Monday 26 November 2012

Cyber meanies

The Web can be a vicious place. Why do some netizens think it's OK to insult total strangers?
By Sumiko Tan, The Straits Times, 25 Nov 2012

Many years ago, when the concept of e-mail was just taking off, I sent a message to a colleague USING ALL CAPITAL LETTERS.

I didn't realise I was being rude.

I seriously thought using the upper case would render my message more legible.

To make matters worse, the mail was a complaint (about how a story had been displayed). Little wonder my colleague saw red. He thought I was screaming at him.

He made clear to me his unhappiness and I tried to explain myself. He accepted my apology and the matter blew over.

The episode taught me a valuable lesson in electronic etiquette: It's offensive to use capital letters in an e-mail. Even if you hadn't intended to be rude, it will come across that way.

These days, people have no qualms being nasty over the computer, and we're not talking about just the use of the upper case.

On chatrooms, discussion threads, Facebook and multiplayer game sites, strangers hurl snarky, sneering, mocking, abusive and sexually inappropriate messages at one another, usually with no relevance to the original post.

It happens everywhere.

Google "why are people so mean online" and you'll find articles examining the phenomenon. Wikipedia says the Chinese, Japanese, Icelanders, Koreans, Portuguese and Thais all have terms to describe Internet trolls - those tedious netizens who enter forums to provoke and harass others.

Taken to its extreme, cyber-bullying has led to young people killing themselves. The US-based Cyberbullying Research Center website even has a term for it - cyberbullicide, or "suicide indirectly or directly influenced by experiences with online aggression".

Being the unwitting target of online attacks can leave one bruised, devastated and bewildered. Even if these comments are not directed at you, reading them makes one feel sullied, somehow.

Cyber meanies love people in the news (and those who report the news), but their vitriol is also aimed at strangers.

The flaming usually starts when someone posts a comment that rubs a meanie the wrong way.

In the Singapore context, politics - in particular anything remotely supportive of the People's Action Party government - is guaranteed to get you whacked. So are sympathetic views on, say, foreign talent or dolphins in captivity or eating shark's fin.

Pre-Internet, I never realised there was so much spite and venom around.

Have people grown meaner? Or is the hate one reads online the true face of human nature? What is it about the digital world that brings out the worst in us?

Much of the abuse people spew online are things they probably wouldn't say to the other person in real life, even if drunk - chief reason being they'd be beaten up if they did.

So why do people become so horrible when they go online?

Some, I suppose, are plain horrible anyway. It's just that when you meet such folk in real life, you run a mile away from them, but on a forum, their post stares right at you like a personal mail.

The anonymity of cyberspace is often cited as the primary cause of bad online behaviour.

Anyone can adopt a Mickey Mouse avatar and invisibly post a crude comment and nobody would know it was from him and go after him. The computer - or smartphone - is his shield.

This lack of accountability gives one the licence to misbehave. It's like road rage, where people in cars feel empowered and so unleash the beast inside them.

The speed of digital communication also makes it easy to shoot off an insult without having to pause and think first.

Normally nice people turn nasty in the virtual world because it is a new medium we are still coming to grips with.

In the real world, people communicate mostly face-to-face and we calibrate what we say based on the situation and how the person we are talking to is reacting.

But online, all the social rules and body cues are absent. What we say can be easily misconstrued, and offence taken when not meant (like what happened to me and my colleague).

"What a stupid, old and ugly columnist" comes across harsher in print than if you were to say it. Unlike spoken words which are fleeting, it's also permanently there in cyberspace for you - and, more gallingly, everyone else - to see it and revisit it.

Still, it's not just anonymous posters who are nasty. On Facebook, for instance, people who make offensive comments merrily do so using their real identity.

One would imagine that anyone who reveals his face - and occupation and family snapshots - would feel obliged to rein in his mean side, but apparently not.

Perhaps it's because they're dealing with strangers. If you're unlikely to ever meet the person you're flaming, you assume there aren't any real consequences to being rude, and so you are. (That said, Singapore is a tiny city.)

Tied to this is how empowering the Internet is. It allows you to show off your views to far more people than ever before. The attention - better yet, the approval (from like-minded meanies) - one gets is intoxicating and emboldens you to post even more outrageous comments to attract even more eyeballs.

To curb loutish behaviour, some websites insist that all users post their real names. Others rely on moderators or a system where rude netizens are ostracised by others.

An Internet code of conduct has been proposed for Singapore, but I'd be surprised if it takes off. It's too controversial, difficult to get buy-in, and hard to enforce.

The most effective approach, in my book, is to ignore abusive posts.

More than anger, the cyber meanie who penned them deserves your pity.

Imagine this spite-filled person sitting in front of his computer thinking of ways to put down people he doesn't even know, and in the most mischievous way possible. Sad, no?

So, feel sorry for how he's filling his mind with evil thoughts and wasting his life, then switch off your computer, go for a run, read a good book, or have a meal with a loved one.

Cyberspace may be one of mankind's best inventions, but sometimes, the real world is safer, saner and nicer.

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