A recent episode of British documentary series Panorama brought up the issue of online bullying. Presenter Declan Lawn unfortunately came to the conclusion that anonymity is the problem and that getting rid of it could very well solve it. Given the level of intrusion we already have into our online privacy — and the advent of laws that threaten it — I believe the time has come to seriously debate the merits and demerits of anonymity online.
The cost of cyberbullying
A recent report by the NSPCC reveals that 38% of young people have been cyberbullied. We've all heard the story of eleven year old "Jessi Slaughter" who was bullied by a troop of trolls after posting an emotional rant on Stickam, which got uploaded to YouTube. You haven't? Read about it here. And, of course, there are all the horror stories of kids committing suicide over cyberbullying. The torment doesn't end for their families, though. Griefers, or RIP Trolls, then show up to post hateful comments on any memorial sites or pages set up for them to get a cheap laugh. Although there is a raft of laws against bullying and harassment, the laws are patchily applied so it's a bit of a lottery when you go to report it; your troll could either be jailed or get away with a slap on the wrist — if that. The real cost of cyberbullying, trolling, and the like is that
1. people can be driven offline by trolls and bullies; occasionally they self-harm and commit suicide
2. we end up with more laws being passed that could restrict our anonymity or invade our privacy to make it easier to catch us if we step out of line
3. we have to be careful about what we say or do online; there's no real freedom if you have to watch your back all the time
This BBC Magazine report puts the case clearly: it's important to protect freedom of speech, but not at the expense of privacy and anonymity.
Anonymity pros and cons
The risk of identity theft makes it unwise to post your details online. I don't particularly want to provide more fuel for the marketing fire either, unless it's to my personal benefit. The idea, though, that anonymity makes monsters of us is absurd; it's like blaming phone booths or pay-as-you-go mobile phones for those dirty, heavy-breathing phone calls in which the perv may or may not enquire about the fabric of your undies or whatever. Anonymity is a tool, is what I'm saying. It doesn't cause anything in and of itself, but yes, I agree it makes it easier for trolls to operate. But I'm not a troll. When I use my alter ego to post lolcats on a forum I frequent so I can have a gentle laugh with fellow sci-fi lovers, I'm not doing it to get away with reprehensible behaviour. I just want to protect my privacy.
Staying safe online
I realise I'm stating the obvious here but really and truly, some people need reminding of these simple guidelines:
1. NEVER put all of your contact details in a publicly accessible place online. It's one thing to use them to sign up for Facebook or whatever, but don't put them in your profile.
2. NEVER put your bank details online. Honestly, one fellow asked me to do it for him but I warned him of the dangers and directed him to PayPal, a safe way of transferring money.
3. NEVER go to websites where bullying and slander are accepted as the norm. What's to stop you from becoming a target? If you take the Three Monkeys approach to trolling you could find yourself being targeted. If all your friends are on a site like that, you need new friends. They will turn on you soon enough, believe me.
4. NEVER accept people you don't know as friends on websites where you're all anonymous. Limit them to your public posts until you've built up enough of a rapport to know if you can trust them or not. Even then, be wary and don't give them enough rope to hang you with down the line.
5. NEVER put anything online that you don't want the whole planet knowing.
6. NEVER forget that online friendships might feel like real life friendships but they're not the real thing. Ignore this at your peril.
7. NEVER let children under sixteen access the internet unsupervised. That Jessi Slaughter thing would never have happened if she'd been playing with her dolls instead of making obscene threats online and behaving like... well, an eleven year old child, as she was at the time. Keep an eye on your kids' online lives. Better to have no internet at home than choose a coffin for your child at the funeral parlour — or see him or her carted off by the cops for cyberbullying. I'm not suggesting you watch them 24/7 but you can keep yourself informed about what they're up to.
8. NEVER permit anyone to post on a memorial website without proper authentication. Facebook has privacy controls that enable you to restrict access to friends. Whatever platform you use for one of these, make sure it allows you to control who can or can't post there, preferably on an approved basis so you can keep trolls and griefers out.
9. If you are annoyed or upset by the behaviour of some fool online, bear in mind that they are doing this to get a reaction from you; the more hysterical you are, the more amusement they derive. I get all sorts of tramps and slappers following me on Twitter, most likely because they're hoping I'll come out with a tweet along the lines of, "Begone, you filthy tramps! #vile #repulsive #porn" I don't do that, I just block them and report them for spam. When the admins pick it up they delete the accounts because you're not supposed to post links to vile repulsive porn on your Twitter account. When I do rant, I rant at stuff that won't attract the wrong kind of attention, e.g. "Gaaah! Twitter, stop messing with the layout! #annoying #notcool #Twitter"
10. NEVER get into vicious arguments online. Trolls live for that. If anyone really annoys you online, switch off your computer and watch the telly instead. Leave that website and move on, is what I'm saying. Contrary to what many people appear to think, you actually DON'T need to get the last word in or to win the argument. Trolls argue for the sake of argument itself. If you find that a heated discussion is degenerating into pointless name-calling and threats, get out of there. It's a no-brainer.
If you are being harassed, report it. Keep your nose clean by not responding in like fashion if you take that route or you risk being labelled a troll yourself. Depending on the severity of the abuse you might have a legal case. American trolls harassing people outside of their country usually get away with it unless a child is involved; you might as well just leave the site and go elsewhere for fun and games. British or local trolls may be punished depending on how seriously your local police force takes the matter. Be prepared to leave the site you've been on if the owners/administrators don't or won't do anything; and leave any friends you think you made there behind. Make a clean break and move on or the trouble may follow you for years.
I hope that helps. If not, here are a few resources for you: