Cyber-bullying: The Power of Anonymity

by Rachel Hall, Brisbane, Australia

Definition of Cyber-Bully (Troll)

Cyber-bullying (Trolling) involves the use of information and communication technologies to support deliberate, repeated and hostile behaviour by an individual or group, that is intended to harm others. Cyber-bullying can be as simple as continuing to send e-mails to someone who has said they want no further contact with the sender, but it may also include threats, sexual remarks, pejorative labels (i.e. hate speech), ganging up on victims by making them the subject of ridicule in forums, and posting false statements as fact aimed at humiliation.

The prospect of cyber-bullying is becoming an ingrained part of the Generation Y online experience. But it is not something confined to children and teenagers, anyone can be targeted – whether it be a high school student, public figure, online blogger, businesses, professionals or any member of a community or society. It can range from a snide comment on a Facebook page, private video footage released online without consent, to hate speak, threats and defamation of character.

However, if you research cyber-bullying online the majority of the information about its implications and effects is aimed at children and schools, and does not address the wider scope of this heinous issue.

The internet allows people to hide behind a veil of anonymity or a false persona which appears to allow them the scope to publish unsubstantiated, false and misleading information and lies.

There are laws in place that supposedly control what can be published on the worldwide web. For example, you can be convicted of ‘trolling’ in the UK – labelled under ‘offensive communications’ – and this can apply to anyone who can then end up in court facing charges of internet slander and libel.

However, these laws are not clear; the victim is left wondering where they turn to for help.  Are we doing enough to limit the damage of cyber-bullying, and to educate people about it, as well as how to cope and deal with it? There needs to be a larger effort made to help ensure no one, no matter their age, gender or race is made to be a victim of a cyber-bully or a cyber-stalker.

The consequences of online abuse can be severe. From knocking a teenager’s self-confidence to professional reputations being damaged, it can have terrible after-effects. It is difficult enough to bring a cyber-bully to justice, but almost impossible when they hide behind fake names and pseudonyms. How do you legally challenge someone when you are unable to prove their identity? On the internet there is no true level of anonymity, unless you delve into systems and circumventors that most of the general public don’t pursue. But because the internet makes it so easy to create a fake profile online and disguise yourself – an exploit used by both children and adults alike, most people feel they are helpless to act.

Lets call cyber-bullying for what it is – it is cowardice! Bullying is bullying whether it is in person or on line: bullying people under the cloak of anonymity is the ultimate form of cowardice. I was raised along the lines of “if you have something to say about me you should have the decency to say it to my face and not behind my back”. There seems to be this complacent attitude that because it is going on in cyberspace that it’s not as significant, harmful or damaging: “after all, it’s only online. I’m not abusing that person to their face”, when actually it is just as poisonous, vitriolic and perhaps more harming as it is out there for many people to see.

Social networking sites do attempt to regulate and stem this tide of abuse, from groups and image captions to wall posts. But it’s not enough. Further legislation needs to be put in place to both protect individuals online, especially when it comes to defamation, and to make it clear that this type of behaviour is reprehensible and will not be tolerated.

When it comes to defamatory comments it is exceedingly challenging to try to have the posts and information removed, for example Blogger Content Policy states: “Here are some examples of content we will not remove unless provided with a court order; personal attacks or alleged defamation”. Allowing this type of policy fuels the power of the cyber-bully. Being able to remain anonymous makes them even more untouchable; how do you get a court order against a pseudonym? The policy makers need to see that this attitude is deeply flawed and it is time to take cyber-bullying seriously. If this behaviour were happening in a school or workplace it simply would not be tolerated… why should it be any different online?

Cyber-bullying and trolling are a growing problem in today’s “connected” world, and does not just happen inside our schools and among our youth. There is an entire new breed of bullies being born every day in the online world, and they are just as harmful as those in our schools; they cause just as much pain and suffering and are just as mean-spirited.

The repercussions of cyber-bullying are far reaching, and the time has come for us to say no to this, it isn’t right. The law needs to change to answer the call of the common man; to protect the innocent, and not the anonymous bullies who think they have the power because no-one knows who they are. But it is up to the common man to speak up and say this will no longer be tolerated in order for policy makers to sit up and take notice. Just because it is not directly happening to you does not mean it is not happening. By saying nothing, could it be that we are being complicit and condoning bullying on a worldwide scale?

509 thoughts on “Cyber-bullying: The Power of Anonymity

  1. It is true – our behaviour in what we deem ‘cyberspace’ is out of control because we have not placed any boundaries or set in place true values that would support us as a collective when in this environment. Due to the nature of cyberspace and our ability to veil ourselves through anonymity and the like, it seems we have conveniently subscribed to an ‘out of sight out of mind’ mentality and do not place as much weight on this form of abuse because it is not seen in the same way as say reckless driving is. Personally, I like the idea of an Internet license no different to our road license where we have to prove we are responsible and not a threat to others by the way we navigate our way through space. After all, the Internet is also referred to as an ‘information superhighway’… so it serves us well to check how we are driving on this.

    1. Well I like that idea! superhighway police who don’t even need to be human because there are key words that can be picked up and raise flags – the algorithms can pick up key words that flag to a human an area of concern which can then be checked for context and acted on or not. How good would it be if we were our own police first though…because I suspect the other way might melt the computer!

