the Internet

The Hazards of Cyberlife: On the Loss of Social Conscience, and Living in the Age of Trolls

A couple of weeks ago, some of you will know that I experienced what I consider to be a massive violation of privacy. This involved someone creating a false name and e-mail address in an effort to solicit a password to a protected post, and then proceeding to share said post publicly with influential people, and make empty threats of invented consequence solely to scare and intimidate. My argument was always that it was never publicSaid post wasn’t even that bad – it was my simply my own opinion, in my own space, shared with people of my choosing – in the same manner in which one may share thoughts verbally with a coworker, in a quiet corner of the office lunch room. It’s not the same thing as standing on a podium with a loudspeaker at the next staff meeting, advertising how you really feel about your benefits package, paycheque, or supervisor’s wardrobe. Password-protecting a post, intending never to offend, but to share an opinion, seemed like a pretty safe way to express myself. But in the age of the Internet, it seemed I was couldn’t have been more wrong.

This situation really got me thinking. Over the last few years, as the power of Facebook, blogging, and other social media has increased its stranglehold on society, I’ve experienced my fair share of cyber-attacks, ranging from online stalking to identity theft to explosions of slander and hate mail. And lately, a new specimen of online pest seems to be breeding: the troll. I’ve seen incidents all across the blogosphere – kind, sincere people becoming victims of the most cowardly form of bullying there is. Genuine hearts on sleeves being attacked by the Anonymous Commenter who has nothing better to do than prey on people, either when they’re experiencing something awesome (in an endeavour to bring them down), or when they’re going through something tough (in a spiteful attempt to break them). Our generation has one enormous factor affecting it that was nonexistent twenty years ago: The Internet.  And the psychological and societal effects of being so interconnected – whether good or bad – are nothing short of fascinating.

I remember, years ago, going through a breakup. I was pretty down, and I quickly learned that heartache was one of the most effective forms of troll bait. In this case, it was the circle of friends of The Ex, who swarmed on my newly single Facebook page, and proceeded to send a barrage of spiteful e-mails telling me I was the worst thing that ever happened to their friend, and that I should go back to England, “because nobody wants me in this country anyway”.  Looking back, it’s interesting – would these boys carry out this behaviour if we were to have run into each other on the street, face to face? There’s no way of fully proving an alternate scenario of the past, but I’d place a pretty strong bet on no. Another incident happened in the spring. A friend of said Ex was in one of the same social circles as a friend of mine, who told me that (four years after the breakup), this friend was still spouting off to anyone who’d listen what a “psycho” I was. And had created a fake Facebook account with stolen pictures from my old MySpace page, stuck my name on it, and proceeded to write bitchy comments on her own page, AS ME, to prove her point.  Why is it that when personal interaction and consequence is removed, so are people’s social boundaries? Without accountability for their actions, people will say and do all sorts of appalling things – simply because they can be anonymous. What does this say about people?


This leads me to a news story that was big on UK radio last week, and hit local newspapers yesterday: Cyberbullying. 15-year-old kids committing suicide after being threatened on Facebook. Children being terrified to go to school. 13-year-olds photos being stolen from Facebook, photoshopped onto naked bodies and put on porn sites. There is no law that recognizes cyberbullying as a crime, and nothing police can do. And people are realising that something needs to be done. I remember going to school almost fifteen years ago and hearing the news that a fellow student had been stabbed by another. I remember how terrifiying it was, thinking that someone in our midst was capable of murder. But when these people can get to you outside the real world, online, where you can be targeted in your own home – there’s no escape. They’re not just in your face, they’re in your own personal free time, in your own personal space. And, thanks to the new generation of mass interconnectivity, it can overtake someone’s life to the point where the preferred alternative is death.

What about the trolls that exist on the plethora of forums and public spaces across the web? The ones who spend their evenings scouring YouTube for music videos, of contestants on X Factor or people in their homes, singing some song for the pure joy of it, and take immense satisfaction from leaving the most spiteful comments they can. YouTube comment channels are some of the most negative places I’ve visited online, and it blows my mind how anyone can take pleasure from creating hurt and pain to another. Let’s examine the life and thought pattern of such a person for a second. For someone to gain satisfaction and pleasure from inflicting pain and upset on another, it means they either a) have no source of joy in their life, so in order to feel better about themselves, they try and make others more miserable than they are, b) are mentally twisted, disturbed people who have no grip on reality, or c) searching for something over which they can have control; perhaps lacking control of their own life, they hit the jackpot of being able to control something, without consequence, by creating a reaction.  When you frame it like this – are they really worth bothering with the energy of getting upset?

No – think for a second what life must be like, for someone who goes to the lengths of preying on innocent people, taking the time to read their story, creating false or anonymous identities and leaving childish, hate-filled comments. Life must be pretty sad if that’s how you’re choosing to spend your time. And so next time you fall victim to someone’s attempt at causing hurt, remember that. Remember that in real life, they wouldn’t have two balls to knock together to do something similar. Remember how sad their lives must be, and remember how incredibly cowardly this form of childish bullying actually is. And perhaps choose pity instead.

The other thing that fascinates me is that we all know there are people like this out there. We all know the risks of identity theft, personal attack, slander and anonymous hate mail. Yet, even as simple Facebook users, but especially as bloggers, we continue to give the world access to every detail of our lives. What is it about the Internet that demands such open access to every facet of our thoughts, emotions, and life events? Why do we feel the need to broadcast our innermost desires across the entire globe? It has to be a generational thing. There’s a growing form of stigma attached to social networking and online presence, and it’s commonly equated with being modern, forward-thinking, and successful. The more online you are, the more respect you’ll have from the rest of the world. The cooler you’ll seem. I think, in a way, it’s a form of international, mass-scale peer pressure. And that’s a bit of a scary thought. But at the same time, spending such a large chunk of my life online has led to incredible things. It’s led to personal growth, meeting some of the best friends I’ve ever had, free theatre tickets, international trips, and rekindled romance. It’s allowed me to find my own voice, share it with the world, and subsequently tell the genuine from the fake. It’s made me feel close to friends and family in faraway places, and it’s made me feel connected to the rest of the world, in a sense of ongoing community. The Internet has brought about some of the most wonderful events, things, and people of my life, and I wouldn’t change that for the world.

But it’s a relatively new force in human evolution. It’s changed the face of communication, made information available instantly, yet made us more impatient as a result. It’s brought people closer together, but it’s put people at risk of privacy invasion, bullying, and identity theft. It’s a simultaneously strange, awful and wonderful force on humanity, and I think the effects on upcoming generations are going to be very interesting indeed. For now, though, the benefits far outweigh the risks, and I’m going to continue riding this wave of technology. Cybercrime isn’t going to go away – in fact I’m sure this post itself may be pretty effective at drawing some trolls out of the woodwork (how’s it going, – but I just think it’s important that we recognise it for what it really is: incredibly cowardly endeavours by people with the emotional intelligence of a five year old trying to get a reaction, hidden away behind their computer screens. People who have no say or influence over your life, whose own lives are probably pretty void of happiness, integrity, and purpose. And that’s not really worth paying too much attention to at all.