Pinker, Cyberstalking and the Leviathan

Steven Pinker argues that Hobbes’ theory of the Leviathan is one of the most consistent vehicles for peace. In a state of anarchy, Hobbes provides three reasons for violence: ‘the first use violence, to make themselves masters of other men’s personas, wives, children and cattle; the second to defend them; the third, for trifles as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of undervalue, either direct in their persons or by reflection in their kindred, their friends, their nation, their profession, or their name’. Therefore, in a state of anarchy, violence is used firstly in competition, secondly to defend themselves and thirdly for reputation. The Leviathan is proposed as a way of escaping this anarchy, in which ‘by inflicting penalties on aggressors, the Leviathan can eliminate their incentive for aggression, in turn defusing general anxieties about pre-emptive attack and obviating everyone’s need to maintain a hair trigger for retaliation to prove their resolve’. Pinker provides the following diagram to emphasise the role of the Leviathan.

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The diagram is explained as follows:

‘In every act of violence, there are three interested parties: the aggressor, the victim, and a bystander. Each has a motive for violence: the aggressor to prey upon the victim, the victim to retaliate, the bystander to minimize collateral damage from their fight. Violence between the combatants may be called war; violence by the bystander against the combatants may be called law.’ 

This theory of violence can be continually applied to new types of violence, in this case toward the subject of cyberstalking.

The advent of cyberstalking tools has increased domestic violence. According to Ablon, Libicki and Golay internet technologies provide ‘new entries for attack and will thus have a counterparty exploit on the black market’. For instance, stalkerware, downloaded to monitor targets mobile phones or laptops, has become increasingly popular. Kapersky said that in 2018 the use of stalker ware increased by over 35% and has contributed toward the UK government 2018 findings that harassment and stalking accounted for 54% of increases in societal violence. In America, a survey from the Data and Society Research Institute found that 14% of internet users reported that their phones had been monitored without permission. 7% have had their texts or e-mails read. 9% have had someone use their social media, GPS or alternative technology to track their location. Similarly, in Britain, nearly a third of stalking survivors surveyed by Women’s Aid have experienced use of spyware or GPS locators on their phone or computer by a partner or ex-partner. Therefore, the problem of cyberstalking is pervasive, contributing significantly toward increased levels of violence.

There seems to be a relative nonchalance from perpetrators of cyberstalking and subsequent sense of futility from targets. The book Human Factor of Cybercrime explains that the innate curiosity of cyber offenders may make them less likely to stop when behaviour starts to cross the line of criminality. The activity of cybercrime has been likened to motives for vandalism, adding that ‘unfortunately, the costs and consequences are generally much higher for cyber dependent crime in comparison to vandalism’. The anarchy of the situation is indicated by the City of London’s admission that 80% of cyber-crime goes unreported suggesting that criminals feel no guilt in their actions and the targets don’t feel confident enough to involve the police.

Do not be fooled into thinking that the 80% of unreported cybercrimes correlates to indifferent targets. The quantitative and qualitative data on cyberstalking explicitly emphasise the magnitude of suffering being caused by such violence.

The National Stalking Helpline in the United Kingdom reported that 67% of cyberstalking victims suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, and 35% suffered a full-blown PTSD. Cyberstalking has been shown to be a consistent weapon of domestic abuse by intimates. The CDC study found that 51% of stalking offenders were enduring or ex-intimate partners. One survey reported that 85% of survivors found that partner, or ex-partner abuse was perpetrated offline as well. Therefore, these tools are being used to enact violence on domestic contacts in both the digital and physical sphere, bringing to mind Hobbes’ first explanation for anarchical violence as making ‘themselves masters of … wives (and) children’.

The experiences of being subject to such violence can be described as creepy and murderous. Amy describes that ‘her husband seemed to know intimate details about her friends’ and that he would ‘drop snippets into conversations… really private things that he shouldn’t have known about’. Similarly, Jessica’s ex-husband ‘would play mind games by repeating specific phrases she and her friends had used in private conversations’. The murderous element of cyberstalking can be illustrated by the testimonies on stalking given to the National Stalking Advocacy Service. One target described that ‘you saved my life’, another that they ‘would’ve killed myself that day if I hadn’t spoken to you’. While the perpetrator may feel rebellious, as if committing vandalism, the target, very often an intimate, experiences it as torturous.

In light of violence that verges on anarchy, it is useful to revisit the Leviathan. Pinker writes ‘if the government imposes a cost on an aggressor that is large enough to cancel out his gains – say, a penalty that is three times the advantage of aggressing over being peaceful – it flips the appeal of the two choices of the potential aggressor’. The police need to improve intelligence on cyberstalking and develop effective strategies of imprisoning those that deploy these weapons of domestic abuse. There is evidence that the British police are making vital developments toward strengthening the Leviathan. Stoddart describes that there are 9 dedicated cybercrime units including Operation Falcon which is the largest of UK police forces. With increased arrests and stricter sentences, the public will be more likely to report cyberstalking, thus puncturing the confidence of would be attackers and emboldening the targets to exercise self-defence. Given the suffering caused by cyberstalking it is not unlikely that targets will become perpetrators, using cyber weapons to defend themselves or to enact similar violence on those they deem suitable, thus perpetuating a cycle of crime which erodes community bonds.

According to Pinker the ‘decline of violence may be the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species’ and therefore the emergence of tools that threaten peaceful society should be addressed very seriously. This is the modern equivalent of allowing general publics to bear firearms – arguably worse given the secrecy involved with enacting violence. Failure to do so will increase violence and normalise authoritarianism as the tools fool narcissists into becoming their own authority, using cyberstalking tools to systematically punish their intimate partners. It is difficult to argue against Pinker’s principle that ‘discovering earthly ways in which human beings can flourish, including stratagems to overcome the tragedy of the inherent appeal of aggression, should be purpose enough for anyone’, and thus, it should be expected that the public, media and police will effectively construct a Leviathan that will ensure the continuation of societal peace.