Why Online Abuse Is Not Our Destiny

from the we'll-learn-to-behave dept

If you've spent any time on social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter, you can appreciate the hazards of the digital jungle. And even if you can fend for yourself out there, what about your kids? As well as I know the jungle's safe paths, I constantly worry about my three sons as they begin to navigate social platforms.

The alternate world of our social media identities – profiles, handles, accounts, "friends" – has ruined reputations and ended careers, even lives. Adolescents and teenagers see this daily in the form of online bullying. For adults, the harassment usually comes from the anonymous vitriol spewed across the web. The question becomes then: Will it get better? Or is this simply the new normal of our increasingly all-digital world?

The Supreme Court recently heard arguments in the case of a man convicted of threatening on Facebook to kill his wife. The defendant argues that he never meant what he wrote online. The prosecution argues, in effect, that intent is not the issue. Rather, a reasonable person would have felt threatened and that should be standard for a crime committed. What would you – or did you – think if someone dropped a death threat on your profile page?

How the Court decides Elonis v. United States could lead the way toward stemming online abuse. The Justices may uphold the conviction, but as Justice Sonia Sotomayor said during oral arguments, "We've been loathe to create more exceptions to the First Amendment." It's a comment that might leave the floodgates wide open for online abuse, granting online bullies and trolls even greater latitude under the cover of the First Amendment.

No matter what the Court decides, it still would be exceedingly hard to prosecute online offenders whose abuse doesn't include physical threats. Ask any teenager or adolescent if online attacks like, "You're so ugly; you should kill yourself," hurt any less than verbal assaults. The Court's decision won't stem the online harassment of adult victims either, whose tweets, posts or pictures done in poor taste can cause serious digital backlash.

The fact is social networks have changed the way we see ourselves, just as email once changed the way we communicated. Whether it's bullying or harassment, there still exists a sense of comfortable anonymity in the digital-social world. We have our "offline" selves, who would never say such things to someone's face, and our "online" selves, who can't stop from piling on our targets. In many ways, it's no different than the violent mobs of yesteryear – people in a mob find themselves doing things they would never contemplate on their own.

But Court cases like Elonis are helping to erode this digital wall between our online and offline identities. Since its foundation, the Internet has revealed its unique place in society – a place where people are free to be whoever they want. As the classic New Yorker cartoon featuring two canines puts it, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." This freedom has found its purest expression in social network sites. Yet the nature of the Internet is changing. We hardly even talk about "being online" anymore, because we're always online through our smartphones and mobile devices.

And today, more and more of our cars are online. Our televisions are online. Even our clock radios are online. There will be a time in the not-so-distance future when most of our household appliances will be connected to the web – and not in the way we now know them: using the Internet for one application, such as navigation for cars. They will be "communicating" with other connected devices, constantly gathering data through sensors on us, the users, and on our surroundings.

As the Internet evolves, so too will the way in which we see ourselves. Social networks will no longer be confined to our screens – laptops, tablets or smartphones. They will be as seamlessly integrated into our daily lives as the Internet itself. In this digital future, it will be much harder to cyberbully and torment people online, because the anonymity of the Internet will give way as we circle back to a world of singular identity – online and off.

The chasm that once existed between our online selves and our offline selves is shrinking. Given the trends of digital devices and the ubiquity of the Internet we see today, Facebook, Twitter and other social networks will no longer be separate places where our actions live without consequence. They will be as real as our brick-and-mortar reality, where civility and restraint still govern. "Welcome to the jungle" will no longer be a dire warning, but a digital whisper.

Shawn DuBravac, Ph.D., is the chief economist at the Consumer Electronics Association and the author of the forthcoming book, "Digital Destiny: How the New Age of Data Will Transform the Way We Work, Live, and Communicate" (Regnery, 2015). Follow Shawn on Twitter @ShawnDuBravac

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  • icon
    Jordan (profile), 9 Apr 2015 @ 3:47pm

    Hmmm

    If I said to someone in real life the same thing, implying it wasn't serious wouldn't be a valid defense either if the person felt it was serious. I don't see why it should be different on the internet.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Meelo, 9 Apr 2015 @ 9:23pm

      Re: Hmmm

      Because there is no tonal inflection or facial expression when chatting via text. Exaggeration gets intent across while minimizing misunderstanding. Exaggeration takes place of face-to-face social cues.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Apr 2015 @ 4:36pm

    "free to be whoever they want"? -- Few aspire very high.

    Mainly, I'm getting tired of Techdirt pretending to be a model forum of moderated civility plagued by a few trolls. I just usually let these topics pass, because it's icky. But since some are new here and the rest refuse to recall:

    Here's the actuality of Timothy Geigner, aka "Dark Helmet", now a paid writer for Techdirt:

    "There are white people, and then there are ignorant motherfuckers like you...."
    http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20110621/16071614792/misconceptions-free-abound-why-do-brai ns-stop-zero.shtml#c1869

    Other instances of Geigner are listed in:
    https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20110721/11292415198/if-your-comment-section-is-awesome-its-you r-communitys-fault.shtml

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Apr 2015 @ 4:43pm

    "free to be whoever they want"? -- Few aspire very high.

