Could the days of the anonymous social-network bully be numbered?

9 Aug 20139 Shares

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It may be all about to unravel for the online bully, a putrid, weak specimen that enjoys tormenting others whilst hiding behind a cloak of anonymity. The owners of the controversial social network Ask.fm, which has been blamed for the deaths of a number of teenagers who were bullied via the site, have promised to hand over details of anonymous users to police following the death last week of UK teenager Hannah Smith.

14 year-old Hannah hanged herself at her family home in Leicestershire after being taunted on Ask.fm, presumably by other teenagers. The tragedy sounds all too familiar in terms of the suicides last year of Irish teens Ciara Pugsley (14) from Leitrim, and Erin Gallagher (13) and her sister Shannon (15) from Donegal who are understood to have been harassed on the Ask.fm site.

The site was established in Latvia in 2010 as a rival to Formspring and one of its main uses by teenagers is to be able to ask questions anonymously and receive responses anonymously. That very cloak of anonymity, however, has only served to bring out only the worst in other teenagers who would taunt rather than help their fellow teens.

In the aftermath of Hannah’s death her father spoke out and called for greater controls for sites like Ask.fm. This was echoed by British Prime Minister David Cameron who called for a boycott against sites that don’t take responsibility for dealing with cyberbullying. Advertisers including eBay, BT and Vodafone have stopped advertising on the site.

Cooperating with police?

For its part Ask.fm has promised to cooperate with police and will offer up IP addresses.

“Although it is possible to post anonymously to the site we would like to reassure parents that in almost all cases it is possible for Ask.fm to identify users – through IP technology, everything on the internet is traceable – and in extreme cases such as those we’ve experienced this week we work through existing legal frameworks to ensure this information is accessible to the appropriate legal authorities,” the social network said.

The upshot of all of this is that all social networks, not just Ask.fm, but also sites like Facebook and Twitter, will have to demonstrate they are taking a tougher stance on combating bullies who post anonymously or even publicly.

Outrage against the antics of bullies is reaching fever pitch. Twitter, for example, is running the gauntlet of a potential boycott in the UK over attacks on female users by trolls issuing rape and bomb threats across the social network. Labour MP Stella Creasy and feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez have received death and rape threats in recent weeks.

A campaign calling for a “Report Abuse” button in recent weeks has attracted almost 135,000 signatures.

The general manager for Twitter UK Tony Wang has also responded via Twitter, saying the company is testing ways to simplify reporting, eg, within a tweet by using the ‘Report Tweet’ button in its iPhone app and on mobile web.

Why aren’t the social networks being more proactive?

The question I have is why are social networks waiting until after the event, after the threats have been issued, and after some poor young soul takes his or her life, to deal with the issue?

Why aren’t they being more proactive to eradicate bullying on a platform they themselves have built?

People need more than just reporting systems; they need to know someone is looking out for them. I’m sure neither Zuckerberg nor Dorsey et al created their social networks with the idea that they could one day be used to coerce or demean, but that’s human nature and if you build anything for the internet you have to anticipate abuses.

God knows they make enough money from online advertising. They could invest this back into making their networks safer, educating users better and setting standards that could influence a world in which within an unprecedented short amount of time they themselves have become the pillars.

The simple truth is people have had enough of the bullying

No one likes a bully. In fact in that very statement is the kernel of truth as to why people in fact bully. They actually don’t like themselves very much and possibly by demeaning, socially isolating, ostracising and terrorising others they are consciously or subconsciously deflecting attention away from themselves and their jealousies and insecurities and onto another vulnerable human being.

Just as culpable as the bullies are their accomplices. There are two kinds of accomplices who share the guilt; those who actively join in the bullying and those who stand idly by and do nothing. The motivation for the accomplice is usually fear; fear that if they do something to stand up for the victim they too might attract the ire of the crowd. So they just follow the crowd.

The thing about social media is that it is a crowd – a crowded, very public place where expression is encouraged but potentially could also draw the wrong kind of attention.

Many of us who are parents or who have nieces or nephews about to enter the turbulent teenage world are genuinely scared about the future for these kids. They all want the latest smartphones and technologies, but how will they cope in a world where they are less likely to ask an adult for help or advice and indeed to most adults that world is alien and bewildering.

My advice to parents who worry about the cyber lives of their kids has always been to create an environment where their kids feel comfortable talking about what they are doing online.

What never gets talked about, however, is the bullies themselves. We read the news reports about teenagers who have taken their lives and yet no one asks about the bullies. Indeed I wonder are parents of teenagers actually wondering if their beautiful, perfect sons or daughters are in fact taking part in the online taunting on sites like Ask.fm.

Do their parents wonder if some of these kids might be traumatised by the role they played in events leading up to the suicide of another teen?

Respect others and fear the consequences of your actions

Most of us were brought up by our parents to have good manners. To treat each other right and to act respectfully and in a civilised way. Not to break the rules, not to go to jail. The truth is life doesn’t always work out that way. If you walk down the street and you commit a crime there are consequences. If you are assaulted or harassed you are supposed to have rights.

The online world should be no different.

There are rules against bullying in the workplace and there are rules against bullying in the schoolyard.

But yet there are no clearly defined rules or laws to protect people against bullying on social networks.

Moves in Ireland to tackle cyberbullying head-on

This may be about to change. In Ireland the Government’s Special Rapporteur on Child Protection Dr Geoffrey Shannon has recommended that cyberbullying and indeed any form of harassment using technology needs to be included in legislation and made a criminal offence in Ireland.

In addition an investigation into cyberbullying via social network sites by an Oireachtas Committee has recommended new rules whereby social networks active in Ireland, employers and school principals will be expected to take swift action where cases of bullying arise.

If new legislation emerges, along with the news that sites like Ask.fm are willing to surrender users’ anonymity to help in a police investigation, then the day of the anonymous online bully must surely be numbered?

Sadly, I don’t believe that. Human nature will mean there will always be bullies. New platforms and technologies will always emerge to give an outlet to our worst instincts. Lawmakers and social network providers will have to move faster and show vision to come up with the rules and capabilities to lessen the dangers and support the victims.

I sometimes wonder if in writing Lord of the Flies, author William Golding in telling his story about the worst traits in human nature that emerge when a group of boys get stranded on an island wasn’t somehow channelling the future internet world we find ourselves in now.

The internet has made the world a smaller place. We are on that island now.

No face hacker image via Shutterstock

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com