Anonymity, trolling and virality: Have we created a culture of bullying online?

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In the space of a few weeks, two Irish teenagers took their own lives and subsequently raised serious questions about cyberbullying and the effect it can have on the mental health of young people. With many placing the blame on social networks, we ask if anonymity and the habit of sharing content at another’s expense has created an online culture that fosters bullying.

Erin Gallagher was buried in Co Donegal on 31 October having died by suicide at just 13 years old. Another Irish teenage suicide had occurred just six weeks earlier, when 15-year-old Ciara Pugsley from Co Leitrim decided to end her life.

It is believed that both girls’ suicides were linked to cyberbullying. More specifically, abuse they were receiving on Ask.fm, a social Q&A site that allows users to post questions anonymously.

Some people value their anonymity online; others abuse it. Online communication already puts distance between two parties, but the added veil of anonymity can bring out the worst in people, giving them licence to behave in a way that they wouldn’t if their name were attached to it.

“Anonymity definitely allows people to say things that they wouldn’t otherwise, more aggressively and on a larger scale,” says Naoise Kavanagh, online communications manager with Inspire Ireland, the organisation behind ReachOut.com, an online service to help young people aged 16-25 get through tough times.

Real names

Facebook, the world’s biggest social network, operates a ‘real names’ policy, strongly encouraging users to include their real identities in their profiles. Recently, in an effort to curtail a growing culture of trolling, prejudice and abusive commenting on YouTube, Google began encouraging users to connect their Google+ identity – and, thus, their real names – to their YouTube accounts.

However, cyberbullying doesn’t just happen through anonymous posts on Ask.fm, and real-name profiles aren’t enough to stop it. “I do believe [removing the option of anonymity] would hamper [cyberbullying] somewhat, but it won’t wipe it out altogether,” says Kavanagh.

“There have been plenty of cases on Facebook, and years ago Bebo, where everyone was aware of the identity of the individuals instigating bullying behaviour and it didn’t prevent it,” she reminds us.

While Kavanagh believes accountability can make a big difference, she doesn’t think it’s nearly enough to eradicate bullying behaviour online entirely. For starters, social networking sites also need to have functions where users can report abuse, and these should be very obvious and easy to use.

Lessons learned by Formspring

Ask.fm is a site that follows in the footsteps of Formspring, possibly the first social Q&A network to really take off, having become popular practically overnight in late 2009. Just like Ask.fm, users on Formspring can post questions anonymously, and this led to the same kind of cyberbullying seen on Ask.fm today and teenage suicides in the US and UK in 2010 and 2011.

But Formspring has tried to act responsibly and quell the culture of cyberbullying that was growing on its site. In early 2011, the site teamed up with the MIT Media Lab to develop detection tools to identify abusive content using natural language processing and, in January of this year, it became a sponsor of the Great American NO BULL Challenge, a video contest aimed at encouraging young people to stand up to bullying.

Cyberbullying image via Shutterstock

Image via Shutterstock

In its effort to address the issues that come with a largely teenage membership, Formspring introduced a number of safety controls and offers advice and tips to its members on how best to enjoy the site. A ‘Flagged questions’ feature filters out undesirable or possibly inappropriate questions – much like a spam filter does with email – and each question comes with a prominent ‘Block’ button.

While anonymous questions are allowed, users can block individual users even if their identity is hidden, or they can choose not to receive questions from anonymous users. Formspring also saves users’ sent questions for them, as a constant reminder that they are accountable for everything they post.

Though Ask.fm has copied Formspring’s concept, it has not taken on its safety concerns. Even in the wake of recent tragedies, the company has made no implication that it plans to reform its policies.

Speaking to RTÉ’s Frontline after Ciara’s death, co-founder and CEO Mark Terebin says: “Of course there is a problem with cyberbullying in social media. But, as far as we can see, we only have this situation in Ireland and the UK most of all, trust me. There are no complaints regarding cyberbullying from parents, children or other sources in other countries.”

Behaviour in context

So, is it that Irish teenagers are cruel in nature, both online and offline? “In terms of cyberbullying, it is the way people use foo = something that’s the problem and not really the sites themselves,” says Kavanagh. “There have been studies showing that the majority of people who have experienced cyberbullying were experiencing it in real life as well by the same people, so we cannot claim it’s the site’s fault.”

Today’s teenagers are digital natives. They have been brought up in a world where online personas come as second nature and – whether it’s the internet, mobile web or SMS – they have constant access to communications networks. Bullying has been around much longer than this technology has, but in an ever-more connected society, it becomes harder to escape.

Cyberbullying image via Shutterstock

Image via Shutterstock

“The difference between cyberbullying and bullying is that pervasive nature of it; that it’s 24/7 in someone’s whole world, invading all areas of someone’s life,” explains Kavanagh. “It takes very little for someone to instigate a series of very damaging events online, and that may not always be the initial intent.”

Having visited the Ask.fm site and others, it strikes me that the vernacular employed by users – many of whom I suspect are teenagers – is frequently violent, abusive and sexually explicit. This is the acceptable language of teenagers, and some seem not to realise the effect their words can have. On screen, the distance between the speaker and the words and lack of nuances like tone of voice and body language can turn what is thought to be benign into something hurtful.

“What can seem innocuous or funny for one person may not be the same for another. Nearly every day you see something, supposedly for laughs, that’s gone viral and – if you think about it – it was shared generally at someone’s expense,” says Kavanagh. “Some people get to turn it around and become online stars and good for them, but others aren’t so lucky.”

Building a positive community

As we interact with others more and more online, we need to be conscious of what kind of a culture we are creating here – whether welcoming and friendly, or snide and judgemental. “We all need to be mindful of our behaviour online and we’re all responsible for preventing cyberbullying. The thing is we all can – we’re not powerless here,” says Kavanagh.

“If someone posts an embarrassing photo of someone, think what it would feel like if that was a photo of you before you like it or share it. Don’t weigh in behind someone asking nasty, offensive questions on someone’s profile. In fact, if you know the person starting it, pull them up on it, or report them if you don’t feel you can face them head on,” she advises.

At the end of the day, social networks are a resource for social interaction. It is the users that will determine whether those interactions are friendly or not.

“The coverage of these tragic stories of cyberbullying highlights the impact of behaviour within communities, no matter where they exist,” says Kavanagh. “It needs to be acknowledged that, at their best, social networks are a very positive influence. There are many cases of self-policing communities and it does the heart good when you come across them,” she adds.

Main image via Shutterstock

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Elaine Burke is managing editor of Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com