The Rise of Narcissism in our social media age.
There’s always that one person on your social media feed. You know the one. Always posting some uncomfortably antagonistic update with an overtly political rallying cry from their social media soapbox. Maybe it’s your friend The Atheist whose personal mission is to disprove God to absolutely everyone. Or, perhaps, the Trump Truther. Mostly you can tune them out, sometimes you get caught up in the soapbox rabble rousing, and sometimes it’s you up there issuing your own polarizing rallying cry. But what if this behavior, in rare cases, is a symptom of something darker and not simply how people tend to act when they’re using social media?
Years ago, I had a brief run-in with a B-list actor. This actor built a huge following on Twitter and was steadily becoming well known more for his polarizing conservative politics rather than his acting. Other than using false dichotomies, that being a form of rhetoric that only gives two options for any issue e.g. “ You’re either with me or you’re against me”, he really didn’t exhibit any of the typical signs of having narcissistic personality traits. And, let’s face it, being a very right-wing conservative ideologue doesn’t make you a narcissist.
This actor’s large following was made up mostly of men’s rights activists and ultra-conservative American right-wingers who excelled at steering the most innocent conversations towards issues that furthered their specific dogma. Mostly, I spectated these exchanges and never participating. But then, one day, my Twitter handle was mentioned in one of these conversations – one of my tweets between a friend and me was screen capped then used out of context in the midst of a flame war. Of course, with how things are on the Internet and the anonymity of social media users, I started receiving personal threats from a couple of his followers. These people basically told me how I politically aligned, without me giving any indication of such, how I held no worth as a human and the repercussions I could face if I were to try and voice my opinion in the future.
I don’t know if the actor who got the flame war ball rolling has narcissistic personality disorder. Likely not. But this incident made me take a step back and look at the emerging behavioral patterns on social media – Those growing in popularity by online soap box philosophizing, welding social causes like a weapon while spinning a champion narrative made me realize one simple truth: the Internet is an alluring playground for a true malignant narcissist.
There’s an old adage, maybe you’ve heard it before, that says: wherever you find power you’re bound to find a narcissist . . . or two. And there’s a certain amount of power, or social clout, in being perceived by others as a social cause crusader. The power that comes from this perceived title can be used as an emotional weapon against others and is extremely attractive to a personality type known as a malignant narcissist.
A narcissist has traditionally been thought of as someone obsessed with themselves that gets fulfillment from creating a grandiose image often by controlling the narrative. The malignant narcissist, the narcissist’s behaviorally ugly cousin, prefers to inflict targeted interpersonal damage. Like narcissists, the malignant narcissist is an obsessed, image conscious person who is constantly grandstanding. Always at the ready to be hostile, the malignant narcissist undermines the very organizations in which they are involved, and they dehumanize the people with whom they associate.
So what does it matter who has what personality type when it’s all hands on deck helping to effect real social change? Because meaningful social change is tough to come by, and nearly impossible, with a malignant narcissist undermining the work you’re doing to further the cause that you are passionate about. A malignant narcissist doesn’t engage in a cause because they wish to create social change. Rather, a malignant narcissist takes up a cause only to further themselves and leave behind a trail of emotional destruction.
But it’s even more insidious than that because there’s power in an everyday, run-of-the-mill Internet presence. Our online identities are becoming more and more a part of who we are offline. For a lot of people, their social media account isn’t just an opportunity for career advancement – it’s also where people can find solace and be their authentic selves. It’s a place where they can experience something deeply human by sharing their stories of anger, trauma or victimization because doing so offline may be potentially dangerous. And this vulnerability can create either easy marks or targets of abuse for a malignant narcissist.
A malignant narcissist is an idealist flip-flopper. It doesn’t matter which side they take, they could just as easily take the other. It isn’t about whether something is science-based, right or wrong, they could be a liberal feminist, a youth minister, or a right-wing ultra conservative politico. All it matters is that their comments and actions position them into a place of power where they can impact whomever becomes their intended target – and it could be a person or a group of people.
