How The Internet Has Forever Altered Our Capacity For Empathy

In a recent interview with Billboard magazine, Lady Gaga became the latest celebrity to lambast the consequences of being plugged into the Internet 24/7:

She says:

There is something in the way we are now, with our cell phones and people not looking at each other and not being in the moment with each other, that kids feel isolated. They read all of this extremely hateful language on the Internet. The Internet is a toilet. It is. It used to be a fantastic resource -- but you have to sort through sh*t to find the good stuff.

She’s not alone in these sentiments.

Jennifer Lawrence recently confessed she hates social media, and the threat of cyber pitchforks has subdued her into silence:

Why do I care what people think? But I do. I just can’t pretend I don’t care. I get really insecure about it. The world makes an opinion of you without ever meeting you. That worry should not bother me, but it does. It bothers me.

Vanessa Hudgens, Megan Fox, Kristen Stewart, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Thompson, George Clooney, Harrison Ford and a social gala full of other celebrities have said similar things about the Internet and social media.

Okay, we get it. Celebrities hate the Internet.

When you think about what they’re subject to on their news feeds, it’s not surprising. Insults, death threats and a general torrent of abuse is the norm.

Even for non-celebs. Try tweeting #IStandWithPP and just wait.

But why has the Internet become such a savage wasteland?

In the dawn of cyberspace, it was imagined as something that would bring us together, and encourage creativity and expression.

John Perry Barlow, once a lyricist for The Grateful Dead, turned his pen (or keyboard, as the case may be) toward drafting The Declaration Of Independence In Cyberspace back in 1996.

It hasn’t remained popular. Not surprising, considering it reads like the code of honor from a knight who long since fell on his sword.

For instance:

We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force or station of birth. We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity. We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.

Read that and take a gander through any comment section, anywhere.

Being coerced into silence is, ironically, one of the biggest consequences of Internet trolls. Many news agencies and online magazines have decided to shut down their comment boards, in response to the cystic sh*t pit they have become.

Popular Science was the most recent online magazine to say "nah" and shut down the comments.

In a recent statement, it wrote:

Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story, recent research suggests. Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant's interpretation of the news story itself.

You have to wonder what a state we’ve gotten ourselves into, when even the comment boards of Popular Science are filled with trolls running amuck.

Vice’s feminist stepdaughter, Broadly, decided to launch without comments. Based on the vitriolic attacks waged against feminist writers, it was, without a doubt, a smart move.

To cite Lady Gaga again, the Internet is a toilet. But why?

Our ability for empathy comes mostly from recognizing facial cues.

We can recognize when someone is angry, sad, happy or nervous just by looking at his or her face.

The more time we spend interacting face-to-face, the more we recognize facial feedback.

As social animals, we usually mirror an emotion to recognize it. When we see someone happy, we think of a time that made us happy.

When we see someone sad, we think of a sad occasion in our lives. It gives us the ability to feel for other people.

Albert Mehrabian, a professor of psychology, wrote extensively about how we communicate with each other and, more importantly, how we decide if we like each other.

According to his often quoted book, "Silent Messages," liking someone came down to a simple formula.

Total Liking = 7 Verbal Liking + 38 Vocal Liking + 55 Facial Liking

When it comes to deciding whether we like someone or not, what the person actually says only accounts for 7 percent of it.

The Internet however, has no ability to convey tone of voice or facial cues. This has given way to a whole generation of psychos.

Being void of empathy is pretty much all you need to be considered a DSM-registered sociopath.

Let’s take the example of celebrities, because they’re the easiest kick-bait around.

If you shared an elevator with Kylie Jenner, would you be okay saying her face is plastic and her family is a bunch of whores? Maybe.

But if tears shot up in her eyes and she swallowed really hard, would you still be okay with it?

On Instagram, all it takes is a few taps to write a mean comment, and then it’s gone.

You never see the human reaction. It’s just another mean comment, floating in the abyss.

We've become desensitized to how we conduct ourselves online.

There is no precedent and no guidebook. It’s the wild west out there, and for all the wonderful creativity it has produced, it’s turned us into a macabre audience.

Major news outlets are okay with sharing footage of a mother getting eaten alive by an escalator. The ISIS footage of beheadings and captives being burned alive was almost inescapable.

This was the front page of the Internet. This was CNN. This was Fox News.

I’ve never cared to hunt through the darker fathoms of cyberspace, but I know worse horrors lurk there.

Without facial cues, tone or body language to guide us, the Internet has become a savage grotesquerie, and the overwhelming tone of passive psychopathy is inescapable.

From Tinder to Instagram, our indifference to cruelty threatens to swallow us, should we fail to recognize how prevalent it is.

How that will translate to the real world, as communication becomes ubiquitously online, remains to be seen.