In today's highly interactive and public Internet space, all content and individuals — even the most benign — are growing increasingly vulnerable to online abuse, or "Internet shaming." Whether it's hate speech, cyber-bullying, revenge porn, trolling, or a privacy hack, the incidence of Internet shaming is rising in tandem with the proliferation of social media activity on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Youtube, and more.
During September's DLD Tel Aviv conference, several of the most influential thought leaders on Internet culture addressed this phenomenon in a panel titled "Shaming on the Internet." Moderated by Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Director Abe Foxman, the expert panel looked closely at the tools, drivers, targets, and consequences of Internet shaming, and explored ways to combat it.
"All of us here [on the panel] recognize that the Internet is an enormously powerful tool for making the world a better place," Foxman said in his opening remarks. "That makes it even more important that we find ways to address this dark side more effectively and more efficiently."
"The way we use Internet technology today makes it hard to escape hate. All Internet users, including children, are likely to be confronted with it," he warned. "Our focus today is how to address Internet abuse that is intended to intimidate people, and to silence [it]."
The Tools of Internet Shaming
With the advent of social media also came the insidious subculture of Internet shaming. The Internet prior to social networking sites, also known as “Web 1.0," was a relatively safe space, albeit by way of its limitations. Users consumed content but had very few mechanisms for interacting with or spreading it: no "sharing," "liking," "tagging," and very few opportunities to "comment," if at all. In its earliest iteration, the Internet truly was an "information super highway" that offered users one main direction: passive content consumption.
On the contrary, today's "Web 2.0" is a highly interactive platform where users can voice themselves and amplify the voices of others through social networking sites and apps like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, and others. According to recent research, social networking accounts for 28 percent of all online activity; and it's not all pretty.
A Pew Research Center study found that a whopping 73 percent of adult Internet users have observed someone get harassed online and 40 percent have personally experienced it. The statistics are especially sobering when it comes to youth. In a U.S. Department of Education survey of roughly 24.5 million students ages 12 through 18, nearly one in ten students (nine percent) reported being cyber-bullied. And social media has become the host: another Pew study reports that 88 percent of teens say they have witnessed cyber-bullying on social networking sites, and 15 percent report that they've been victimized via social media.
“Many victims of cyber-bullying have felt compelled to close their accounts because the harassment became so intense," Foxman said.
Psychological Drivers of Internet Shaming
So, what is running through the minds of cyber bullies, trolls, and various other aggressors who use social media to attack others? Well, sometimes not much at all, argued panelist Nahum Barnea, political columnist for Israeli daily national newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. With the power to instantly and widely broadcast personal beliefs, opinions, and feelings, some Internet users simply fail to realize how far-reaching the impact of their activity can be.
"The Internet is like a toilet [room] without a door," said Barnea. "People in their social networks are sitting on the 'toilet' and feel like it's a private domain and don't worry about anyone watching them. But when they press the 'send' button, it goes into the public domain. They don't seem to understand that."
Under that false assumption, a social media post that was meant as a grievance or inside joke can have grave consequences, he said. "As long as children are committing suicide [because of cyber bullying,] we cannot live with this as if it's just nature. We cannot."
Another driver of Internet shaming, Foxman said, is the ability to post anonymously with little consequence. "The Internet makes it easy to spew hatred while wearing a new kind of mask, a virtual mask," he said. "This not only enables people to vent their hatred anonymously but also to create a new identity overnight."
Social location–based apps, like Secret and Yik Yak, which are premised entirely on anonymous use, have come under fire for fostering cyber-bullying. Yik Yak, which is highly popular among teens and college students, encourages users: "Share your thoughts with the people around you while keeping your privacy." When users launch the app, they are assigned an anonymous user ID without having to provide any personal information, such as their real name or email address. With the protection of anonymity, Yik Yak users across high school and college campuses have used the app to bully and shame fellow classmates and faculty alike. The app's strict policy of anonymity has facilitated such a breeding ground for hate speech and threats of harm, that some high schools and college campuses are taking initiatives to ban it altogether.
