One of the prime aspects of the Internet is that it enables individuals to facilitate conversation while remaining completely anonymous. In recent years, the negative and positive repercussions of anonymity have come to light. Interactions written and exchanged through code have resulted in real, physical harm to the faces beyond the computer screen. Yet being faceless and nameless on the Internet has its benefits: it can help users relieve anxiety, and seek advice. Nonetheless, cyber-bullies, who often hide behind the veil of anonymity, are becoming a more prominent real world issue because their cruelty transcends the initial medium on which their harassment begins, and negatively affects their victims emotionally and physically. If abolishing anonymity on the Internet were possible, should it be done to reduce and prevent future cases of detrimental cyber-bullying?
Claire Porter, a writer for The Punch, defines cyber-bullying as a malicious act that “involves the repeated harassment of and/or threats toward a single individual via electronic social media.”
While annoying and crude, trolls and trolling, in practice, is not unethical. While trolls might make lewd remarks, these individuals are understood by the majority to be nonsensical and imprudent. In other words, while they might cause a small amount of emotional distress in others, trolls are harmless. In fact, those who take a troll’s “bait” are often called naive or “stupid”; in some cases trolls can even be considered funny.
The Social Media Chimps define a troll as:
“anyone who anonymously leaves crude, derisive or sarcastic commentary within an online public forum. ‘Trolling’ is universally frowned upon, but for the most part, the practice is legally protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”
In “Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community”, Judith Donath describes trolling as:
“a game about identity deception, albeit one that is played without the consent of most of the players.”
Trolls exercise various methods to rile up the online community on which their shenanigans take place. One variation of an Internet troll unceasingly distributes sarcastic, often absurdly hilarious remarks to baffle and entertain others. Those who partake in this method of trolling are somewhat akin to the class clown. These trolls do not always engage in identity deception, but rather exaggerate a preexisting characteristic they already have. Nonetheless, many trolls do take on the persona and ideals of a makeshift character during their tirades. These individuals might argue in favor of opinions they do not personally support. In many cases, they will even fabricate facts to validate their “opinion”. All of these strategic steps are so the troll can feel a sense of satisfaction for having fooled their targets.
A troll is one Internet archetype that utilizes anonymity. However, in modern culture, a troll is often mistakenly labeled as a cyber-bully. In April, a young teenager named Josh Unsworth committed suicide due to, what his father called, “cyber-bullying and trolling”. He continued to say that both were supposed to be criminal offenses. However, in concept, trolling and cyber-bullying differ in multiple aspects. Trolling, Claire Porter writes in The Punch, “is an art; it requires some finesse.” Cyber-bullying is much more malicious, as its purpose is:
“to harm other people, in a deliberate, repeated, and hostile manner.”
Individuals who troll do so for satirical bantering; those who cyber-bully do so to intentionally inflict damage.
Cyber-bullying encompasses subjecting an individual to harassment, threats, and belittlement – it does not necessarily have to be repetitive attacks on a single individual. According to Stop Bullying, a government organization that raises awareness about cyber-bullying, from 2008 to 2009, 6% of students from grade 6 to 12 have been bullied online. In extreme cases, as previously discussed before, cyber-bullying can lead to the victim engaging in self-mutilation or, in the worst possible scenario, the victim’s suicide.
Tyler Clementi, a student of Rutgers University whose case drew national attention, was one such victim of insidious cyber-bullying. Tyler was a homosexual who had yet to come out. His college roommate, disregarding Clementi’s privacy, secretly recorded Tyler’s intimate encounters with another male without his consent then uploaded the video onto Twitter. His roommate, Dharun Ravi, subsequently urged his Twitter followers to view and forwards the video. On September 22, 2012, Tyler, who was only eighteen, committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.
Due to the nature of the Internet, which lessens the significance of spatial distance between individuals, cyber-bullying can involve strangers living on opposite ends of the earth. However, cyber-bullying can also be used to prolong and perpetuate harassment that originally manifested in the physical world. As a result, greater emotional harm can be dealt to sufferers of bullying, such as bullied high school students.
While trolling and cyber-bullying differ from each other in certain aspects, the two heavily rely on anonymity, which allows the troll and bully, if they so choose, to interact with the digital realm with a faceless, nameless character. The anonymity of the Internet can shroud trolls and cyber-bullies with a cloud of secrecy, providing them with a sense of security and, as a result, freedom. This protection provided by being unidentifiable is what drives and facilitates trolling and cyber-bullying. Individuals can now say and do as they please without having to deal with the negative ramifications that might surface in retaliation to their behavior. Trolls and cyber-bullies can avoid undesirable feedback from the Internet and from the material world, which is understood to be more important than the encrypted world because consequences in the real world, which serves as one’s unavoidable reality, are thought to be more detrimental to one’s personal life.
For trolls, trolling is performed with the intention of alleviating boredom and having fun. Anonymity provides them with a safe platform to do so, but it also allows them to safely and swiftly withdraw once their facetious shenanigans are met with biting disapproval. For example, if a troll, through his or her online behaviors or words, ignited the vexation of an Internet user, he or she could simply block them. Turning off the computer is also an option. However, if an individual upset someone they knew in “real life”, the anxiety of being confronted or seeing them cannot necessarily be forgone.
Certain cyber-bullies force cruelty onto others for simple, but of course inappropriate, reasons such as boredom and bandwagoning. In contrast, others are more indirectly personally engaged in their malicious deeds. For some, the safeguard provided by anonymity allows them to publicize a different corner of their personality, one that they might be hiding with a façade in real life due to circumstances. An otherwise amicable individual in the office, who perhaps hates their boss, might be a notorious cyber-bullying because they are trying to relieve their own unhappiness. Being anonymous gives him or her the chance to redirect their animosity towards someone they know in real life without having to face life-altering consequences, such as being fired.
While Internet anonymity leads to adverse results such as trolling and cyber-bullying, it can also serve as a beneficial tool that improves digital communities and its users. Individuals with a weight on their shoulder and cast the burden aside by confessing embarrassing secrets to the world by speaking through a featureless, location-less avatar. In turn, upon evaluating the digital community’s reaction, they might summon the courage to disclose whatever ailed them to those they know in the physical world. Similarly, persons who experience social anxiety can use anonymity to interact with others. While negative feedback is impossible to avoid, and still traumatizing to an extent, it is less threatening if the opposing individual doesn’t have a face or name to ridicule. If necessary, the socially anxious person can still retreat to avoid further embarrassment. However, if the feedback is positive, this encouragement might amend their fears and pave a path for them to eventually break out of their shell in both the digital realm and the real world.
Little is being done to diminish Internet anonymity by requiring netizens to apply a tractable identity to all their accounts. As a result, cyber-bullying is becoming an increasingly problematic and harmful social issue. However, some would argue that even if individuals were required to identify themselves on the Internet, bullying would continue. Bullying persists in the physical world, where it is most rampant, even today. Nonetheless, it seems that it is easier to anonymously cyber-bully because there is a lack of certain, unavoidable backlash. If possible, should the ability to be anonymous be removed? Do the negatives outweigh the benefits enough to merit future action? Or is the featureless, gray icon too embedded and important to cyberculture for scrapping it to even be considered?