The Internet is arguably the greatest form of communication since the telephone, but some think that anonymity online is hurting rather than helping our society. What good could possibly come out of our ability to say virtually anything we want while simultaneously having our identities hidden by a computer screen and a fake name? Many people say nothing, and while that is entirely up for debate, something I think should not be are the issues of trolling and cyber bullying, their correlations, and the role anonymity plays in both cases.
Anonymity is a tool; it allows people to express their opinions freely without the fear of ridicule, and in some cases, it provides a safe outlet for those struggling with all kinds of issues. It allows people to interact with others who share their interests, insecurities, issues; you name it, while also allowing them to feel free to express themselves without the fear of being unmasked. While, in most cases, anonymity is fairly harmless, the fact that it does in fact breed bad behavior cannot be ignored.
As children gain access to the Internet at younger and younger ages, they are exposed to all kinds of things that would normally be considered inappropriate for them to view. Likewise, the Internet teaches children that they can get away with saying whatever they want to whomever they want with no repercussion as long as they remain anonymous.
Every year more and more stories make headlines, talking of how another person committed suicide because of bullying on the Internet. I have to be honest, no matter how many times I hear that trolling and cyber bullying are not the same thing, I am just not sure I buy it, at least not completely. I found this handy little diagram on a blog called trulioo.com that, in a cute cartoon, outlines the differences between a troll and a cyber bully.
While I do not disagree with this diagram by any means, I mean to use it to prove my point, which is that trolling is just another form of cyber bullying, and that anonymity breeds contempt.
First I would like to briefly define what each thing is. Cyber bullying is, “the electronic posting of mean-spirited messages about a person, often done anonymously,” while trolling is, “Sow[ing] discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a forum, chat room, or blog), either accidentally or with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.”
Both trolling and cyber bullying beget anonymity because they both require a certain amount of courage that most people, generally speaking, would not have in a face-to-face altercation. This is an issue so prevalent, it has been coined the Online Disinhibition
Effect. The option of keeping ones identity hidden increases the desirability of making bold and harsh statements because it not only eliminates responsibility, but also decreases the guilt felt because there is a detachment from the victim that does not exist face-to-face.
Furthermore, both actions have the intent of arousing an emotional response of some kid, usually, if not always, a negative one. The difference here is that, in the case of the cyber bully, there is often a personal resentment and hatred directed at a particular person. However, it can be argued that this is the case with trolling as well, because comments made by trolls are posted on a specific article, blog post, etc. hoping to invoke anger or sadness from the author or those agreeing with the author. Essentially, cyber bullying is just more personal, which brings me to my next point.
If one decides to troll online, for whatever reason, be it boredom, resentment, attention, who is to say that their actions will not escalate? I will admit it is a bit hasty to say that all trolls will escalate, it is safe to say that some will eventually get bored of invoking the same kinds of reactions from the same kinds of people. This may lead to a desire for a more personal target, maybe a person someone wants to get revenge on, or someone who they just do not like. These increased desires for revenge mixed with anonymity can (and do) breed an entirely new species of cyber bullies. These trolls have already had experience in dealing with strangers, knowing how to invoke certain reactions and pull on certain strings, but if they now torment people they know the repercussions of their behavior can only get worse.
“Anonymity increases unethical behavior,” which means that the more access we have to anonymous outlets the more unethical we will become online. The problem, however, lies in the solution, that is, is there a solution? Even if websites require usernames that is not stopping people from using pseudonyms, and if they go a step further and require personal information that is easily made up as well. The question is how far are we willing to go to put and end to trolling and cyber bullying? Free speech is a right we all have under our constitution, but does that include anonymous speech? And when it is at the expense of people’s lives should there be an exception to these rights?
It is difficult to come to a definite conclusion because it is not fair to say that every person posting anonymously will do it for the purpose of trolling or cyber bullying. As I mentioned above, anonymity can be a positive thing. After all, can an online support group for alcoholics not be comparable to AA meetings? They are both outlets for people struggling with alcohol addiction to discuss their progress, coping techniques, and provide support for one another. The only problem is, anonymity online goes a step further than anonymity in, for example, an AA meeting. It is arguable that those in online support groups can be faking their entire identity and their addiction, only pretending to identify with others in order to gain access to a forum where they can further torment those who actually do struggle with addiction. However, it is also arguable that this can be done in person. While, yes, it can, the likelihood of it is much lower, and the reason for that is what I have been talking about throughout this entire post; the fact that anonymity behind a computer screen breeds courage that can in no way rival face-to-face courage.
I am going to be honest this post is kind of all over the place. As I was writing I found myself wanting to make more and more points and my hands were clearly not as fast as my thoughts. However, my point is that the problem of online anonymity is a great one, and while I am not entirely sure how to solve it, I believe that being aware of it is a good way to start. Informing people that their actions have consequences, even if they cannot see them, is extremely important, and it is especially important to teach this to children as they gain access to the Internet at younger and younger ages.