The following post was inspired by a debate at Mumsnet BlogFest 2013
As we communicate more and more online, abuse or ‘trolling’ seems to get more common and more worrying. A campaign to have a woman included alongside notable men on the new bank notes resulted in women receiving horrific abuse including death and rape threats. Opposing the inclusion of Jane Austen on the £10 note is fair enough, threatening to kill someone because they suggested it is irrational and frankly scary. It is difficult to imagine why anyone feels the need to victimize another person through a computer in the first place, but should we try to control how social media and forums are used?
Free speech is an important part of democracy but the line between the right to voice opinion, no matter how controversial, and abuse isn’t always definite. Threatening physical harm is much too far but they grey seeps in when one person’s idea of robust debate is another’s intimidation. The speed of communication has also given everybody the ability to press send just as the red mist descends or before the brain is fully engaged. Speech can’t be confined to carefully considered, restrained responses or there is no freedom, nor can people be sanctioned every time another feels offended. Our comments appear on a screen without any context. Whether something is sarcastic, aggressive or teasing is wide open to interpretation, perhaps of those we have never met or even know who they are.
So is the opportunity for anonymity to blame for online abuse? A good analogy might be a normally reasonable friend who gets drunk and starts being racially abusive. Drunken bigotry is the result of losing inhibitions, not altered reasoning. They were always racist, but previously chose not to voice their opinions because society considers it morally repugnant. Likewise people don’t just troll others online because they are anonymous. Anonymity simply allows them to spout bile without having to worry about any consequences. Conversely there are very good reasons for wanting to be anonymous online, from campaigning again oppression to seeking advice without airing your dirty washing in public. Forcing people to be identifiable online would be detrimental to free speech, but is a name enough identity? I suspect many people would not want to be charted around the internet by personal details for very legitimate reasons, far removed from wanting to be abusive.
An important side note here is that labelling trolls as mentally ill, in particular having personality disorders seems to be a common feature but armchair psychology helps no-one. This is incredibly unfair and discriminatory to the people who struggle with mental health difficulties and the stigma that is still attached to them. Many people with mental health problems don’t hurt anyone except themselves, but struggle to get the help they need because of attitudes like this. On the other hand some people are just cruel; blaming their behaviour on illness outside their control absolves them from part of a responsibility very much theirs to shoulder.
There have always been arseholes in the world. Online though they are more visible and able to get a kick out of bullying others in front of an audience – whether that audience shares their view or is outraged; trolling provokes a response. Having an audience to play up to is perhaps responsible for the escalation of abuse and noticeable competition to be the most hurtful. That insults are public is inherent in social media, so aside from banning persistent offenders, or trying to regulate on a case by case basis it is difficult devise a way to prevent bullying or offensive behaviour using rules or the law.
As the world around us changes and people begin to occupy new niches, rules and expectations develop to keep pace. The internet has raced through our lives, joined everything together and made us more contactable. Technical advancement has gone before the practicalities, just because we can do something doesn’t say much on whether and how we should. Is there enough debate on how the internet is used and regulated? I don’t think so. It’s there but it’s happening in big glass buildings and government offices. Most homes have a computer – they are in libraries and schools – we all use the internet so surely it shouldn’t be left to a select few to decide how far is too far and what should be done about it.
That some people choose to use the internet to harass and threaten others is far from being a grey area; this is a crime and needs to be better dealt with by the police and individual websites. Look around at some of the things that are said on social media sites, would they be tolerated in the pub? Perhaps we don’t respond in the same way as to physical threats or offence because it’s not as tangible or we just aren’t used to it. Constantly phoning someone who doesn’t want to speak to you is instantly recognisable as harassment but the connection to bombarding someone online doesn’t always seem to be made. Online stalking became more widely covered because it often escalates into physical stalking – but surely it doesn’t have to be physical to be scary.
Where people seek to cause offence and hurt, without committing a crime it is more difficult to see how to prevent it. However the harm, attrition of confidence and self-worth it causes are just as pernicious. It may be a bit fuzzy and difficult to prevent, but how many children have to die as a result of bullies being able to get at them where they should feel safe before someone decides to try to focus the lens? The answer is predominantly education; our children need to be better online citizens than we have been. To understand that the online and the physical are tightly bound together and bullying a faceless person across the ether has frighteningly real consequences. A big part of using the internet in a better way is not being intimidated by it. Anyone that has watched a small child with a smart phone will know that technology is somehow intuitive to children. Adults need to learn too. When technology isn’t scary and the consequences of actions online are understood we will be in a much better position to shape the internet in time with making it faster and shinier – then the ‘wild west’ will be tamed