Press on online abuse and bullying

From the Christchurch Press Editorial: Stamping out online ugliness:

The internet has been responsible for many good things, as a Google executive has observed, but the dark and horrible practice of “trolling” – spreading abusive and offensive comments – and similar such activities is not one of them. In the past, nasty and ugly remarks made by people generally did not go much beyond those they were in close touch with. It was limited by the size of social circles and naturally limited from spreading further by the general reluctance of people in civilised company to pass on wounding stuff said about others.

Now, thanks to the internet, such stuff can go at practically the speed of light all over the world, and where formerly only a few would know of a hurtful comment, now thousands can learn of it in an instant. Once on the internet, it also tends to endure. Large outfits like Facebook and Google may remove it and links to it, but such efforts are rarely entirely successful. And not only is there no shortage of people prepared to create obnoxious stuff, there also seems to be no shortage of those who will slaver over it and even worse commend it, add to it and pass it on.

Those who engage in trolling may, of course, be deeply troubled themselves as was illustrated by a tragic example in England last week when a middle-aged woman was identified as one who had engaged with many others in a what has been called a “vile” campaign of abuse against Kate and Gerry McCann, the parents of the five-year-old who disappeared while on a family holiday in Portugal seven years ago. When asked why she did it, the woman said she felt “entitled” to. A few days later, however, she was found dead, an apparent suicide.

The creation and spreading of this kind of stuff is largely enabled because of the anonymity of the internet. Many people engage in it because they know they will never have to face their victims and are confident they will not have to answer for what they have done. Many of them may also not be aware of the full effects they will have on their victims. Putting it at its most charitable, these people may not realise that the words they heedlessly tap out in isolation at a keyboard can have far-reaching and shattering consequences.

Regulations and laws have been put in place to try to control the worst of this material and they have been effective up to a point. But laws and regulations, though they may deter some people, generally operate after the event, by which time damage may have been done.

The best deterrent may be to try to bring home to internet users the fact that obnoxious behaviour is obnoxious wherever it occurs. There needs to be the cultivation of a greater awareness, possibly starting with young people who seem most likely to engage in ungoverned behaviour, that if it is not acceptable to say or do something directly to others, it is just as unacceptable to do or say it online.

It’s up to participants on blogs and other social media to confront and speak up against abuse and bullying online.

Blogs are communities, albeit with anonymous input. The quality of any community requires good people to stand up against the worst of human behaviour.

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