Someone talks online about an issue that concerns them, and the anonymous attacks begin. “You’re stupid,” one poster sneers. “And probably ugly.”
Someone else, using a fake name, joins the fun, belittling the original poster’s education, weight and even their spelling.
Pretty soon, it’s a veritable pile-on, with more and more attacks, all from behind the easy protection of false names and the anonymous wasteland of the Internet.
A textbook case of Facebook bullying?
The kind of Internet abuse that brings attacks right into someone’s bedroom, the kind that we’re supposed to be concerned about, the attacks that have led to teen suicides?
No, this is not social media. Not chat rooms or forums, either.
No, these are comments on pretty much any media website.
It’s anonymous, hateful and petty. It’s bullying, plain and simple.
And the simple fact of it is that, if you’re not willing to put your name to it — your real name — it’s just another kind of night-drawn graffiti.
Cue the aggrieved claims that someone’s freedom of speech is being abridged.
Give me a break.
You have the freedom to stand up and say whatever you like — it’s part of living in this country. But the key point is that you have to stand up. Not some shadow-puppet anonymous identity, dripping hate from the safety of a basement keyboard. As far as that argument goes, shadow-puppets don’t actually have rights.
Oh, others — often anonymous — will cry: “we have to be able to speak anonymously because if we don’t, the government/big business/my mom might unjustly punish us.”
That might occasionally be true, especially in these dark times where there are clear examples of individuals, even in our province, who have been punished or singled out for speaking their minds.
But it’s a pretty long stretch to compare yourself to someone who has undergone a kind of public martyrdom for speaking truth to power, when what you want to post is a comment ridiculing a public figure’s weight, facial features or sexuality.
The simple fact is that people want the ability to spill bile without ever having to bear the responsibility for what they say. And while it may sound trite to say so, with rights, come responsibilities.
One of the saddest things you can see on media comment boards is when someone new posts a carefully thought-out argument on an issue raised by a story or editorial, and is then systematically shouted down by a group of bullies who can come up with nothing better than to make fun of the original poster’s name. The new poster vanishes, and any future insight from them vanishes too.
And don’t tell me that the Internet is a different kind of forum and that this isn’t really bullying: I’ve written before about bullying in the House of Assembly, and have had some suggest that the House is a particular kind of atmosphere where the give-and-take of heckling is both traditional and to be lauded.
There’s nothing wrong with heckling, just like there’s nothing wrong with responding to a comment — but just shouting “you’re stupid” over and over again is not heckling. It doesn’t even come close.
It is bullying, and trying to defend it should be a losing battle.
Why isn’t it? Maybe because there’s still a part of us that likes to watch bear-baiting. Maybe because there’s some sadistic pleasure in watching someone else be targeted. Once again — it’s all the trademarks of schoolyard bullying.
The traditional media’s travels into the Internet have been something of a learning curve. I’ve written about our obvious missteps in giving away news for free before, and I think it’s pretty clear from newspaper sites across this country that we’ve misstepped in choosing increased web traffic over common decency in comments sections.
Hopefully, either we’ll learn or unrestrained comments will naturally lose their audience. Not everyone wants to keep watching the wild dogs of comments use their teeth to pull apart the latest bear. It’s predictable, and it makes us smaller, whether we want to admit it or not. Eventually, everyone gets tired of hate, unless they are small-minded and bitter enough that their personal engine runs on it.
Some might suggest that, having unwittingly pulled the cork, we can’t put the genie back into the bottle. That may be; truly, the only option might be to throw the whole bottle away.
We need informed debate. We don’t need Internet bullying either on social media or media websites.
This is my column.
This is my name on it.
This is an example of freedom of speech.
I welcome opposing views from any real live people interested in exercising their similar rights. All gratuitous anonymous responses will be given the attention they deserve — and perhaps, as hard as it is to actually do, we should all take that approach.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s
editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.