Extreme elements nothing new in politics, but sheer vitriol online can sometimes shock

In Malaysia, we hear about keyboard warriors going overboard and getting arrested by police. Most of these indiscretions appear as race, religion, and royalty issues – popularly referred to as ‘3R’ – but are likely rooted in political disaffection.

No doubt that a small number of extreme elements have always existed in politics, but the sheer rawness of vitriol and abuse that can be witnessed today, specifically through social media, can be shocking.

Social media groups and comment sections become fertile ground for online hate trolls as they get their confidence and encouragement from supporters who share the same political leanings.

It helps that the bar to excite and incite in social media is very low. In addition, the ability to create any account name on social media provides a false sense of security and empowerment to people who seek to be provocative.

Why do these online hate trolls continue to behave in such a way that imperils their freedom and livelihood? Ideology and politics are only part of the explanation.

What also emboldens these individuals is the pretensions of playing an important role in a struggle. This fictionalised heroic life is not only a source of self-confidence but also blurs legal risks and social norms.

In the West, the phenomenon known as ‘main character syndrome’ is an ongoing concern as a type of anti-social behaviour proliferated in recent times.

According to Phil Reed, a professor of psychology at Swansea University, ‘main character syndrome’ is when somebody presents, or imagines themselves as the lead in a sort of fictional version of their life. The worst afflicted are the ones who have gained enough practice living this fictional life in social media that they detach completely from the decency commonly expected in society.

The main character goes online every day to fight the noble fight by calling names, using lewd sexual acts to refer to opponents, and denouncing people as apostates or Zionists.

As they get likes and supportive comments, this fictionalised life becomes more real to them. If you are fighting evil and there are all these ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ supporting you for all this time, you must be some important character in a noble struggle, right?

But this fictionalised life is not only blinkered, but also small. So small that the main character does not notice, or bother, when one of his popular allies gets arrested for going overboard with 3R comments. He continues because the main character’s life energy continues.

 

So, we get more and more of these unrepentant trolls sleepwalking into legal trouble.

None of the people who have been arrested for 3R offenses are heroes. Their supporters might quietly disagree, but they won’t say it under their real name. Nor will they help put up bail, or give financial aid.

The offenders are left to face justice on their own. I have a feeling most, if not all of them, feel deep regret, not because deep down, they don’t dislike certain politicians or race that much, they do.

The regret comes from realising, likely at the moment they get arrested, that they can harbour the same amount of anger and antipathy, but still work in an office, run a business, deliver food for a living, or be just unemployed and enjoying YouTube at home the whole day, if only they had stayed a real person in their own real life.

In some other societies, we sometimes hear about individuals living their fictional lives in real life, resulting in unsavoury, and even violent incidents. The difference with Malaysia is that our laws enable law enforcement agencies to take action before something ugly happens.

This is not about free speech or freedom to criticise. Online hate is real and growing, and these hate trolls need to be brought back to reality before they lose touch and do something really stupid.

The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of Twentytwo13.

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