How to Combat Internet Shaming
Online hate speech manifests in so many ways — from racial slurs to misogyny to gay bashing — and via so many platforms, that there is no one prescriptive way to fight it. Instead, government, academia, Internet companies, and civil society are picking and choosing their battles on a case-by-case basis.
The first line of fire in combating online hate should come from the Internet and social media companies, which have the authority to hold their members accountable based on their terms of service, Foxman said.
The Anti-Defamation League, he said, made progress by partnering directly with Internet companies, many of which have developed a set of best practices that encourage their user communities to act respectfully and report abuse. But there is still more work to be done.
"I think we need more pressure on the Internet providers — the 'Googles,' the 'Facebooks.' They pretend to be a safe community. They have you agree [to terms of service] but they don't implement those [terms], so there's a long way to go."
In an effort to promote community safety, Facebook issued a controversial "real name" policy that required users to attach their real life names to their profiles or otherwise be suspended. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the policy was meant to "keep people safe" and that “people are much less likely to try to act abusively" towards other members when using their real names. But when Facebook suspended the accounts of drag performers, transgendered people, and Native Americans for allegedly using "fake" names, the social networking giant sparked a huge public outcry. In response, Facebook loosened the terms of the policy but still encourages members to use their "authentic identities."
"Anonymity can fuel aggression," agreed panelist Dr. Noam Lemelshtrich Latar, founding dean of the Sammy Ofer School of Communications at IDC Herzliya. "But, I think anonymity is a great force as well. I don't think you can force Google and Facebook and other Internet companies to cease anonymity because they make money off it. Instead, we need to teach our kids the issue of empathy and a code of behavior."
Indeed, the government and nonprofit sectors aim to teach students, parents, and educators how best to combat cyber-bullying among youth. Noteworthy examples of anti-bullying educational resources and awareness campaigns have been spearheaded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, various state Departments of Education, and ADL.
In the case of "revenge porn" — the malicious sharing of sexually explicit images or video online without the subject's content — the fight is taking shape in the form of legislation. In 2014, California became the first state to ever convict someone for posting revenge porn, which prompted other states to criminalize the act. Currently, 25 U.S. states have revenge porn laws.
The Good Outweighs the Bad
While fighting the spread of abusive speech on social media, it's important to remember that these platforms overwhelming serve positive purposes. In addition to promoting a hyper-connected global community, social media has enabled society to produce powerful action such as the Occupy Wall Street activist movement, disaster relief for Japan's 2011 tsunami, and the viral Ice Bucket Challenge charity campaign.
Panelist Michael Fertik, CEO of Reputation.com, a leading provider of digital reputation and privacy management, gave perspective on the subculture of Internet abuse relative to the Internet as a whole.
"The good news is that there's actually very little hate speech on the Internet as a percentage of all the speech on the Internet," said Fertik. In fact, "very few people actually speak on the Internet. It is conventionally known that one percent of participants on the Internet say everything, nine percent repeat it, and 90 percent of us consume. This shows us that Internet is not a democratic speech tool: it's a consumption tool for most people."
While the panel agreed that the vocal minority of abusive Internet users should be quieted, Prof. Sheizaf Rafaeli, advised that we as a society proceed with a measured response.
"If we get into a moral panic and do too much too soon, we might regret it," warned Rafaeli, director of The Center for Internet Research at Haifa University. "We need to worry about hate and hate speech. But the sorts of expressions we see online are not necessarily a cause for legislation, nor are they a cause for litigation."
"I think the free-for-all that we see taking place on the Internet is probably the price that we pay for several advantages that we need to remind ourselves of. The open speech that exists on the Internet, which can include hate speech, is the price that we pay for the wisdom of the crowd. Open culture is the very nature of the innovation that is the Internet. And you cannot achieve openness by closing doors. You cannot achieve openness by forcing everybody to walk around with an identification badge."