Malignant narcissists erode the safety of our online communities through their toxic and abusive behavior. They are especially difficult to spot from their online persona’s because there is no real life actions to compare and show discrepancies between what is being said and what is being done. With more and more people making a living through online communities and sharing deeply personal stories, we owe it to each other to maintain the integrity of these communities to defend against the emotional damage inflicted by malignant narcissists.
14 Signs of a Social Media Malignant Narcissist
1. Did this person seem to come out of nowhere?
Did they show up in a publication or very publicly claiming knowledge or a longstanding position in an industry without any proof of this earned position? Malignant Narcissists are master spin artists. By creating a position of inside knowledge they give an illusion of someone whose information can be trusted.
2. Are they quick to point fingers?
Do they refuse to listen to discourse and show no empathy or understanding to those in their negative focus? The lack of discourse does not allow for the other party to explain a potential misunderstanding or their side of things. By shutting down the conversation quickly there is a dehumanizing aspect at play that makes it easy for those to polarize the other person into a category they see as inherently wrong.
3. Do they use their followers like henchmen?
They will often have loyal followers that they will passive aggressively encourage to harass those in their sights. You will rarely find the Malignant Narcissist being the one to directly target someone online because they believe they can manipulate others to do their dirty work for them. Bystanders unknowingly can be converted into active bullies believing that they are standing up for someone who is being honest in their beliefs. Bullying behavior with things such as doxxing a target and calling for boycotts to someone’s means to a livelihood can lead to anxiety, fear, stress, loss of income and isolation.
4. Do they make themselves out to be a champion for a great cause?
Any actions following in line with this grandiose fantasy will be undertaken only if it will gain them public recognition. They might also claim to represent minority or underdog groups that they don’t belong to or have any true understanding of. E.g. A claim to represent the average working class person when they have been brought up wealthy. Directly playing on how much emotional value an issue has, people can be manipulated into thinking they are fighting for a cause rather than being henchman for the Narcissist selfish pursuits.
5. Are they constantly the victim of an injustice because they have not received special treatment over others?
A narcissist believes that they are deserving of special treatment over others so they will claim injustice in situations that most would deem fair. For example, if their work or ability is not chosen for a job they will communicate that it is because of people being against them for unfair reasons, not because of the merit of their work and that someone else was more suited. Or if they’re threatened with eviction for not paying their rent they will suggest ill treatment from the landlord while failing to mention the breach in contract from their end. If there tends to be no clear or not ambiguous source for any of the claims of victimization, as well as,overwhelming proof to the contrary then this is the only kind of situation where we can question the intent and validity behind these types of claims.
6. Do they constantly create unlikely hero situations?
When talking about their lives it seems more fantasy than reality. For example, when talking about going on outings they will say something like, “Everyone in this theater or mall is a racist, sexist” or contradictory “Everyone here is a God hating, liberal social justice warrior”. This seems unlikely as they probably did not speak to every person in that theater or mall, however, it sets them up as someone fighting against a large enemy every day.
7. Do they post A LOT?
They are addicted to the spotlight and are unable to pull themselves away from social media. They will often be found at the centre of a lot of controversies or popular hashtags lending their voice mimicking the popular opinion in order to be noticed but usually won’t post controversial, unpopular or opposing opinions to their own online communities. If they accidentally find one of their opinions to be unpopular with their flock they will quickly back step and morph it into something more agreeable to others. They will often falsely claim to be a reble rouser, taking huge risks and to be receiving a lot of opposition for regurgitating the popular opinion in their circle.
