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?

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

  1. I feel that we chose to turn a ‘blind’ eye to the abuse that happens on the internet in the same way many of us would walk by a house if we heard screaming rather than intervene. There is a very simple way I feel to find the perpetrator of abuse on line and that is to find the internet (IP) address they are using and either warn the perpetrator that the account will be stopped if they continue to be abusive on line or just close their account. We have become a society of enablers those people who stand by and watch abuse happen without doing anything about it. While we continue with this collective behaviour nothing will change.

  2. There should be no right to be anonymous, this is so obvious that surely we can all feel it yet our legislators choose to continue to allow it. This has to change and we must demand that it does.

  3. False statements online are there forever and who knows how long this harms another’s reputation and defames them from being considered to be sourced as a reputable service. Cyber-bullying is a crime and should be made accountable.

  4. What do we allow? As is stated here, cyber bullying in any form just isn’t right, and it’s common decency to say so, but this is something we’re missing in this world, so it’s time for all of us to call it out and to notice where we too may, in fact, be bullying ourselves. I was struck by an example given where to continue to email someone who has requested you stop is bullying … that is so true and yet it’s very widespread … we have a lot of work to do, and we start by being honest about how we are and speaking up when we see bullying in any form in the world.

  5. I agree Rachel what we say online we tend to think does not matter as in we can abuse and attack others instead of being at a basic level decent people.

  6. Yes we do need laws, and internationally agreed ones at that because the world now is more international than it’s ever been with the support of the internet. But also we can’t wait around for the laws to be made when it comes to calling out and reporting online abuse when we see it.

  7. Who truly claims his/her power will never resort to the power of anonymity. The exploitation of the power of anonymity is a form of relationship with power from someone who has willingly chosen to say yes to the hurt that governs him/her.

  8. You raised my interest on this topic Rachel, thank you. It seems we need stricter laws and people who enforce those laws in the virtual world as well. Most people will behave but there are some people, just like the physical world, who have to be forced to a stop.

  9. Cyber bullying is part of the societal conditioning we use to herd everyone into the norm. Anyone who dares stand out from the flock (even though they may not realise they are) can have this treatment to make them feel they are separate, different and excluded from the pack for their behaviour. This is one of the strongest pulls in society that stops us from evolving as we could easily be if we encouraged each other rather than bringing the change bringers down.

  10. The BBC are airing programs about fake news that is spreading on the internet there are people in various countries around the world that make a very good living it seems putting such fake information out on the internet. The internet is a great way to communicate with each other there is no doubt about it. But yet again we have forgotten to put any checks and balance in the system so that it has become lawless and this does not support our society as there are too many people who do not discern for themselves what is true and what is not. And far too many people use the internet to attack people just because they can. We are seemingly turning a blind eye to the effect this is having on our society.

  11. I see bullying in lots of places, heightened and extreme on the internet and in the media, as well as subtle and normalised in the day to day interactions of regular people like you and me. But also, and with great joy, I see many many people who choose not that. Who actually do choose decency and respect, who choose to be honourable and courteous, who choose to be kind and considerate because these are the values that they choose to live by and are not willing to drop below. And I reckon that it is these people, these stand up citizens who are essentially holding all of us, so that we may eventually not have bullying at all in any shape or form.

  12. Cyber bullying has to be stopped by law. We have all the means (big data) to track messages back to the original owner. Cyber bullies can crush somebody’s life and that is happening on a massive scale.

  13. The online environment has allowed bullying to spread and become quite pervasive, issues like anonymity, wider access to people, lack of regulatory control by social media and other interactive platforms, and lack of legislation have all added to it. I agree, abuse is abuse, online or offline.

  14. Cyber bullying is actually worse than its more personal physical counterpart because of that degree of separation… you don’t even have to know the other person, you can just throw out a few comments here and there with no thought of what that might mean, and no possible consequences. Cowardice at its worst.

    1. Harming and deepening the wounds that are not seen by others is the effects of these behaviours. The most corrupt and malicious way of not recognising our own worth and projecting harm to another.

  15. Cyber-bullying is such ugly cowardice – the bully thinks they can do what they like without consequence. Perhaps they like to think they are ‘powerful’ if their antics affect another human being – so the more the person is affected the better. But the bully is affected, their decency and the fact it’s another human being they are hurting is eroded each time they bully. They seek to replace the part of them that loves connection with the thrill of being able to bully.