  2. ‘Sticks and bones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’. This is totally and utterly not true as is attested to by the consequences of cyber-bullying to people.

  3. Society’s standards have dropped considerably since we have had access to the internet, so much hateful and vile material can be found on the web. We have in fact allowed a breading ground for hate.

    1. Yes I agree there is a huge amount of vile and hateful conduct in our faces and on our screens, but have standards dropped as you suggest or are we seeing exposed the lovelessness and irresponsibility that was always there?

  4. The pain in the .. is the feeling of letting things be that are not okay.. It than makes a lot of sense that when we let those things sit by our own silence, it is very uncomfortable to face this truth, as deep down we know that we could have stood up. Luckily we are living on a plane of life where everything is repeated (cyclical) and so meaning that we get many many opportunities to learn and do things differently – that cycle around, again.

  5. It is true the laws need to change so that the perpetrators of cyber bullying know and understand there are consequences to their behaviour. At present there is a view that Free Speech means saying what ever you want regardless of the harm it is doing to another, but this is not Free Speech and is abusing our natural right to express what is true. As you also point out Rachel, it is up to us to speak out and not just accept abuse thinking there is nothing we can do to stop it.

  6. I have come to the understanding that if we connect back to the part of us that we separated from long ago in that connect we could not harm anyone because to harm some else would be harming this part of us that is so delicate and precious. Life is currently set up so that we are not encouraged to seek this greater part of us. Having discovered this connection for myself I can say with out a doubt that I would not want to harm another because there is not a particle in my body that would want to do this. I’m not special if I can do this then so can everyone else it’s all about our personal choices and freewill.

  7. Over 5 years down the track from when this blog was published and the situation is even worse and legislative changes and a willingness to address these crimes is still woefully inadequate.

  8. The sad fact is we live in a world where some people are so disconnected they think nothing of destroying the lives or reputations of innocent people. Some wreak their havoc using bombs or guns. Others use keyboards, but their attitude is the same. How on earth have we all allowed this to happen? Can you imagine the government allowing a crazed gunman loose on the streets because they couldn’t find his ID? Yet we turn a blind eye to anonymous cyber trolls who often taunt their victims to death. Makes no sense whatsoever.

  9. Anonymity pretends that getting away with cyber bullying is but a mere trifle with no tangible as yet consequences; everything leaves a trail though and nothing goes away in a world where everything is energy before it is matter. Some things take longer but what is there is there and in plain true sight.

    1. Spot on Gabriele, all our choices are registered in some way, and in the end it is the body that receives the greatest correction in the form of illness and disease when we do not stay in the flow of our natural way of being which is certainly not about bullying others!

  10. The consequences of online abuse can indeed be very severe and in some ways longer lasting and wider reaching than saying something to someone’s face (not to dismiss the harm in that either). We surely do need more accountability for our actions online – whereby we are called to be more aware and responsible for the effect that we have on people by knowing there are consequences for abusing others.

  11. The overwhelm felt by policy makers is clearly illustrated in their inability to lead the way for internet reform and regulation. They are just as human as the next person. If everyone sits back and waits for legislation we are leaving a lawless frontier. Don’t wait for legislation to tell you what you can and cannot do or how you should and should not behave, be that change in your own life on and off the internet and it will have a ripple effect at which point politicians will feel empowered to do something and there will be a few who are prepared to lead from the front.

  12. Unfortunately, currently there are people who are being bullied either at school or the workplace where they feel they have no support with this. Where you mention ‘There are laws in place that supposedly control what can be published on the worldwide web. For example, you can be convicted of ‘trolling’ in the UK – labelled under ‘offensive communications’ – and this can apply to anyone who can then end up in court facing charges of internet slander and libel.’ In the last week alone the Mayor of London and an MP spoke of just how many obscene messages they get online via twitter and other social media platforms, so obviously this is not happening as it should both people making offensive comments are not being held accountable and the social media platforms are not dealing with this as they should and taking it seriously. You are right this is not okay, and it is both cowardly and insidious. To arrest this kind of behaviour and to have zero tolerance for it needs to come from all of us not just a handful of people but everyone.

  13. Cyber bullying is indeed a topic that needs more publicity and as a community we need to build more awareness of who it affects and how it can impact people. Last week, Friday the 16th March marked the National Day of Action against bullying…and having these kinds of days, is a start for building awareness. At our local school they talked briefly about this at the student assembly and showed a stop cyber bullying video submitted to the All Rise Competition run recently. This All Rise is a company who are amazing at making steps forwards and bringing true change first in terms of awareness and education for people about cyber abuse. Awareness is the first step as a community!

  14. I have had an experience of cyber bullying/stalking and it is very disconcerting when you have a person that is targeting you in some way and yet this person is anonymous/remains hidden. Despite the modern twist of so called cyber bullying, this is an age old tactic of bullying another and is very underhanded, sneaky and shows the person has no sense of equality nor respect not true care -They hold none of this for the person they are targeting but also not for themselves nor anyone else for that matter, for how can you respect and hold anyone as equal when you allow yourself to be a vessel for such vile abuse?

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