8. They are not the trolls
Trolls might be a lot of things but they are not usually malignant narcissists. They tend to be the ones waving the flag of an already proven popular movement and riding off the coattails of others original thoughts. It’s about popularity and growing followers more than the ideology so Narcissists are unlikely to take the risks of publicly challenging the popular opinions within the group they currently seek power in. Though vehement about their causes and relentless about pointing out potential enemies (often created), they will use diversion or become hostile to any questions even innocent ones, that require anything other than surface understanding of the subject. They are also too in love with their own self-aggrandizing monologues creating their champion position to bother finding others to actively troll. Malignant Narcissists will often obsessively call attention to those they deem as a potential threat to their image online but it will not be through direct discourse. They will engage in vague posting without directly naming the individual or they will make brash accusations if they feel the accused will not be aware or be able to defend themselves.
9. Do they make promises they don’t keep?
Behind narcissistic behaviour is a deep lack of confidence in ability. They often talk about their world changing project or work of art that they are creating without it ever coming to full fruition. There tends to be more talk than action for them. For example: They’ll say their current project is almost done when in reality only the bare minimum has been achieved or it might not even be started.
10. Have they left a trail of destruction?
Most people that have tried to work or have a relationship with them in a long running capacity have either been painted as a villain, have not had their agreed contract fulfilled ( the work was not done) or have been victimised in other ways by this person.
11. Do they never admit to wrongdoing?
Though good at feigning humility a narcissist will only really admit to fault if completely cornered and forced ( usually by law ) and even then they will have an excuse for their actions.
12. Do they dictate your reality ?
Mastery of this skill is what makes Narcissists excellent Gaslighters. They will tell you how things are rather than allowing you to decide it for yourself. An example of this is that they tend to define themselves on social media repeatedly as having a moral attribute such as honesty. For example they will say something like “I’m a very honest person” repeatedly until others will accept it as fact without letting their peers make that decision for themselves.
13. Do they punish others?
“They get angry when rejected, overreacting to small slights and punishing those who do not support their grandiose image of themselves. One study even found that when spurned, highly narcissistic individuals ‘punished’ other research participants who had nothing to do with the rejection itself.” -Psychology Today, How to spot a Narcissist- Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman, 2011
14. Do they have that one special person at their side?
This is that one and only constant person that has managed to not be burnt down by the Narcissist. They often have a very special co-dependent relationship that’s needed to prop them up. This is more then often with what is called an Inverted Narcissist type of personality. This can be a spouse or friend that serves to show that the Narcissist can have relationships, as well as, someone that will support their projected falsehoods. A true believer so to speak. This person is shown great affection publicly and will often avoid a lot of the Narcissist’s ire.That is, until the first sign of questioning or dissent. Then they will see an abrupt change of face and often become the victim of abuse themselves.
If we want to know what narcissism looks like in our current society should we really be focusing on those posting endless photoshopped selfies? The celebrities constantly throwing shade at each other? Those individuals always bragging about their perfect life? Though these behaviors seem attention seeking and might seem centered in putting value in things you might not, I ask: what is it to you? If someone might celebrate shallow pursuits in life, how harmful are they to others? A distinction needs to be made between what might be considered healthy Narcissism and malignant as explored in great detail by Elizabeth Lunbeck in her book “The Americanization of Narcissism”, where she takes a detailed look at the history of the term and case studies of individuals who have managed to be highly productive and overall normative in their actions that clinically fit into the description of having NPD.
People being diagnosed high on NPD scale is very rare and a lot of people will show some of these traits at some point in our lives, conversely, someone with NPD also might not show all of these traits and can be adaptive. The important distinction is that the negative behaviors are harmful to others and constant with an onset from young adulthood or earlier. Also the behaviors cannot be explained by the use of substances or head injury. It is also important to note that Narcissistic Personality disorders are treatable and people diagnosed with them are just like anyone else suffering from a mental illness in that understanding, support and respect will help them through the daily struggles to try and stay on the healthy side. These are people that are not inherently bad and deserve to be commended if they are taking the steps to manage their illness. An important distinction needs to be made between when this illness is left not managed and malignant as to someone who is just trying to live their lives like any of us, with the extra burden of trying to manage a mental illness. I think that the distinction can be simplified for most of us as a pattern of repeated harm or attempted harm to others.
