Online hate, harassment, and misinformation have existed for as long as the public has had access to the internet. But, as internet usages has become a practical and necessary aspect of our daily lives, the old response to online hate and harassment has changed. For years, victims were told to simply “turn off your computer” when they were attacked, stalked, bullied, and defamed. The police and courts, ill-equipped to deal with online abuse, suggested that any negativity online would have limited impact on a victims’s personal life or professional reputation. Of course, that advice has never been helpful, but today, when roughly 80% of the population in the US uses the internet, over 2/3rds of people regularly use some form of social media, and a recent Forbes report suggests that 90% check out people and businesses online before they date, hire, or shop, being the target of an online attack can have devastating, real-world, consequences.
Ease of instant access, a growingly disenfranchised populous, and the erroneous but pervasive belief that online attacks are both anonymous and protected by the First Amendment, has led to an incredible growth in the number of people attacked online. Some estimates suggest that as much as 40% of the population has experienced some form of online bullying or harassment. The explosive growth and adoption of new technology, especially social media platforms, has not been matched by equally robust legal advancements. This has left the public easy target to those who are unscrupulous, vindictive, or mentally unwell. In addition, many of the platforms themselves have been governed by people interested primarily in expansion and sales, with little focus on safety for users.
As people are being targeted in greater numbers, pressure on elected officials, law enforcement, and social media platform owners has grown. New legislation has been introduced or adopted protecting people from so-called revenge porn and online “mobbing” or group bullying. In many states, laws have been proposed to expand current harassment laws to specifically include online harassment and stalking. Recently, many of the most popular online platforms have come under fire for their tone deaf response to hoax and hate campaigns, as well as the near epidemic instances of harassment, stalking, and bullying conducted on their sites, sometimes with deadly consequences. In some cases, this has had a dramatic effect on their stock value, resulting in increased interest by platforms to be seen as more responsive.
One of the most potent means of controlling our own behavior has always been the fear that we will be judged, ostracized, and potentially harmed by our words and deeds. Whether we fear the pronouncements of religion against gossiping or the retribution of an employer, an authority figure, or the community as a whole, the fear of consequence has helped to keep society civil.
Those who felt passionately about an issue had plenty of time to carefully choose their verbiage and consider the effects of their words, as it took time to hand-write or manually print pamphlets or decrees. Even publishers of newspapers and magazines took legal advice on controversial subjects to insure that they would be protected from libel.
Fear of consequence and time to reflect created a buffer between our brains and the dissemination of our opinions, beliefs, or anger. That buffer, thanks to the internet and specifically to social media platforms has been erased. The ability to instantly express our feelings, and to attack those with whom we don’t agree, without fear of consequence and in many cases without the fear of being identified, has for some people, not only removed the civility, but has granted incredible, intoxicating power over the lives of those around us.
In the past three years, an estimated 2.5 million cases of cyber stalking have been reported in the United States alone. On average, cyber stalking by a stranger lasts for two years. When the stalker is known to the victim (ex, spouse, friend, family member, colleague, etc.), on average the stalking campaign lasts roughly four years.*
Together, through empowerment, education, and advocacy we can effect change and create a safer more inclusive online experience for all.
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