    Mainly, I'm getting tired of Techdirt pretending to be a model forum of moderated civility plagued by a few trolls. I just usually let these go, because the subject is icky. But since some are new here and the rest refuse to recall:

    Here's the actuality of Timothy Geigner, aka "Dark Helmet", now a paid writer for Techdirt:

    "There are white people, and then there are ignorant motherfuckers like you...."

    Instances of Geigner are listed in:
    https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20110721/11292415198/if-your-comment-section-is-awesome-its-you r-communitys-fault.shtml

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 9 Apr 2015 @ 5:00pm

      Re: "free to be whoever they want"? -- Few aspire very high.

      wow its the reaction there including by dark helmet thats the worst im outta here

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 9 Apr 2015 @ 5:30pm

      Re:

      "model forum of moderated civility"

      Maybe because that was never the point? The point of Techdirt is to disseminate information as the site owner sees fit. Discussion spawns from there regardless. You're only bothered by this largely because you have a boner for going against everything said here and throwing hissy fits when you don't get what you want.

      Seriously, if you don't like what the site does you could have left, instead of faking a glorious return like some glorious martyred phoenix. That's just sad.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Apr 2015 @ 4:46pm

    Show some restraint.

    >Our televisions are online. Even our clock radios are online. There will be a time in the not-so-distance future when most of our household appliances will be connected to the web.

    Not if I can help it. You can't have these problems created by technology if you don't purchase, install, and connected the technology to the net in the first place.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    dfed (profile), 9 Apr 2015 @ 5:00pm

    I have the overwhelming urge to swear, repeatedly and ferociously, at and about Shawn after reading this.

    I can't because I haven't signed out of my account on this webpage and my future employers probably read Techdirt and they're all pig fucking cocksucking fuckwad shit-eating douche bags. Those fuckers.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    jameshogg (profile), 9 Apr 2015 @ 5:03pm

    Then again there are folk like myself who will happily put their full names on show for everyone to see whilst insisting on telling people over the internet what vitriolic piss stains the cyberbullies are.

    If you insist on a face-to-face confirmation of my statement, I will be glad to meet up with you and say in person what vitriolic, self-hating, weaseling, chronic juveniles and piss stains the cyberbullies are.

    People are not as vocal in "real life" as they are on the internet. People need to start being more vocal in real life.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Pronounce (profile), 9 Apr 2015 @ 6:25pm

      Re: Online vs RL Justice

      You have a point. When there isn't any form of social correction built into a cultural institution the human populace of that institution will gravitate to their baser nature. (Baser nature being defined as acts and thoughts one would do if they held ultimate power and no consequences.)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Drunkard, 9 Apr 2015 @ 5:45pm

    Political Correctness and Censorship

    Mot Juste. Sometimes it is better to tell it like it is.

    I am opposed to anyone, or anything attempting to limit our speech.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Apr 2015 @ 6:36pm

    Ha, "site owner", eh? While deny ownership of $100 million movies!

    First, note typical diversion by an AC, ad hom attack without least attempt at title topic. They can't argue, but they can't ignore.

    Good example of the double-think here. Techdirt advocates piracy of any and all created content, calling it "sharing".

    Masnick defends greasy blob Kim Dotcom who got tens of millions by knowing contributory infringement on content others made, depriving the creators of deserved return on huge investments of time and money.

    But someone who merely pays for a web-site is an "owner" with justifiable interests to defend!

    And all I have to do to prove my on-topic points is link right to Techdirt.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 9 Apr 2015 @ 11:46pm

      Re:

      You decided to make this about Techdirt and trolls.

      If you choose to whine about irrelevant topics you don't get to whine about people calling you out on it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Meelo, 9 Apr 2015 @ 8:07pm

    I'm finding the same crowd that is responsible for politically correct outrage culture in colleges are the ones most responsible for claims of online abuse.

    Disagreement has been called abuse. Polite questions have been called abuse.

    I don't want online abuse to be tackled until we have a *sane* definition for abuse. We will regret it otherwise.

    And it's asinine to try to turn the online world into a social copy of the offline world. On text, there is no tonal inflection. No cues of facial expression. Without the ability to exaggerate, to make hyperbolic statements for fear someone will misinterpret it as abuse, we will be in a world much less free.

    I'm sorry Shawn, given the wave of abuse I've received over the past 8 months from people claiming I deserve to die because I have white skin and that any disagreement from me is de-facto abuse, I cannot agree with you. I cannot agree with your views here.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Apr 2015 @ 8:15pm

    Holy fuck this entire article is rancid from the comment section on up.

    1. Keep your desire for political correctness off my goddamn internet, Shawn. (Before you ask, it's _everyone's_ goddamn internet, so that little bit of contrived absurdest phrasing still holds.)

    2. You may be enamored of your squalling brats. I am most assuredly not (I absolutely can't fucking stand children). Neither are most of the people on the internet. Quit assuming that just because _you_ think heaven and earth should be moved to nullify any possible threat to your beloved crotchspawn that everyone else is just going to go along with it. I had to navigate the digital jungle. You had to. Everyone has at some point. Your children do not get a free pass simply because they're your children.

