In the past few weeks, two fascinating pieces of research concerning technology and the Internet have come to light. A study  from Brock University in Canada suggests prolonged daily exposure to violent video games may dull players’ sense of empathy. Meanwhile, a paper  from the University of Manitoba finds straying into Internet comment threads exposes us to many with no sense of empathy at all.
The first study asked a sample of roughly 100 seventh and eighth graders about their gaming habits, including whether they played violent or nonviolent video games and how much time they spent doing so. The students were also surveyed about their “moral maturity.” The results found no negative effects from playing nonviolent video games, while playing violent video games for more than three hours daily, with no social interaction to break it up, correlated with reduced empathy.
Correlation, of course, is not causation. It may be the case that students who lack empathy naturally gravitate toward violent video games. That argument was forwarded by at least one anonymous author  following the shootings in Newtown, Conn. But even if there is a causal link between playing violent games for lengthy periods and a short-term loss of empathy, the results of the second study would help put that finding into context.
In the Manitoba study, subjects were asked about their online commenting habits. Options ranged from not commenting at all, to debating issues, chatting and most importantly, trolling. Respondents were given a battery of tests to measure their tendency toward sadism, Machiavellianism, sociopathy and narcissism. Unsurprisingly, those who identified as “trolls” (users who intentionally cause distress for their own amusement) scored very high on all these measures. In fact, the study concluded trolling is a way for sadists to anonymously get kicks in a society that (understandably) fears their preferred form of enjoyment.
I mention these results not just because they’re interesting, but because they underscore an important point that sometimes gets forgotten.
Suppose, say, Second Lady Jill Biden began a crusade against interactive Web forums. She could point out that sadists and psychopaths tend to proliferate in such forums, which only feed their sickness. In other words, Web forums are making America more mentally ill. The argument could expand to suggest regulation of political commentary sites, to crack down on those who issue death threats, rape threats or otherwise causing discomfort and fear to vulnerable users.
In fact, maybe it’d be best if those sites were required to place trigger warnings on their content, keyed how much trolling might or might not be present in the comments or in the articles themselves. After all, Twitter users who issue threats and/or troll in the United Kingdom are often tried and jailed for their abuse , and Canada brings human rights suits against columnists . Why should the United States be so different?
Illustrated this way, we can see the fallacy: blaming the existence of trolls on political and/or artistic debates clearly assigns responsibility in the wrong place. So formulated, the argument is an obvious offense to free speech. For the federal government to curb deliberately offensive speech in the name of public health rightly would be an attack on constitutional governance and the free exchange of ideas. Yet these arguments are at the core of moralistic crusades against everything from explicit lyrics (whose opponents have included at least one vice president’s wife) to violent video games, despite a lack of evidence of harm that anywhere near as clear cut as the trolling study presents.
Surely, a true paternalist would argue, if both are dangerous, both should be regulated and/or censored. Yet comment threads are not, because we easily recognize that free speech is not subject to cost/benefit analysis. Video games are art, which means they are forms of speech to which this same standard should apply with equal weight.
Even if the Brock University study does demonstrate the effect that it purports to demonstrate, and even if all the faulty studies showing a correlation between violent video games and violent behavior were true, those facts remain unconditionally irrelevant to the rights of companies to make them and of consumers to play them.
No court of law is vested with the right to weigh and measure art or speech on the basis of their social effects, and find them wanting. Otherwise, we might find ourselves living in a world of deafening, terrible silence, only occasionally lightened by the lament, “First they came for the trolls.”
- “study”: http://dr.library.brocku.ca/bitstream/handle/10464/4115/Brock_%20Bajovic_Mirjana_2012.pdf
- “paper”: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886914000324
- “at least one anonymous author”: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/12/22/i-was-adam-lanza.html
- “are often tried and jailed for their abuse”: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/twitter-trolls-isabella-sorley-and-john-nimmo-jailed-for-abusing-feminist-campaigner-caroline-criadoperez-9083829.html
- “brings human rights suits against columnists”: http://spectator.org/articles/44262/mark-steyn-not-alone