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Column Online mobs, crazes and trolls... welcome to the online disinhibition effect

Many people are ill-equipped to deal with what accompanies an online presence – like anonymity or the effect of the online mob. So blaming social media for crazes detracts from the root cause of the issue, writes Darragh Coakely.

FIDELMA HEALY EAMES recently spoke in the Seanad outlining her concerns on the impact of social media on young people’s behaviour.

It’s nice to see that the issue is being tackled by those in the know. Personally, I doubt that a debate that condemns neknominations is something that we really need at present – considering the heartbreaking deaths of some participants and the media coverage surrounding the tragedies, I don’t think there are too many people who are going to argue ‘tis just a bit a’ craic. I doubt, however, that’ll stop politicians from talking about how social media is ruining the youth, turning them into sexters, cyberbullliers, frapers and neknominators.

Maybe I’m wronging a noble intent to talk calmly and intelligently about this issue, but I find it hard to expect an measured perspective from someone who referred to fraping as “where you’re raped on Facebook”. More to the point, I simply don’t believe that this kind of meandering berating of social media has much effect. Least of all on young people who have grown up using social networks and who, prevailingly, want to do nothing more with the network than use it to talk to their friends. I understand that wringing our hands and asking each other ‘isn’t it aaaaawful?’ is, broadly speaking, part of our culture, but I doubt how effective it will be at improving the situation.

An ever-expanding and changing landscape

I don’t hold much stock in the suggestions put forth by colleagues such as Sean Kelly either, who has said that this highlights “the need for European legislation to control and monitor websites like Facebook”. That might even sound feasible - but Facebook, like Friendster, like Bebo, like Myspace, like Twitter and so many other social networks before them, will sooner or later be replaced by a newer social network. Call me cynical, but if the government struggles with issues of online copyright and open source browsers, my expectation for them to police an ever-expanding and changing landscape like social media is low (plus, thinking about it keeps making me picture a kind of Irish digital Sabotage).

Social networks are simply channels for communication – a street where people talk. If one street is shut off, it’s doubtless that people will find another one. There will always be a new Facebook or a new Twitter that people will use to propose stupid ideas to each other.

The online disinhibition effect

I say all this not because I’m worried about Mark Zuckerberg losing out on a few more billion, nor am I hugely worried that proposed measures like Sean Kelly’s could impact negatively on freedom of speech (though that is also an issue). I think the problem here is that misplacing the blame in this fashion enforces the myth that the cause of the problem is Facebook or Twitter, or whatever the social network is, and that if we can get Facebook to ban this latest noxious craze, it’ll stop all the nonsense (until of course the next neknomination comes along on whatever network is most popular at that time).

I’d argue that the broader issue with a lot of stupid online behaviour (even leaving aside what is basically the root cause of neknominations – a binge drinking problem in Ireland that goes back decades) is that we are all susceptible to particular patterns of behaviour online and we’re frequently unaware of it – something known as the online disinhibition effect (essentially: you don’t know me, you can’t see me, it’s all just fun anyway). A good practical example of this is outlined here by comedian Louis CK (around 00:30), where he talks about how digital communication can remove empathy and distance us from seeing the effects of our actions

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The grimmer aspects of social media

Many people – ordinary, decent ones at that – are ill-equipped to deal with elements that can accompany an online presence – things like anonymity, the effect of the online mob, an so on. Pointing the finger at the technology, which will never stop changing, might provide a semi-solid target for outrage, but it also detracts from better, more feasible solutions.

Dealing with the grimmer aspects of social media – online bullying, trolling, etc – is an extremely nuanced and relatively unknown area that, I would argue, we’re all still in the process of working out. Where does free speech end and cyberbullying begin? Does calling someone a name one time over Twitter constitute online abuse? I’m not the least bit against the idea of legislation to deal with cyber-bullies, nor am I arguing for leniency for trolls and abusive online behaviour, but I do fear a rushed and ham-fisted approach that would seek to grossly simplify a complicated issue. Legislation in this area could be used as a mechanism to silence genuine and/or innocent opinion – and that’s an area that, even now, remains somewhat of a grey area.

I would argue that a potentially better solution than shifting responsibility to social networking sites and making them the arbitrator of what what is morally acceptable for us all to post may be to look at how we can educate and inform young people. Not just victims on how to deal with online abuse, but potential perpetrators of online abuse – to let them know what punishments are now being enforced (and what for) and how their behaviour patterns can be affected simply by going online.

As I said, maybe I’m wronging a noble intent and just being cynical. Maybe the governement is committed to robust solutions and will focus on how we can proactively engage with the root of the issue, instead of looking at how we can shift responsibility. If they aren’t, then probably the best we’re gonna get is more #carefulnow and #downwiththissortofthing

Darragh Coakley is a media and e-learning researcher in the Cork Institute of Technology with no solid political affiliations.

Column: Social media and the Streisand Effect – who dictates popular discourse today?

Read: Judge admits taking part in neknomination was ‘foolish’

Read: Here’s how your life would be different if Facebook didn’t exist

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