Virtual insanity

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Techniques and methods of online deception: from persuasion to psychological conditioning.

On a global level Cyberspace has produced a genuine cultural and sociological transformation, above all concerning our way of thinking and of perceiving our existence. The very concept of “communication” is no longer a simple process of transmitting “knowledge”, but rather a new modus vivendi in which real and virtual events are entwined, the logical thread of which can even evade those involved. The individual is at the same time both victim and perpetrator in this psychological and cultural revolution. The influences on the daily life of each individual are clearly attributable to the internet’s so-called isomorphism, from the Greek isos meaning equal and morphé meaning shape. This term is used in mathematics to identify a type of application between mathematical objects, but in this case it is understood as a process of mapping between two complex environments. This is interpreted as interaction or juxtaposition, or the two realities that distinguish the digital individual: real reality and virtual reality. The isomorphism between the emotions and the reactions of real and virtual environments is producing in the individual a condition of a split personality. If it is true thatreal reality is strictly connected to our perceptions, then virtual reality represents the factory of our dreams, our emotions and desires that we cannot manage to fulfil. The virtual world is not subject to the same rules and restrictions as real life. One example capable of illustrating the state of mental liberty that the Web is capable of inducing in usersisthe concept of online disinhibitionand is represented by the following distinctive elements:

Anonymity. It is the anonymity of the Web that often leads users almost unconsciously to assume a dissociative attitude, i.e. one that dissociates them from their own actions. The phenomenon, which is also known as dissociativeanonymity, assumes a particular relevance from a sociological point of view. Obscuring one’s own identity can enable anyone to present themselves as different from how they really are, accentuating – if not actually inventing – their own positive aspects, and masking negative traits or flaws that could be viewed by fellowcybernauts as counterproductive;

Invisibility. The impossibility of ascertaining someone’s identity online makes communication “impersonal” and thus enables people to bypass the effects of direct social-relational communications that occur due to the physical presence of one’s interlocutor.

Asynchronism. The asynchronism of virtual conversations provides those involved with a greater quantity of time, both for the construction of questions and answers. The conversation becomes more accurate in the choice of terms and therefore substantially improved when it comes to comprehension and the attention paid to the meanings of words. However, the lack of face-to-face interaction, which introduces into the dialogue personal “messages” that are traceable to the physical nature of individuals involved (attitudes, gestures, facial expressions), can decisively distort online communication.

Therefore, the virtual world represents the ideal habitat in which toconduct activities of persuasion and deception. Both of these actions aim to deliberately induce a user of the web to assimilate a perception that differs from reality (both virtual and real), or to encourage him or her to perform a determinate action. Those attempting such persuasion and deceptionhave a clear purpose: to convince an individual to believe and do what they want. In cyberspace the process of automatic assimilation, which fails to take into account the many elements of conditioning and deception,poses a genuine threat for the individual. These elements can nestle within the habitual virtual scenarios that we are accustomed to and in spaceswherethere is clear and unambiguous communication between parties (for example on social networks) or in contexts in which there is substantial preparation concerning the issue in question (forums) or even in a condition in which there is a particular sociability and empathy (web applications for instant messaging like WhatsApp). But the traps of deception, like also those for persuasion, can also hide in those circumstances classifiable as unfavourable or when the events occur at a pace that is too fast and intense, and even when the “noise” produced by other contrasting or contradictory opinions causes a condition of psychological confusion (a typical example of this can be seen inthe case of online political communications). From a technicalpoint of view, cyber-deception and cyber-persuasion activitiesare usually performed through social engineering based on tools and methods such as pretexting, phishing and baiting. But in the last decade especially, a determining role has been assumed by social media like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram, which serve as extraordinary tools when it comes to psychological conditioning. The techniques of online persuasion and deception capitalise on the intrinsic weaknesses of the so-called “human firewall”, user’slack ofpreparationconcerning the possible defence against risks and dangers of cyberspace.

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