Originally published on Net magazine.
The internet has made our lives better in countless ways. We’re able to find and connect with groups of people who share our interests even if they are thousands of miles away. The internet can be a tremendous source of mental and emotional support, and there are corners of social media that can be incredibly supportive. A safe space for like-minded people to share their thoughts and feelings.
But in amongst all of these positives lies a dark side to the internet and social media. A place that can fuel anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. A place where playground bullies creep out the cracks to start fires, hurl abuse and entertain themselves at the expense of others, armed with a keyboard and shielded by the glow of their screen. And it’s having a devastating impact.
According to the mental health charity Mind, one in four people will experience mental health problems each year. Not only that, but there has been a recent increase in the number of teenagers being admitted to hospital for suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts, with a reported link to the cyberbulling increase.
Although many say the relationship still cannot be fully proven, Tthe correlation between the two can no longer be denied. And to me those statistics speak volumes; the internet is not a safe place.
“Don’t feed the trolls”
Unless you’ve been living under a bridge, you’ve more than likely come across the term ‘troll’. And no, it’s not the arch-enemy of the three billy goats.
The modern definition of a ‘troll’ is someone who leaves an intentionally annoying message on the internet, in order to get attention or cause some trouble. It’s a seemingly innocent definition for a dark and growing part of the internet.
And when faced with trolls and the havoc they can wreak – whether it’s a “lol stfu” or an explicit and detailed death threat – time and time again, the often quoted piece of advice is “don’t feed the trolls”. Ignore what they say and rise above.
It’s a “turn the other cheek” updated for the modern age. But while it’s true that trolls thrive off the attention they receive in return, it’s highly unlikely they’ll give up when they don’t get a response. Instead, they’ll just keep pushing and pushing. Much like offline stalkers and abusers, the severity of their messages will often get worse and worse until the abused snaps. Ignoring it can do just as much harm as provocation. And the mental damage to the ‘abused’ is done.
The anonymity of social media gives trolls a sense of power and strength. This temporary loss of identity enables trolls to do away with standard social etiquette; I guarantee that these trolls handing out death threats like candy wouldn’t say a thing to someone’s face in real life. It’s almost as if they put on a mask, can pretend to be somebody else and all of a sudden they are exempt from the consequences of their actions. They are fuelled by the anonymous rush and that only makes them do it all the more.
Now, some will argue that the sheer size of social media means that these people can’t be moderated and that any form of moderation takes away their rights. I say no. That’s just an easy way out, and it’s time for somebody out there to take responsibility and make changes. Freedom of speech doesn’t trump people’s right to feel safe, even on the internet.
Freedom of speech vs feeling safe
Before the trolls direct hate my way, I’d like to clearly state that I am not against people’s right to freedom of speech. The ability to use the internet as you want – whether it’s a ‘like’ on Facebook, contributing to a Reddit thread, or writing a personal blog – is such a wonderful thing. But even the most staunch freedom of speech supports out there can surely see that there’s a balance to be struck between the right to say whatever you want and protecting people from harmful comments.
Many people argue that blocking accounts, deleting tweets and banning users is a violation of people’s right to freedom of speech. But surely, if you’re main use of that freedom is to tear other people down or wish horrific crimes or death on them then maybe, just maybe, you don’t deserve those freedoms?
It’s time to start acknowledge that social media and the internet is now such a big and important part of our lives, that we have to make protecting the wellbeing of its users a top priority. “Opting out” of social media just isn’t an option. We don’t just use it to stay in touch with people and talk about Love Island: jobs thrive on it. Social media is indispensable and influential, so it’s time to make a change.
Who needs to step up?
Believe it or not, I’m not an internet hater. My whole business thrives on the internet – we wouldn’t exist without it! And to give credit where it’s due, things on the internet have greatly improved since it first started to go mainstream. Certain ‘hashtags’ are now banned from Instagram e.g. #thinspo; warnings and the Samaritans’ number appear on Google whenever anyone searches for potentially harmful search terms; we can increase our privacy settings so strangers can’t see too much about us; and we now have the ability to block and mute anyone we wish on social media. Slowly but surely it’s becoming a little bit safer. We can carefully craft our social media presence to protect ourselves from those who would wish us harm.
But it’s not enough. And more needs to be done.
First and foremost, I call on online platforms to step up and change their ways. They need to accept accountability for what is happening on their watch. Their rules need updating. As of this moment, a tweet sending violence and threats to another is unlikely to get that account removed. Maybe a temporary ban if you’re lucky. That seems wrong to me. If you use your right to freedom of speech to direct such vile words to another human, do you deserve that right?
Sure, we can block and mute people but what’s to stop that person creating a new account and directing more hate your way? Or from simply trolling another person for voicing an opinion? Twitter and Facebook need to stop the reliance on bots and AI to deal with reporting requests. The internet is filled with stories of people who are allowed to get away with anonymous racist and sexist abuse – and even death threats – only to be given a slap on the wrist in the form of a 24 hour ban or account suspension.This issue needs a human touch; an actual person to look through reported accounts and make an educated and intuitive decision.
And finally, it’s time to update the advice we give to young people. Classes on internet safety should be a core part of kids’ education so they can learn about cyberbullying, social media addiction and its potentially harmful effects.
“Ignore” and “don’t feed the trolls” is outdated and quite frankly dangerous guidance. Let’s stop tiptoeing around and pretending it doesn’t exist. Let’s empower people to take charge, call out the trolls, and give them the confidence to report and take these people down.
The internet doesn’t belong to the trolls. So let’s take it back.
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