Internet governance was on the agenda again this week when the new Internet Content Governance Advisory Group held its first meeting.
Set up by Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte in December, the Group will take submissions from the public and then provide recommendations to the Government on various issues surrounding internet usage in Ireland. Apart from bullying, other areas for discussion include the legal provisions of sharing content online, and whether existing provisions are sufficient in general.
Perhaps it is the issue of bullying which will prove most controversial. It is certainly likely to draw the most submissions from the public. There can’t be a person in the country who doesn’t know of someone with first-hand experience of online harassment or bullying. And it’s a personal thing too. Unlike the implications and requirements of sharing content online – which is very important but most likely to interest a much smaller group – bullying is something where the effects are readily visible on the victim.
There is something really disgusting about online bullying. You only need to spend five minutes online on pretty much any form of social media to realise that the internet has enabled the evolution of a supreme form of schoolyard bully – a threat who can be anyone, anywhere, anyplace, anytime. We have a real problem with online bullying, not just in Ireland, but internationally. The number of young people in particular who are literally “bullied to death” each year is a shocking reminder that words have implications, and too many negative attacks can be fatal on a vulnerable mind.
I have no doubt but that Pat Rabbitte’s new Group has great intentions. Every submission will be read, every technical expert given a hearing, every psychological who proffers a view listened to. But I wonder if there is something else that we are missing in this ongoing debate on the safety of the online world?
Just as bullying is not something which originated online, it’s not going to be solved there. It’s a trait – or flaw – of human nature and it’s there that we must go if we want to rectify matters. Think for a minute about the most abusive comments you’ve seen made online. Chances are, they’re not actually made by anonymous users at all but by people using their own name sporting a bright smiley photograph alongside. Click on the photo and you’ll be directed to a personal site, showing someone having a whale of a time at a music festival or staring pensively towards a mountain. There’s nothing threatening or intimidating about them, and it’s at this point that the problem with online bullying develops into a two-fold issue.
On the one hand, you’re facing the mentality of many online users who are convinced that the rules and norms of everyday society don’t apply in cyberspace. They’re the ones who rely on the fact that the adoption of traditional laws in cyberspace has been sluggish at best. The misguided idea that you can say what you like so long as it appears on a computer screen is one reason why cyber bullying has taken such a hold. When words are written in a newspaper or other permanent material, they’re seen as having more gravitas. A poison pen letter that can be held in the hand of the unlucky addressee carries more weight than a flimsy email.
Of course, this is nonsense. Users who think they are anonymous can eventually be tracked down, though it might take time and effort. And while it’s true that the law might be moving at a slower rate, it’s catching up quickly as several recent cases show. And there are other ways of taking action against online harassment too. Very often, other users solve the problem by pointing out to the bully that their behaviour is unacceptable within the online community. This “self-monitoring” is a reflection of the way the non-virtual society has developed. Certain things are deemed acceptable, and others not. While it operates well in general, it has its drawbacks. The internet lends itself much more easily to “herd mentality” and the blinkered way in which some users act means that they’ll object to the harassment of an individual or a group while engaging in far more abusive language themselves.
The other aspect of the bullying problem is one that will not be solved so easily by the Government’s new task group because it’s rooted in the more complex element of human personalities. Why do people feel the need to bully or harass at all? It’s the real issue that needs to be addressed because if we could answer it, then we wouldn’t just be solving the problem of bullying. Other areas of society would benefit too.
At its heart, bullying implies a supreme lack of respect for the safety and security of another human being. Behind every harsh comment intended to drag someone down in public, there’s a nonchalance about the fact that words can wound, and this should concern us all deeply. If the new Group is really going to attack the problem of online bullying head-on, then it needs to spend some time thinking about how to re-awaken a belief in the dignity and worth of every human being and how that shouldn’t be attacked in any world, virtual or real.