    How cyber-bullies act and the damage they do could easily cause us to lose faith in humanity and give up on ourselves. How can one person be so cruel to another? They are hurt and very insecure. Their irresponsibly needs to be called to account so we can introduce a standard of decency we never drop below.

  16. Cyber bullying is not confined to any particular age group, sexual orientation, gender etc. It can be done to anyone across the board. And it is total cowardice that has terrible consequences for those on the receiving end and those they are connected to. The bully ‘gets away’ with acts that take them further from the loving person they are beneath all the nastiness and excitement at being allowed to do what they want. How are we enabling people to behave this way? Are we meeting each other across the board with openness, decency and respect? Or are we judging and condemning people so they have no qualms about being vindictive online?

  17. Lately, I experienced a lot of bullying towards me. On my work by receiving emails with names in which groups are telling all bad things about me. I could feel the forces through the people who just was after my light. To bring down my light, which I didn’t. I learned that the most powerful way is to see and read what energies are at play through people and to not take it personal. And to speak up about these harming ways which should not be accepted in companies.

    1. Work place bullying is rife, I moved from the typical office workplace some 20 years ago and at that time when office bullying occurred it was mainly encountered from the top down. These days it is clear this has changed, with some companies having a culture of bullying where it is not addressed – for fear of more intense bullying no doubt.

  18. We can all hide behind a screen and say whatever horrible thing that comes to our mind. It how easy it is to hurl abuse at other people when your identity is unknown and there are no consequences for you. Why have we made this possible? Surely it is because we are not very transparent in our face to face interactions.

    1. We can also hide behind a polite facade and inside ourselves abuse and criticise others. Whether it’s a computer screen or a smoke screen of niceness we need to recognise our lack of decency and integrity, and consider the choice to return to being respectful. And, abuse of others in any form also hurts the one who expresses it.

  19. We live in a world of energy, it is energy that moves us first so for us to mistakenly believe that cyber bullying is okay because it’s on line and so therefore not so significant or damaging is missing the point that this sort of behaviour is adding to the ‘cesspit’ we call life . I believe that if we were actually able to see what we walk around in we would be horrified then we would immediately change the way we live.

  20. I agree that the law needs to be consistent and present in every part of life – we can’t have a massive playground like the internet where it’s ok to do whatever you want – including hurt someone, troll someone, defame someone, abuse someone to the point they take their own lives and this still be legal – when in any other area of life it would be a criminal offence.

    1. Hear hear Meg, the effect of online bullying is no less harmful than the bully face to face, and I would say due to the nature of anonimity, is far more distressing in fact.

      1. True, the fact is whether you are bullied online or offline your safety and sense of security – a basic human right – is compromised, and the effects on our overall sense of well-being can be deeply damaging and long-lasting.

  21. There may be laws in the UK which can convict people for ‘Trolling’ but I wonder how many have actually been apprehended and convicted? Surely the easiest thing to happen is that software is implemented on all these sites so that a word is recognised as potentially offensive and the writer is unable to use such a word and is invite to choose something else. It is very easy to stop pornography sites from being down loaded too. The technology is there so my question is why is it that we are not using it? Surely when a society is so out of control, some checks and balances are required to bring us back from our own folly.

  22. “Bullying is bullying whether it is in person or on line: bullying people under the cloak of anonymity is the ultimate form of cowardice.” Well said, it is and the power they feel doing it just masks the lack of confidence to stand by what they say and accept being called a bully. If you have something to say, then own it and the consequences.

  23. Bullying is one and the same online and off. I have experienced both and always have wondered why? Recently when I was cyber abused on a Facebook protestors page. They were trespassing my workplace where I ought to be safe — my workplace is an open place to enjoy displaying my high work ethic and love for what I do..

    I was filmed without my consent and they posted it online. I was worried at first for my job because I couldn’t remember exactly what I said but I knew I did not stand for their emotion driven imposition of what they believed especially in my workplace where I was joyfully working in harmony with my colleagues.

    I was contacted by one of my managers and I viewed the video. I felt good about the video. What was not good and very vile was the series of comments of abuse there-after. Name calling and labelling me everything that I was not. I reported the post and I also found a form to submit to Facebook. It was very limiting what I could report with no textbox where you could write in detail. Facebook to my surprise removed the post about a week later. This was however after Facebook was being called to account with the director of FB facing the US congress for privacy concerns. What I was not ok with was how these platforms are used to abuse people without any law and order to pull them up.

