Breaking news! The internet isn’t just for porn! Actually, the internet is full of bullies. That’s right. Cyber bullying is the real issue for kids these days.
When we think about cyber-bullying, we think about the libelous attacks that people post anonymously on websites like AutoAdmit or the now defunct Juicy Campus, where posts are almost entirely uncensored and unmoderated. Short of a court-ordered subpoena, in fact, it’s nearly impossible to convince these website owners’ to remove damaging posts, and even when they do, the attacks still exist in cached files on search engines, leaving an indelible mark on the internet. Really, it’s no wonder that cyber-bullying is so damaging to its victims. So, why do nice, ordinary people make such disparaging, thoughtless comments online?
Well, people can be meaner online (Kashmir Hill). It’s true. It’s the 21st century version of talking trash behind someone’s back instead of saying something to their face, except that in this instance, that person can just Google themselves and find out what you’ve been saying. Oops. From the point of view of trash talking poster, it’s okay, because these were anonymous comments. How could anyone possibly find out who they are? Off the internet, yeah, it might be difficult to trace the origins of a rumor, but the internet’s memory is a lot better than our own.
The issue seems to be one of social credit and personal reputation – offline, when you’re spreading rumors about someone, you’re careful who you talk to, because you don’t want to damage your own “stock” of social credit. Nobody wants to be labeled as a gossipmonger. Online, and anonymously, however, there is no credit to be worried about…or so you think. The reality, however, is that anonymity is in short supply on the internet. Moreover, people are apparently forgetting that defamation is always illegal, on- and offline.
Just because you have a pseudonym on a message board doesn’t mean that you’re actually anonymous, since there is a physical link from your computer to the Internet (ISP Providers, anyone?). If you go through proxies like TOR or VPNs like ItsHidden, then you might be more anonymous, but your internet connection can get slower, and if you’re using something like Anonymizer, the moment the server gets too busy, it will automatically shut down and then you’ll be exposed once more. However, the average internet user really isn’t that aware of how vulnerable they are, and how difficult it is to keep things private.
For example: is there really any privacy on Facebook anymore? Apparently, people still think that’s the case. A couple weeks ago, a few girls at Choate Rosemary Hall created their own “burn book” on a Facebook thread. When we think about cyber-bullying, we think about anonymity, but on Facebook, there really isn’t any anonymity to be had, since your online profile is tied to your personal identity. So, really, a new question arises – how much of your privacy is protected?
If these new “See Friendship” pages (which are incredibly creepy, by the way) are any indication, there is practically no privacy on Facebook whatsoever, even if you are extremely careful about who you friend and what people can see on your page. And yet, incidents like what happened at Choate, or what happened to Filipino actress Krista Ranillo, do occur. They’re rarer than your average cyber-bullying case, because to a certain extent, most Facebook users are aware of the fact that they really don’t have much privacy. Nonetheless, libel on Facebook is a serious issue – if you send someone a private message full of damaging accusations, it’s not really private, since it exists somewhere in Facebook’s massive data archives. Would those girls at Choate have said the same things if the medium hadn’t been a message thread, but a status update? Probably not. However, they thought that that thread would never be seen by anyone it was targeting.
Alas, if only they’d been better educated about their privacy options. In general, perhaps if people were more aware of how easily they and their words can be traced on the internet, the rate of cyber-bullying might be lowered, since social credit would become a factor again, and that’s definitely a huge deterrent. After all, nobody actually wants to be labeled as a gossip, right?