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A Psychologist Explains the Motives Behind the Fake Sandy Pics

In the middle of a disastrous storm, what makes people post counterfeit images like the ones that proliferated on the Internet on Monday and Tuesday? (In case you missed them: sharks swimming by buildings, altered photos from other storms and other places, and images taken from sci-fi catastrophe films.) Just when we should be pulling together, why the fakery, and why so much of it?

As a psychologist specializing in conscience and its lack, I can assert that, in some cases, the fakery is authored by plain-vanilla sociopaths, which is to say, people who have no conscience and who are motivated solely by the need to deceive and thereby control others. The odds support this: as many as one in 25 people in North America are sociopathic, and this figure becomes even larger and more frightening in large population centers such as New York City.

The sociopath explanation is probably most relevant to those who produce scary disinformation that is conspicuously intended to make people jump, such as the prolific user @comfortablysmug, who tweeted, among other alarming messages, that “Con Edison has begun shutting down ALL power in Manhattan.” (Admittedly, the man behind @comfortablysmug is probably not a sociopath; today, he issued an apology.) Such trickery manipulates people in ways that increase the public threat, because much-needed authorities must take the time to debunk it. One can easily picture the sociopath relishing his sense of power when, at the height of the crisis, a city official is forced to make a special announcement, all on his account.  

However, in cases such as the street-shark photos and the images of death-eater cyclones hovering above the Statue of Liberty, I suspect there are at least two factors involved that are not technically sociopathic. The first of these is, in a sense, lighthearted; the delight and release that entirely nonpathological human beings take in their imaginations. (How many people didn’t feel an incipient grin when peering at those sharks?) People—indeed, most mammals in general—are readily seduced by the opportunity to be noticed. We love attention; we seek audiences for the products of our imaginations. And even people with conscience sometimes get a kick out of fooling others and gratification from showing off from time to time. Practical jokers tend to be very proud of their successful schemes, and who wouldn’t notify friends and family if he or she were going to be on TV? 

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The second factor involved in the fake posts has the potential to be considerably less benign. The culture of the Internet is built around a degree of anonymity much greater than any the world has known before—and one of the hard facts psychologists know about abuse is that it thrives in secrecy. The virtual world seems to be developing its own virtual moral code, different from real-world decency in significant ways. Even the most outrageous send-ups are sometimes believed, and this has given rise to a kind of virtual game: those who view themselves as sophisticated abstract thinkers can test the limits, can see just how outrageous they can become and still be taken seriously.

The usual, real-world proscriptions against deceiving, manipulating, and overtly ridiculing other people have begun to dissolve. In this new virtual world, hurting other people, especially when it’s done en masse, is perceived by its perpetrators as virtual, too—not real and therefore not really harmful. Ironically, the Internet, with its unique capacity to keep us informed, is also a particularly safe haven for psychological denial: the damage is not real. People falling for photoshopped images during a disastrous event is hilarious, because their resulting anxiety isn’t really real. The storm itself isn’t really real. This thinking is spreading beyond people without a conscience—and that is very real and very scary indeed.

Martha Stout, Ph.D., is the author of The Myth of Sanity, The Paranoia Switch, and The Sociopath Next Door.