  24. Looking at the way we are with each other in the world in physicality, and how it already shows alarming level of disrespect and indifference and how increasing number of people are deeply hurt and choosing to check out and withdraw from life and the world, I am not surprised we are seeing what we are seeing in the world of Internet especially where anonymity is given as a ticket to abuse.

    1. I agree Fumiyo – the level of disrespect in the world is already alarming, especially in families it can be really shocking how people publicly treat people they “love” (and this isn’t even what occurs behind closed doors) it makes sense that this is even worse when we give someone anonymity – and even more reason to have laws in place to ensure the internet is not a place for people to continue carrying out their abusive ways.

      1. The choice to observe this and make our movements opposite to what is playing out in society is responsibility that is going against the grain as it would seem rather than the fact that the reflection of love is in the offering to another.

  25. As you say “Cyber-bullying and trolling are a growing problem in today’s “connected” world,” and serious consequences can result. There is no responsibility when someone posts anonymously – so they can wreak havoc and get away with it – at least in the temporal world…. Countries are slowly starting to act to enforce decency laws – tho they have been a long time coming, considering the time the internet has been in existence.

  26. We are really seeing the harm of the human use of the internet and it is up to us to be the change we want to see in the world because legislation is going to take a long time to keep up with the behaviour of those who prefer the lawless and irresponsible world of anonymous hate speech.

    1. We can see first hand that the legal process is not up to the challenges of online abuse, or in monitoring and regulating what one person says to another. You can walk in trying to stop one thing, and end up in a situation where the courts have not only given permission for anything goes, but set a precedent for others to follow, actually extending the reach of the trolls rather than curtailing it.

  27. You are very right Rachel. The whole world collective is in the computer now a days. Like life becomes to be in the virtual world. So we should have laws the same as we have for criminal activities on the land.
    There is no difference just the criminal activity as cyber bulling is more sophisticated in a way. Cowards even sometimes talk/write in a fake nice way with lies which look true if people just go for the words instead of listening to their inner knowing and feeling behind the words, the true intent.

  28. I do think it’s important that we wake up to the volume and extent of abuse currently freely allowed on our internet that is aimed at all ages and even if it’s between adults it doesn’t make it any less harmful or acceptable.

  29. In answer to your last question YES and worse. The enablers are often worse than the perpetrators as we would not have perpetrators without enablers. This applies across the board not just with cyber-bullying but also sexual abuse, corruption, media lies and all the other crimes in our society that we turn a so called blind eye to.

  30. I just read the title of your blog and my immediate thought was bullies don’t have power they use force – true power comes from love and would never bully.

  31. Cyber bulling and trolling are a huge problem in today’s world. As society we have thus far allowed it.
    Now is the time to say no – we owe to everyone to join together on this.

  32. “Just because it is not directly happening to you does not mean it is not happening”. You raise many valid points here, and this one was a standout for me today. This is a modern day plague of our world, where we live such busy consumed lives that we dont pay attention to what else is happening in the world and can live in the illusion that if it’s not happening to me, it’s not happening. But it is happening. All the time.

  33. Why, when we have so many suffering depression, anxiety and even choosing to suicide due to cyber bullying are we not doing everything possible to expose it and make serious inroads to stopping it?

  34. 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?

  35. 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!

    1. Yes these awareness days are very important for getting the discussion started. Where legislation fails or is slow to respond, we have to work at a grass roots level to empower young people to be the change they want to see in the world.

  36. 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.

  37. 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.

    1. Lucy this is an absolutely brilliant comment – it should be up there on billboards for all to see. Meanwhile, it is up to each of us to be that walking billboard living exactly what you have written.

  38. 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.

  39. 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!

  40. 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.

  41. 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.

  42. 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.

  43. 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.

  44. 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.

  45. 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?

  46. ‘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.

  47. 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!

      1. Although it is a cool idea to install some kind of automatic internet cyber-policing programs to track cyber-bullying, in the end I don’t feel this will really deal with the underlying issue that is driving people to perform these cowardly acts in the first place. Looking at all the ways that we may not be transparent, open, and caring for others in our own lives will definitely move us in the right direction to not allow this abuse anywhere, including the Internet.

      2. Yes, ultimately it comes back to us being responsible for our own behaviour. If we do not take pleasure in abusing another then we will not need internet cyber-policing programs.

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