We are now finally seeing a public shift from a focus on the victim to the perpetrators in crimes such as sexual assault and in light of that, the notion of victim blaming is being heavily explored. Though this direction is essential and long overdue it would be irresponsible for us to ignore the uncomfortable subject and remote possibility of false accusations and the discussion eventually needs to be had. I completely understand the motivations for those not wanting to explore the slim possibility of someone existing that could possibly exploit these positive trends in social media, but to completely deny it is falling victim to a common fallacy, that problematic people couldn’t possibly exist within your own culture.
An exploration into what types of personalities are actually capable of knowingly making false claims against another for self advancement will hopefully show that it is a very rare occurrence and more than the large majority of all claims are true. By further exploring the possibility of a definable serious personality disorder being the motivator behind this behavior, we can hopefully eliminate some of the burden to prove their honesty beyond a reasonable doubt that victims inevitably feel in our legal systems or courts of public opinion. The problem is the danger of creating an environment online where all and every accusation is unquestionable and there is no room for defense; There is bound to be those rare few that will exploit it.
A Narcissist trades heavy in reputations like a currency. Someone’s professional reputation, especially those with a need for an online presence, is considerably effective to their livelihoods and is often a culmination of years of hard work and sacrifice. To have livelihoods ruined by a malignant Narcissist’s whim is not an expectable casualty in the name of social change.
So how can we make it easier for victims of harassment and abuse to come forward without an inquisition while not creating an exploitative system that can be used for those few with malcontent? My hope is to give people enough knowledge to recognize and be critical of behaviours before the fingers start pointing, because with a malignant narcissist that’s given the right platform, it’s only a matter of time.
So if Narcissists aren’t those selfie obsessed individuals, then what does a malignant narcissistic really look like and what level of harm are we talking about?
To answer that I ask you to imagine that you allow someone into your life in some capacity, whether romantically, professionally or a peer. You trust that this person is completely honest with you about who they are, their abilities, what they believe and the nature of your relationship with them. Then imagine yourself either questioning something that contradicts what you have been led to believe, having to let them go from a job, or asserting a need that contradicts with theirs in a relationship. These things often happen in life and we take them in stride, finding mutual understanding and solutions. What happens with a Narcissist in these types of instances is that the person you thought you knew isn’t there any longer. In their place is someone hell bent on discrediting you to others,trying to exact revenge often by taking something of yours that they now feel entitled to as payment for going against them.
“Because control is important to narcissists they can abruptly lose their charm if destabilized or threatened. This two-faced behavior is often the first clue to their true character”- Psychology today, how to Spot a Narcissist-Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman, 2011.
Unfortunately, having to wait to become a victim of a malignant narcissist ire in order to recognize them is too late for most. Being watchful of certain personas online can be helpful before finding yourself in a vulnerable position to become exploited. You might not be able to spot a Narcissist just from their internet persona but what you can do is be more critical about the information you receive and who it’s coming from. Ask yourself “ is there harm in this? By re-tweeting this or showing support for a particular person am I harming another in any way, even just by reputation? If yes, then do I have enough information to responsibly be contributing to that potential harm?
Being aware that another’s intentions might not be entirely honest before the negative outcomes can happen is my attempt at harm reduction. The aspect of anonymity online has long been blamed for the mob-like behavior many people criticize. Make sure you know who is at the head of the mob before you join in, especially if it devolves into personal attacks against another.
Before entering into professional relationships with another person that you only know from just their internet persona, try and make it on the merit of their work, not just because their perceived character or political stance might align with yours. I also highly recommend you find some professional references from people proven to have real life experience with them.
Through exploration and knowledge we can be responsible for our own part in these things. We can learn how to better protect ourselves and at the same time not be participatory in the harming of others. At the end of the day, we can only do our best to walk through this world acting like socially responsible adults.