At a time when finally, the common man has been given a platform to speak his mind, to let his voice be heard and to give way to enormous change at the behest of millions of like-voices, we’ve also reached a pinnacle where suddenly the voice of the individual has created an environment of mass opinion that has led to anger, confrontation and ultimately hatred and violence.
This environment now threatens the very core upon which social media was built.
Cyberbullying Seems Inescapable
Countless examples in the last few years have created a movement to draw insights into this growing trend. Cindy Waitt, Executive Producer of Bully, the Movie and its accompanying Bully Project has made immense strides in drawing awareness to technology’s proliferation of cyberbullying’s pervasiveness.
However, this trend has continued into 2013.
It began with Rahteah Parsons. She was only 15 years old when she was sexually assaulted by 4 boys.
When a photo of the attack was circulated, Rahteah endured incessant mocking and harassment by classmates, both in school and in social media. Unable to deal with the enduring humiliation, Rahteah attempted to take her own life April 7th of this year. She died a few days later.
She was only 17. For two years she suffered.
Then, earlier this month, tragedy struck as 14-year-old Hannah Smith, from Lutterworth in Leicestershire, hung herself after “repeated messages on Ask.fm encouraging her to kill herself and criticizing her appearance.” Ask.fm had already been reportedly linked to 4 other teenage deaths in the last 3 months.
More recently, Caroline Criado-Perez, a freelance journalist wrote on an article on this topic, “When Politicians Get the Internet Wrong, the Internet Can be Ruthless“.
In it she broached the topic of ready-to-pounce free-speech bullying that inflicted the deaths of Hannah Smith and Daniel Perry. Caroline targeted politicians, the lawmakers:
This is not to suggest that politicians want to control the internet for cynical gain. But what these stories reveal is that too many of them still don’t understand it. They don’t understand its power, and they don’t understand its limitations. No one would claim that the internet creates democracy, merely that it gives it a super-charged shot of adrenaline.
Incidentally, Caroline also campaigned for women to reinstate Elizabeth Fry, a female non-royal, on the British five pound note and won. However, less than a week after the victory, she was met with an enormous wave of anger on Twitter, delivered through graphic threats of rape and death.
The messages she describes are both frightening and disturbing:
Get back to the kitchen, shut up, fuck off.
Somebody said: ‘All aboard the rape train.’ Some guy tweeted another guy asking if he wanted to join in raping me.
I’d do a lot worse than rape you. I’ve just got out of prison and would happily do more time to see you berried [sic]. #10feetunder.
I will find you, and you don’t want to know what I will do when I do. You’re pathetic. Kill yourself. Before I do. #Godie.
This drove Caroline to flee her home, away from the ‘trolls’ as she described them.
Anonymity Breeds Contempt
In all three cases, the internet has evolved to an era that has given free reign to voice an opinion and use like-minded affiliations to express and further spread that opinion. It’s ever-more pervasive with sites like Ask.fm, and 4Chan that allow, even condone, anonymity… something that continues to perpetuate the bullying.
I saw this video from Christopher “Moot” Poole from TED. He speaks of 4Chan, his message board of 138MM+ users and over 1.3B posts has spawned the likes of Anonymous and LOL Cats (the latter of which is one of the least “harmful”).
He describes his site as raw and unfiltered, and allows users to be completely anonymous. He defends the lack of profiles in this way:
The cost of failure is really high when you’re contributing as yourself. Those mistakes are attributed to who you are.
Anonymity, in contrast, allows people to be creative, and poke and prod and try things they might not otherwise. Anonymity is authenticity. It allows you to share in a completely unvarnished, unfiltered, raw way.
Anonymity also allows people to cowardly hide behind this veil of non-accountability and perpetuate obfuscation and hatred.
Caroline made her point in this article,
Twitter has enabled people to behave in a way they wouldn’t face to face.
If you saw this page on LinkedIn at the time of the Twitter attacks, #TwitterRapeThreats, Michael Fertik of Reputation.com called out for public support in recognizing the threat of violence on Twitter and calling for action to stop it:
Online or offline, there is simply no question that threats of sexual violence are terrifying, degrading and potentially criminal. They deserve the full measure of the law and the people targeted deserve protection.
