When the WWW becomes WW3

I was recently asked to write a feature article for my uni’s student magazine about social media and whether or not it enhances or benefits our lives. As I sat down to write this article only half an hour ago, I was set to launch into a sermon praising the benefits of the internet. I was going to write about all the wonderful things the World Wide Web does do for us – helping those far apart to stay in contact, allowing for professional development and business to be conducted across borders and making news immediately available to anyone with internet access.

I was stopped in my tracks when I opened Facebook and was confronted with the sight of the internet once again being used for evil.

There was a photo in my newsfeed, because one of my Facebook contacts had commented on it. It caught my eye because I knew the girl it featured. Despite never having met her personally, I knew her as being from the year level below me at my high school. It was a nice enough picture of her posing happily for the camera. For the purpose of this post, I will call her M.

The photo had been posted by a Facebook ‘page’ – the sort used by companies and public figures, that fans and customers can follow to receive updates and stay in contact. I will not do the page the justice of naming it. The page categorises itself as a ‘comedian’, but is managed by a number of administrators with no particular interest or standing. From the quick perusal I made of the page, their general shtick seems to be to post controversial and offensive content in the name of ‘comedy’, covering themselves with a page description that reads “Nothing said here is to be taken seriously and is not meant to offend”. They pride themselves on the fact that the page has already been removed by Facebook three times.

Alarm bells started ringing when I read this, reminding me of the age-old “I’m not racist, but…” prefix.

Some time ago, this page had posted a photo that had received a number of varying comments (as do most of their posts). A girl had disagreed with them and in response, the page had commented that ‘bulimia is great, you could benefit from it’. M had then commented defending this girl and criticising the page’s flippant treatment of the issue of eating disorders.

The response from the page was the photo that caught my eye this afternoon. They had taken one of M’s profile pictures and posted it from their page, sarcastically calling her an ‘internet superhero’ and encouraging followers to rate and comment on her appearance.

The wave of abuse that followed sent shivers down my spine. The hateful, sexist, personal attacks that complete strangers started unloading on M caused me to literally burst into tears at my computer. I am welling up just thinking about it now.

Admittedly, I can be an emotional person – particularly on other people’s behalf – but to read this and imagine how it must feel was incredibly confronting. Once or twice, M tried to defend herself or criticise the page and to her credit, was relatively calm and collected in her approach, but her attempts were met with more abuse that strayed from her appearance and became personal taunts. A friend of M’s also tried to defend her and was met with racist abuse due to her Indian heritage.

The whole time I was reading this I was torn – are they doing the right thing trying to counter the hate or should they simply be ignoring it? Are they gratifying or validating this disgusting behaviour by responding to it? Or would letting it slide simply allow it to spiral further out of control?

I can’t even begin to answer these questions. I have no idea what the best course of action is. But it frightens me to think that people with such simplistic, exclusive ideals have free reign on the internet and can continue to publicly unload abuse and torment on others.

Cyber bullying has been an enormous issue for some time and one of the major reasons it is so terrible is that the perpetrators can be anonymous. Whilst these people’s names are shown with their comments, they are essentially strangers to M, followers of this Facebook page from around Australia and the world that are able to criticise her even from hundreds of kilometres away.

I am all for freedom of speech. Public discourse wouldn’t be discourse if only a limited few were able to express their opinions. But with great power comes great responsibility. And when these opinions are purely destructive and are designed solely to demean another person and make them question their own self-worth, surely we need to rethink this ideal.

I know this sort of thing happens quite frequently – more frequently than anyone can imagine. But as with many terrible occurrences in our world, you often don’t understand the impact of it until it happens to you or someone you know.

Unfortunately, as long as the internet is the way it is, there is little that can be done to eradicate this type of behaviour. But there are small steps that everyone can take.

Report the abuse.
Block or delete the abusers.
Support the abused. Privately, not by piling into the fight.

Because this is not comedy, it is tragedy.

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