    3. Free speech is free speech, whether you like it or not. No, squalling "THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!!!!" at the top of your lungs does not magically give you a leg to stand on.

    4. People die every day. Sometimes those deaths are long and hard. Sometimes they are short and sweet. Sometimes they have a noble higher purpose. Sometimes they are utterly pointless and stupid. I think your overriding concern for people who allowed the fucking internet to dictate whether they lived or died comes off as rank hypocrisy. If you really cared about tackling the leading causes of "unnatural death" the world over you wouldn't have stupidly picked "internet bullying". First World Problems meme definitely applies here.

    5. Last but not least...Now you can confidently say you have been on the receiving end of cyberbullying. I am fairly certain you will be very much alive tomorrow morning.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Apr 2015 @ 5:30am

    Even better is that kids these days would rather text eachother even if they are in the same fuckin room. Im sure most of us have learned that a death threat on the internet is even less serious than flipping someone off on the street. So if something "horribly scary" like a "fuck you i hope you die" is a big thing then what will these kids be doing in a few years?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    orbitalinsertion (profile), 10 Apr 2015 @ 8:49am

    As the Internet evolves, so too will the way in which we see ourselves. Social networks will no longer be confined to our screens – laptops, tablets or smartphones. They will be as seamlessly integrated into our daily lives as the Internet itself. In this digital future, it will be much harder to cyberbully and torment people online, because the anonymity of the Internet will give way as we circle back to a world of singular identity – online and off.


    And yet the consequences for threats and bullying will be as ubiquitous and serious as ever, what with the exposure of the lives of so many potential victims in a zero-anonymity world. Anonymity is a far larger protection for the innocent and less-advantaged than it is for jerks.

    Also, barf on my toaster and everything being net-connected. What a godawful horrible future so many of us have been mocking and fearing since idiots like Gates have been yapping about it. No I don't want my refrigerator ordering milk, or connected just because the vendor demands it be so in order to work at all. Digital Invasion Management, no thanks. Enough faux-progress.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Apr 2015 @ 10:14am

    I hope not

    Social networks will no longer be confined to our screens – laptops, tablets or smartphones. They will be as seamlessly integrated into our daily lives

    I am hoping social networks are a fad.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      John Fenderson (profile), 10 Apr 2015 @ 10:19am

      Re: I hope not

      I'm halfway with you. I don't use social networks, so they will never be seamlessly integrated into my life. But I don't care that they exist. Other people find them worthwhile, and good for them.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Apr 2015 @ 11:43am

    Who do people online say things that they would never say to someone in person?

    It really is quite simple, it is because there is a lack of fear. Say some crap that happens on the Internet in person and you probably would get punched out.

    Of course, in our society, that fear is losing its grip (unless you are a cop, because everyone knows they will still punch you out) because of political correctness.

    What this country really needs is more people that are willing to punch out those that deserve it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      John Fenderson (profile), 10 Apr 2015 @ 2:22pm

      Re:

      "It really is quite simple, it is because there is a lack of fear."

      I don't think this is correct at all.

      I think that it has everything to do with dehumanization. When you're physically in front of someone, they're a person. When you're interacting online, they're not -- they're just a bunch of text. Fear doesn't enter into it at all.

      There are obviously exceptions, people who only treat others decently because they fear retribution if they don't. We call those people "sociopaths".

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    GEMont (profile), 10 Apr 2015 @ 2:22pm

    Sticks and Stones

    I guess I'll just never understand this whole thing.

    When I'm online, I assume that every single person posting under an anonymous handle is actually an 11 year old boy, sitting in his parent's basement - until proven otherwise.

    When someone anonymously posts something like "I'm gonna kill you in your sleep!", the most I can muster in reaction is a giggle.

    The words on the screen are impotent, and have absolutely no power to do me harm.

    Why would I even give such a comment a second regard?

    And since I assume the poster is an 11 year old boy sitting in his parent's basement, why would such a comment cause me the least concern?

    The old rhyme "Sticks and Stone can break my bones, but Words can never hurt me." comes to mind whenever I see this discussion raised.

    To create legislation making the posting of rude, cruel or threatening statements illegal, will necessarily lead to incriminating verbal speech that does the same thing as well - thus a drunk who gets angry at someone who hits him in a bar and yells "I'm gonna kill you mutha fukka.", can be incarcerated longer than the guy who hit him - cuz killing is worse than hitting - attempted murder VS assault.

    This whole thing is really about creating new laws that will eliminate free speech, by pretending its "for the children" once again.

    This is silliness and designed like so much else, to make people fear the internet.

    People who make posted threats should be considered as weak and stupid attention-seekers, and summarily consigned to the realm of the universally ignored by all.

    Teach you kids that words on a screen cannot hurt them, and should be, like those who post such things anonymously, disregarded and ignored.

    "Don't feed the Trolls" should be the order of the day.

    This "problem" will go away as soon as everyone realizes it aint a problem at all and is just another attempt to turn the "dangerous to authority" fledgling hive-mind that is the internet, into another Hollywood advertising channel to sell shit a shinola.

    ---

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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