And the leaders of social sharing platforms must do everything within their power to make sure spaces are safe for users – again, no question.
This isn’t the first time this has happened – indeed, it happens all the time, with less public fanfare. Nor is Twitter the only platform where it happens. But the fact that this is a perpetual narrative, playing endlessly on the repeat loop, disgusts me and it should outrage you, too. Enough is enough.
So what are your thoughts? Should laws change to impose harsher punishment on online harassment?
Whose Side Are the Platforms On?
In Caroline’s case, Twitter’s red tape prevented any action from being done.
If you’re someone who’s receiving . . . about 50 rape threats an hour, it’s just not practical to expect you to go and fill in this form every single tweet. They’re on the side of the abusers, not the victims, and they really, really need to get on the side of the victims,
…to which Twitter responded,
[We do] not actively monitor and will not censor user content, except in limited circumstances.
It did not specify what those circumstances were.
Twitter’s rules say Twitter takes no responsibility for offensive or menacing tweeting. It directs users to:
…contact your local authorities so they can accurately assess the content or behaviour for possible violations of local law.
Twitter’s law enforcement guidelines say it will release a user’s personal information only if requested under court order.
Facebook’s rules are no different from Twitter. It seems the rights of the violators seem to take precedent over the rights of the victims.
I urge you to read this post, “Facebook Hacking and the Value of Social Currency” by ArCompany’s Danny Brown. Last year, Danny’s Facebook profile was hacked and the perpetrator proceeded to impersonate Danny by playing with his profile and attempting to discredit his reputation.
If you notice on Danny’s post, he speaks about the user’s need to take action via Security and Notification Settings.
The onus on the user to ensure they’re taking all the proper precautions is one step. Trying to identify the hacker required a court order and more long drawn-out red tape.
By the time all the procedures are put forward, the perpetrator would’ve probably taken the steps to further mask his/her true identity, making it increasingly difficult to find them.
Ask.fm is making advancements to protect its victims
Under scrutiny and pressure from interest groups, Ask.fm has mandated users to register with email in order to access the site. This mitigates the use of anonymous postings and provides access to user IP information. Moderation has expanded and users now have access to tools to report abusive behaviour.
On Debate.org, the census poll clearly vies for platforms to take on increasing responsibility for violations that occur within their own domains: 61% FOR; 39% AGAINST.
HOWEVER, THIS DOES NOT GO FAR ENOUGH…Ultimately, the user will continue to be accountable for reporting information to the authorities to get proper resolution.
Will Platforms Be Forced to Redefine Themselves?
We can’t kill the messenger right? Wrong! If I am the purveyor of a medium that dispenses harm to others, then my accountability should be to protect the users of my platform.
If the original intent of the platform is free speech and open communication, does it make sense to uphold that purpose and defend it at the expense of those that fall victim to it?
On the other side of the coin, do I, as a user have to think twice and be more cautious of my behaviour ? That goes without saying.
This article clearly draws a distinction between a communications company and publisher and why social platforms may need to change:
Being a communications company rather than a publisher means significantly less responsibility and expense, because it can claim to be a platform for discussion, rather than a publisher of opinion which could be held to be libellous or threatening.
While the internet has NOT instigated the hatred, misogyny, or bullying that has seemed to run rampant in recent years, Caroline Criado-Perez remarks,
These are the hallmarks of humanity, and if we want to combat them, we need societal solutions.
The internet is woven into the very fabric of humanity. We will continue to define its path. The platforms must also evolve and adapt to the environments we are comfortable spending our time.
Otherwise they will die as well…
Founder at ArCompany, and Co-founder of Salsa AI, Hessie is a seasoned digital strategist, and intelligence analyst having held senior positions for top ad agencies including Ogilvy, Rapp Collins, ONE and Isobar Digital. She also has extensive start-up experience in social tech, online publishing and artificial intelligence like Yahoo! Answers, Overlay.TV, Jugnoo and Cerebri AI. Hessie is the co-author of EVOLVE: Marketing (as we know it) is Doomed! She is also an active writer for Cognitive World, Towards Data Science and Marketing Insider Group.