Trolls and Sociopaths
The Internet, Political Science, and Democracy
In all the old writing about anarchism, I have not seen any discussion of the actual failures of attempted anarchism I have observed. In all the political science literature on democracy I have seen, I have not seen anything about sociopathy. (There is a great deal of political science I have not read and likely there is something, perhaps in recent literature. But I have read enough to know that this is not a major area in the discipline.)
The internet has changed our view of ourselves. Time was, one might have had one experience of a failed anarchist organization; two or three if one was a persistent activist. One had to be a scholar of political movements to see the patterns. But now the internet has provided us with multiple examples, and electronic communications has made multiple historical examples easily accessible as well. So now we know: it’s not any abstract thing that makes most anarchist communities fail, not a failure of any magical leadership principle like conservatives say: it’s trolls. Trolls.
According to Wikipedia, sociopathy was not even an idea in modern Western thought until the 20th century. Hervey M. Cleckley’s 1941 The Mask of Sanity – the title refers to the illusion of normality that sociopaths project – describes it and is the seminal work on the subject. Conscienceless people had been known before, of course. Machiavelli seems to have developed his revolutionary book of pragmatic political science, The Prince, in part because of the success of the brutal Cesare Borgia, a likely sociopath. But it took modern psychology to identify it as a pattern of thought and give it a name. This having been done, it becomes clear that one can read much history as an account of sociopathic abuses of power.
There is, obviously, a lot more to be said about this. This is a short post, not a full paper, let alone the book the subject deserves, but I think I can point out an interesting line of research: how do we devise democratic institutions that accommodate these insights?
Time was, even if a ruler or ruling council was of good will, they were limited in their abilities to act. At best they could do well until some unexpected accident, plague, famine, a volcanic eruption on the other side of the world, destroyed their work. This is no longer true. With modern scientific knowledge, insights into systems theory and economics, it is possible, if there is the will and the discipline, to rule well. But where is this discipline to be found? In part, it may be found by keeping the sociopaths out of power, now that we know what they are.
At the other end of the scale of political power, the very small scale of the individual vote, the existence of trolls teaches us something we must guard against in our electoral systems. Because trolls will exploit any loopholes they can find, sometimes just because they like to break things.
So, how do we do it? What social norms, rules, and laws will effectively constrain trolls? What process of selection can we use to pick rulers and leaders that will screen out sociopaths?