Harassment and you – how safe is the internet?

All hail the Internet! You might as well. It’ll give you some time to practice, before Emperor iOS 10 has his bowing receptors installed, and failure to assume the official Submission Position will get you shot to death by USB-compatible stormtroopers.

Plus, it’s one of our better inventions. Right now, answers to almost any question you want are at your fingertips, literally – all you need to do is type some words into a search bar. If you feel like talking about your interests, whether they be video games or fishing techniques or exposing all those lizard-men that run the government, there’s whole communities of people from right across the world where you can dive right in and start talking. News is faster now, and global, for better or worse – from your house in Britain you can peer right into the situation in, say, Ferguson earlier this month.

Unfortunately, give a man a fish and sooner or later he’ll figure out a way to smack someone in the face with it. And give a man a fancy box containing a few million people and the sum total of all human knowledge, and a depressing number will happily hunker down to try making the world a bit worse.

There’s been a lot of examples of that as of late. We had the guys who sent Robin Williams’ daughter, Zelda, Photoshopped images of her father’s body late last month. Then there was GamerGate, which turned out to have been started as a harassment campaign against a games developer 4chan didn’t like. That one was so effective the developer, Zoe Quinn, had to leave her house under police protection, just like the family of a 15-year old accused of burning down a dogs’ home were forced to do this week.

The question isn’t if any of this is acceptable – you can take umbrage with Zoe Quinn’s infidelity, or actually the concept of burning down dogs’ homes come to think about it, but encouraging violence or committing criminal acts against people or their loved ones just isn’t justifiable.

The question is, how do we stop it? Or even, can we stop it?

It takes a certain kind of person, to sit around and spend leisure time making the world a bit worse. One that’s probably not going to listen when people tell them to stop, or might even just enjoy the argument. Common consensus is just to ignore the trolls, and that can work, but it’s hard to do when they’re kicking your virtual door down en masse. On many sites, simply blocking them can be overturned if they make another account.

One method that’s been tried is to shear the internet of its anonymity, like YouTube tried a year ago or so (you need a Google Plus account to comment on videos, and to make one of those you need to give personal information). That way, there’s at least some accountability, and actual living humans aren’t just reduced to a picture and a username like NPCs in a video game. Of course, it hasn’t cleared things up completely, but it seems to have helped a little, even if – once again – it’s relatively easy to get around, should you be so inclined. Going back to Zoe Quinn, she’s set up a support group for victims of serious harassment. Taking that inherent connectivity of the World Wide Web and making it into a solution – that’s an approach I like.

Let’s actually answer that headline, then, to finish – how safe is the internet? Well, for the majority of us, pretty safe. What examples of harassment most of us run into can be safely ignored, and keeping an eye on your passwords can help to cut off any serious information theft. There is a vicious minority, however, that can lash out hard if they make you a target, and as long as easy anonymity remains that’s not going to go away.

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