The toxic internet: Anonymity, trolls and abuse
In 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism, a book by Ha-Joon Chang, the author contends that the internet isn’t as revolutionary as many of us think it is and that, in fact, the washing machine had more of an impact on the world than the world wide web has.
Consider for a second, he says, that women who were often required at home to do household chores could now cut the time it took them to wash clothes from up to 4 or 5 hours, to just 30 minutes. Let’s then take the drying machine, the electric cooker, the microwave and other domestic innovations and consider the impact that had on the labour market, meaning that more women than at any other point in history were able to enter the workforce.
It’s a credible and compelling argument, but one you could rebut with the fact that a washing machine can’t send you a death threat through your phone for an opinion you hold. Similarly a microwave can’t send racial abuse in disturbing frequency to black, female MP’s for having the audacity to speak at all.
The internet is a wondrous, mind-blowing invention that has the potential to change the world in ways that few of us can truly imagine. The fact that you can now tap your phone screen and enter a few characters to have your mobile phone direct you in your car to your destination, rather than having an A-Z across your lap has probably saved a significant amount of lives in road accidents, for example.
One thing we can be sure of, however, is that the internet has given some people the darkest corners in which to expose their hatred and ignorance on the world. The anonymous nature of Twitter, for example, has meant that almost anybody can create an account under any name they want purely with the intention of, say, wishing a celebrity’s child dead.
Figures obtained by BBC Yorkshire show reports of malicious communication have almost doubled to more than 200 a day. There were 79,372 offences recorded in 2016, up from 42,910 the year before. Police forces in England and Wales were asked to provide the data, with 38 out of 43 responding.
According to the Megan Meier Foundation, approximately 34% of students report experiencing cyberbullying during their lifetime and 15% of students admitted to cyberbullying others during their lifetime. Peer victimization in children and adolescents is associated with higher rates of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts and the foundation also says that 38% of frequent bully-victims reported suicidal thinking or a suicide attempt during the past year.
What’s the solution then? There’s a school of thinking that, in the political sense at least, there is a morbidly positive element to the online world exposing the sorts of views that many assumed had disappeared over time.
With the rise of Donald Trump, UKIP and Brexit, for example, many have felt emboldened online and in real life to voice opinions on race, gender, sexuality and ethnicity that the majority have found repugnant.
Some campaigners say that this has the positive effect of making the majority of people who find the behaviour abhorrent realise that there’s still a long way to go before we’re able to operate a truly equal society. The treatment of Diane Abbott in the 2017 General Election, for example, left many shocked and disturbed at the level of racist vitriol she received purely for being black and a woman.
YouGov has recently polled Brits on a number of issues relating to feminism as the 100 year anniversary of the Suffragette movement passed. It found that whilst more than half of Brits are aware of feminist movements like the #MeToo campaign, women are still less likely to be given opportunities at work than men, and half of British women aged 18-24 have experienced sexual harassment in a public place in the past 5 years.
Many have called on the government to introduce stricter laws for online harassment and abuse, not least Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, who this week said “there are growing concerns about the way some of the biggest companies on the planet are impacting our lives and the overall wellbeing of our societies. In some cases, these new platforms have been used to exacerbate, fuel and deepen the divisions within our communities.”
In an article for The Conversation, Laura Bliss, Graduate Assistant in Law, wrote “Social networks need to take more responsibility for what is posted on their sites and, sadly, the only way this is likely to happen is through regulation. It’s been well documented that the likes of Facebook and Twitter are slow at removing hateful and illegal content from their sites.
But those who post abusive messages online also need to take responsibility for their actions. It starts with educating young people about social media and the consequences of their actions.
Any legislation enacted will need to take into account our rights to freedom of expression, but there is clearly a difference between voicing an opinion and being abusive.”
In truth, the solution seems to be a mix. As the media is under increasing pressure to churn out constant content, regardless of the quality, social media becomes a more and more useful tool for quick news and entertainment. Consider the amount of news articles that now include Twitter reactions as part of the story.
This shift towards an online life has had profound effects and increasing amounts of research are finding a rise in depression linked to social media. More than this, though, social media allows a faceless platform to interact with people you’re never likely to meet and allows you an instant way to abuse people.
True enough, social media platforms have a responsibility to moderate the content on their platforms, but at what point do we recognise that it’s nearly impossible to moderate immediate content created by billions of individual users as well as bots? It would be like trying to build a wall of sand on a beach with an incoming tide, every time you get it up the sea just takes it back down.
It seems that the most promising ideas to tackle this sort of behaviour are to expose hateful content and confront it aggressively. Schools are already relentlessly pursuing cyber-bullying as an educational priority and few have failed to have heard about its effects, perhaps now is the time for everybody to get involved in tackling this kind of mindless abuse.