The strangest story of the past few weeks — aside from when NASA had to defend themselves against claims of running a child slave ring on Mars — is surely the saga of HanAssholeSolo, an internet troll who created a gif of Donald Trump beating up CNN, which the POTUS then tweeted from his official account. Soon after news of Solo’s handiwork and internet history (peppered with racist comments) broke, CNN revealed that they knew his real name, forcing Solo to post a lengthy mea culpa, excise his online existence, and slink off into the shadows.
This chain of events opened up public debate about whether CNN had committed blackmail in threatening to reveal Solo’s details, whether Solo was at fault for his online behavior in the first place, and the entire construct of identity online. In his apology, Solo wrote that who he was online wasn’t who he was in “real” life.
“I am no kind of way this person,” he promised, referencing a history of posts that he admitted were racist, bigoted, and anti-semitic. “I was trolling and posting things to get a reaction from the subs on reddit and never meant any of the hateful things I said in those posts.”
But as we near singularity, when virtually everyone has an online footprint, can that really be true? Is it possible that someone’s “online” and “real-life” personas could lead two separate existences? Could someone with a history of penning racist invective for (by his admission) the sake of attention truly also be someone who “loves and accepts people from all walks of life?”
It presents an interesting thought experiment. Could someone who isn’t a virulent racist sit down, type the things that Solo did, and then release them into the world? Try it for yourself. I did and found it impossible. Not just because of my notions of what it means to be a good person, but because being actively hateful takes an instantaneous toll, anonymous or not. Perhaps I’ve written under my own name for so long that anonymity seems like a foreign concept, but attempting to type out something flagrantly racist made me break out into an anxious sweat.
For me, there’s no delineation between the internet and real life. We spend so much time of our lives on the WWW — a recent stat puts the american average at 10 hours of screen time per day — that the distinction seems academic at best. Who are you if not your Facebook, your Twitter account, and the number of Instagram followers you possess? How can the person you play on Reddit not impact your personality, and vice-versa?
“Who someone is in an anonymous context is probably a more accurate reflection of who they are and how they behave than a non-anonymous context,” says Erin Buckels. She’s the lead author of a recent groundbreaking study of the personality patterns of online trolls, which looked at the connection between trolls’ actions and “dark” personality traits including narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and subclinical sadism.
Buckels acknowledges that we all say some horrible things under certain situations, but the difference between someone cracking an offensive joke out of, say, ignorance or a need to be seen edgy and relevant — the guy who inspired extreme backlash when he tweeted that he too wanted to die when listening to Ariana Grande immediately after the Manchester bombing, for instance — and a Milo Yiannopoulos is what their behavior looks like over time, how unyielding it is.
“The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior,” Buckels says.