You can’t go a week these days without hearing about a case of cyberbullying. If you sought the cases out you could find a new story every day. Many of these stories have resulted in justice for the bullied, like the woman bullied on the school bus who ended up getting a vacation and the bullies were punished. But too many of these stories still end in tragedy (I’m not going to link any here, you can search for yourself if you’re looking for some bad news).
Some say that social media has helped bring these cases to light or helped the victims. Social media certainly can have some advantages here–bullied individuals can make meaningful connections so they realize they aren’t alone or they can show the public what bullies have been doing to them in private. Certainly the notion of bullying has been around long before social media, so connecting more people can help address this problem even if it isn’t a total solution.
But I also have to wonder if social media is also contributing to the problem by creating more cyberbullies in the first place.
The Internet and social media are, at their cores, speech. And the cornerstone of every western democracy (which still drives most social media activity) is free speech. But that central right of free speech comes with costs. One of those costs is offensive speech. We do set limits after which speech can become something that we are no longer willing to legally protect (libel, slander, harassment, threats, coercion, etc.). But even beneath these limits there is a huge amount of speech that is protected but unsavory–we call that offensive speech. Offensive speech is protected and it should be–after all, the speech behind most political change will be considered offensive by some. But at some point even a huge piling of offensive speech can become something more, something that we don’t need to protect. That’s where the merely offensive turns into cyberbullying, even though the exact line is hard to draw.
But until the speech turns into something that society doesn’t want to allow, for the most part it is protected as free speech. And one part of free speech is the right to be anonymous. There’s a long history of the right to anonymously criticize a government or corporation being protected. But that history is usually told through decisions made by the speaker. Hundreds or even dozens of years ago people wrote critical pamphlets or essays or books and didn’t sign their name, or signed a fictitious name instead. That anonymity was by intent. The anonymity that social media allows is primarily one by design.
As the Internet grew from nascent connected communities like dial-up BBS sites and Usenet groups, real names were rarely used because of technical reasons. Systems allowed only a certain number of characters for your ID, if they allowed letters at all (one of the early, large networks, CompuServe, only had 7 to 9 digits as your user ID and email address). Putting in your real name wasn’t possible and it didn’t matter. You adopted a nickname or handle and joined the community.
Gradually, more and more sites created their own techniques for logging in or establishing a permitted identity, but they rarely (if ever) required you to actually authenticate yourself. Meaning you created an ID with a name and verified that was your account but there was no attempt to authenticate your name. This authentication problem is something I’ve blogged about before but the importance here is jumping ahead several decades and seeing the social media world we have wrought.
In an effort to get people to join sites as quickly as possible, we have made signing up as easy as possible. Easy means fast. Fast means not authenticated. Sites don’t care if you are who you say you are–that you use their site and accept their terms are good enough. We have created a world where the vast majority of content is anonymous. Some of it may be truly anonymous, as in not even a username is attached as an author. Other content may have a user identity connected to it but we have no idea who the person may be.
There are some well known psychological impacts to having this amount of anonymous activity. Generally it’s known as disinhibition and it has some scary sounding factors like dissociative anonymity (knowing their activity cannot be traced back to them, users will behave differently online), solipsistic introjection (communications from other people, seen just as text on a screen, can be interpreted as just a voice within a user’s head–a voice which they can then respond to without regard for social norms), and asynchronicity (users may post more heated content because they know they will post it and then never have to revisit the content or site again).
Social media certainly has the ability to connect people in meaningful ways. But as it becomes a more widely used method for communicating it also comes with some dangers. It didn’t create the original problem, but social media might be making it worse. Lawmakers are already struggling with how to properly address cyberbullying and otherwise offensive posts. There’s a great article from the BBC about a current wave of prosecutions over social media content, but even better is the video embedded in the article that talks about different categories of offensive behavior and what is appropriate to prosecute.
But have we made the problem of cyberbullying worse by continuing to propagate social media sites that have anonymous or unauthenticated accounts? Gawker came under fire for recently unmasking the true identity of a controversial user at Reddit. The immediate response from the Reddit community was to flame Gawker for infringing on free speech, particularly the right to speak anonymously, and then to ban all Gawker links from Reddit. Apparently they missed the hypocrisy in their response, but deep down is something bigger.
When this user was unmasked he practically begged the author not to reveal his name. He knew it would have real world repercussions based on the content he had posted and the people he had riled up over the years. Perhaps without social media he would have found other, similar outlets for his kind of activity–but did social media make it worse?
Are we creating a new generation who are even more disconnected from other people and simply see words on a screen rather than feeling people behind them? Social media is about conversations and should be about bringing people together. Could it be the technology that allows me to connect to someone I would have never met in real life is the same thing that disconnects me from people who work next to me?