Monday, February 15, 2016

Here Be Trolls

The internet is easily the most powerful tool in existence, it contains nearly the entire bulk of combined human knowledge. This massive creation that inhabits a worldwide collection of connected servers, has also altered almost every aspect of our society. The things the web can do are virtually endless, it's only limitation is truly the user. The invention of this technology is uniquely human, embodying both the flaws and strengths of our civilization. Few things exemplify the duality of our species better than how we act online. In the world of cat videos, memes and HTML, there are users who embody the negative aspects of humanity. 

The internet has revolutionized the way we work, learn, shop, communicate and are entertained; it has become a culture unto itself. As with any society, digitally or otherwise, there are always people who delight in the exasperation and harm of others. Webpage tormentors—referred to as trolls—are certainly not a new phenomenon but have become more common with the prominence of the internet. There a few places online free from the onslaught of these intolerable humans, hell-bend on making others upset. This very intentional form of harassment can be difficult to avoid in an era defined by online interactions.

A 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center concluded that 73% of adults on the internet witnessed online harassment and 40% were targeted themselves. The types of abuse ranged from name calling to comments of a sexual nature, as well as physical threats, stalking and prolonged harassment. This problem is impossible to ignore considering the fact that the vast majority of Americans use the internet on a daily basis. Technology such smartphones and tablets may have put information constantly at our fingertips but it also has made hate more accessible.

This issue is particularly prevalent among teens, at least 70% report being harassed in some way during the school year. This digital bullying, like most forms of bullying, is all about about power over the intended victim. Whether the abuse is coming from a stranger or someone familiar, the feeling of powerlessness can be all too real. Cyberbullying, as it is often called, can be a risk factor for low self-esteem, self harm and even suicide. The problem of cyberbullying is not oversensitivity or simply “kids being kids”, it is a serious safety concern with lasting consequences. It is crucial that parents are willing to have an open dialogue from an early age with their children regarding online harassment.

Cyberbullying may be more common with young people but the strategy for dealing with trolls remains the same. Most social media platforms and online communities agree that the best method to avoid this type of abusive behavior is to not engage these users and to make use of the block feature many sites offer. From person experience, it is clear that trolls feed off anger and attention—the phrase, “Don’t feed the trolls” is absolutely true. For more extreme cases of harassment, especially involving personal information and physical threats, legal action is sometimes needed. Multiple states have begun to prosecute online abuse in a similar manner to other forms of abuse.

Internet trolls and cyberbullying represent the downside of this digital age; the anonymity that online interactions sometimes have, can create a bit of a moral disconnect. The way we act online needs to reflect the way we treat one another in person, which should be with dignity and compassion. The solution is not to fear the internet and wish for simpler time, but rather to value digital interactions as much as face-to-face communication and create a culture of civility online. Some argue that rudeness and hate are inherent to human nature but I believe as we evolve technologically we can also evolve socially.

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