The Darker Side —

Malevolent Creativity


We commonly think of creativity as a purely positive, enabling quality, but can it be used in a way that’s explicitly harmful? We unpack the idea of malevolent creativity and how it manifests in today’s world.

What is Malevolent Creativity?

To understand what malevolent creativity is, it helps to set out a few terms:

  • Malevolence: the intent to harm people

  • Imagination: involves generating sensory experiences (though not strictly “seeing”) in varying degrees of vividness that aren’t real,

  • Creativity: the ability to produce original ideas out of other ones using that very imagination.

Taken together, malevolent creativity relies on the imagination to come up with new ideas that are explicitly meant to harm people when executed. In a paper on the subject, researchers David H Cropley, James C. Kaufman, and Arthur Cropley describe it as: “Such creativity is deemed necessary by some society, group, or individual to fulfill goals they regard as desirable, but has serious negative consequences for some other group, these negative consequences being fully intended by the first group.”

How it manifests today

While blatant examples would include the aforementioned cons or new, more efficient weapons for use in war, malevolent creativity is of particular concern when channeled through the power of online media, especially at a time when it’s never been easier for the average person with an internet connection to create and distribute media on their own.

To understand how bad this could get, it helps to look back to 2012’s Innocence of Muslims, a film by convicted fraudster Nakoula Basseley Nakoula (who is actually Mark Basseley Youssef, who also initially claimed to be an Israeli magnate named Sam Bacile). Over the course of the production and into its release and promotion (both on and offline), stakeholders were repeatedly misled as to the film’s content and intent, with actors having their lines dubbed over in post production to contain anti-Islamic messaging. Despite the abysmal production value, the notoriety behind the film and its deliberate positioning as a legitimate feature film retelling the life of the prophet Muhammad triggered violent reactions throughout the world, resulting in protests and deaths.

Unfortunately, the same sort of provocative and malevolent creativity is just as pervasive in 2020’s divided societies — it’s just that it rarely presents itself as blatantly as a definable “work” as the above film as we’d associate with an author or artist. Instead, it’s a mindset where imagination, intelligence and technical skill — all in differing amounts depending on the creator — to do something negative to someone.

In these cases, the products of that malevolent creativity, whether it be crappy memes, shoddily re-edited videos, fake news, or technically polished if defamatory Photoshop jobs. And if it’s none of these types of throwaway content, it’s bits and pieces of text or voice dropped off at different corners of the Internet — all of which have neither helpful intent of critique nor the finesse of satire, but are often disguised as such. To griefers, trolls and bigots, their invective is, despite how unrefined it is, still about finding innovative ways to cause damage to those they interact with and it’s sadly been working.

The Takeaway

Make no mistake, we aren’t saying that all creativity and its products should aim to inform, inspire or entertain others. It’s also perfectly fine to create with the simple aim of expressing yourself and even using it as the very solution to the negative creativity we apply to ourselves (such as catastrophizing or self-loathing). And to be sure, your work could also strive to draw attention to an issue, criticize ideas or people, or just not sit well with the sensibilities of a certain audience.

Those are all perfectly valid reasons to keep on creating and creating good work at that. But for those who create with the express aim of building bridges between people, now has never been a better time to double down on that goal. Malevolent creativity (and the malevolence that catalyzes it) is still not as widely understood or researched as benevolent or positive creativity, but at least one study, titled “Why Social Threat Motivates Malevolent Creativity,” gives some evidence to what we’ve believed for a while:

  • We all have imaginations we use to picture things good or bad.

  • Many people use their imagination to create new things.

  • We are motivated to find solutions to fulfill purposes or solve problems we perceive.

  • Motivation increases with a sense of urgency.

  • Urgency can be shaped by our perception of threats, which can also be shaped and misinformed.

In short, when we perceive there’s a fight to be won at this moment, that can get our brains working in ways that find solutions to benefit us at the expense of others; the harder we think we have to fight to beat someone, the more harmful our solutions can become.