the way we act in normal life? For starters, more and more websites are removing their comments section, so filled have they become with vitriol and every kind of offense imaginable. National Public Radio recently made headlines by removing its comments sections; Big Think removed ours several months prior.

Still, extremely offensive discourse IRL has been normalized by rude behavior online, says Aiken. And while we may disagree with the use of such language now as we did before, we no longer find it shocking, and our disapprobation of it has been overwhelmed by its frequency. That shift in our civic tone has, via cyber migration, made its way into the highest level of our political arena. Yes, the race to become the next President of the United States of America is infected with stinging insults and crude insinuation like never before.

Here Aiken discusses an influential study into the psychology of Internet trolls — titled Trolls Just Want to Have Fun — in which rude commenters were found to have personality characteristics similar to psychopaths and Machiavellian individuals. What is frightening is how widespread a phenomenon trolling has become. And the more it spreads, the more it becomes normalized, and the less likely we are to object to it. When uncivil discourse is accepted online, it is difficult to partition real life as a place where that level of malice is unacceptable.

Mary Aiken's most recent book is The Cyber Effect: A Pioneering Cyberpsychologist Explains How Human Behavior Changes Online.

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.