Your First Amendment Right to be Mean
Should there be laws against internet trolls?
Posted February 15, 2010
People love to hate. Go through my blog and you'll find a colorful assortment of hate comments, thinly veiled death threats, and "you're an idiot" insults.
They're my favorite bedtime reading and make me feel all warm and fuzzy. Actually, they don't. Actually they kinda hurt, and I find myself going to my friends and asking them if I really am "acting like a selfish, spoiled brat."
Do you know who called me that? Oh, I do. The lovely internet troll goes by the name anonymous. And he/she loves to write nasty things to me all the time.
Do you notice that the harshest and most critical people on the internet are the ones who hide behind anonymity and fake identities? It's probably one of those obvious facts of life that I only started to notice when I became a target.
I want to know why people-who are otherwise perfectly normal and nice-become such vindictive animals when tempted with a juicy piece of internet sass. Obviously, it's everyone's prerogative to say whatever they please in an open forum - that's exactly what I do in my blog. But I have never written anything in a mean-spirited way nor openly bashed people, except myself. So why is it that mean unprovoked people feel the need to attack?
In the Oxford Handbook of Internet Psychology, authors Adam N. Joinson, Katelyn McKenna, and Tom Postmes write:
"Internet aggression may be explained by a general framework advocated by Social Learning Theory (Bandura 1977), which focuses on the causes of aggressive behaviours-motivational, disinhibitory, and opportunistic aspects."
First, the motivational aspect rests on the fact that the internet is like Vegas, it never sleeps and therefore, creates a readily available venue for people's anger, resentment and aggression whenever they need to let off some steam. Actually, it's better than Vegas, because it's relatively free and there's no bouncer telling you can't get in.
The disinhibitory aspect refers to the internet's lack of rules and regulation. I imagine a Jersey Shore kind of world with really inebriated orange people running around with scissors and vodka, unsupervised. Additionally the internet's cloak of anonymity allows users to "not feel accountable" for their actions. "Participation is unmonitored by society and therefore there is no social cost to aggressive behavior." In fact, some people love to get in on the action and egg the mean behavior on.
The third aspect is opportunity, which refers to the ease of finding victims on the net. We've already covered the fact that trolls are protected by anonymity-in that same vein, their targets are also "unknown, maybe faceless, dehumanized and will not retaliate." (I actually happen to have a face; you can see it in the upper right hand corner of the page)
Interestingly, Social Learning Theory also explains prosocial behavior on the internet, which represents positive relationships cultivated online. "Since it is extremely easy on the net to find similar others, people are likely to find communities that reinforce their natural tendencies."
One of the most heartbreaking cases of internet harassment were the Myspace suicide in 2006, where 13-year-old Megan Meier hanged herself after she was cyberbullied by a friend's mother, Lori Drew. Lori created a fake Myspace account attributed to a 16-year-old boy named Josh Evans who befriended Megan online. The relationship eventually turned sour when Josh began sending Megan hateful messages that said no one liked her and she was a bad person. After reading one particularly cruel note, which said that the world would be a better place without her, Megan killed herself.
Lori was convicted but later acquitted on charges of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. However, trusty Wikipedia informs me that in addition to being forced to close her business, Lori's home was vandalized and her family was shunned by the community.
Missouri has since approved an update to its existing harassment bill to cover internet bullying. Text, electronic and computer messages all fall under that umbrella. Most recently, Congresswoman Linda Sánchez introduced the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, which would make it a "felony punishable by up to two years in prison to transmit by electronic means any communication ‘with the intent to coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress to a person'." Additionally, "the behavior must be repeated, hostile, and severe" (Digital Daily).
While the legislation is well-intentioned, it does have a slight problem-it violates the first amendment.
Wow. Two years in the slammer for butt-hurt feelings. Imagine.
I imagine some more and think that a world with only niceties and positive comments is a world much like Orwell's 1984 or a Kool-Aid cult. "Frightening" trying to pass for "utopian."
Sure, mean people are evil. What Lori Drew did was inexcusable-but censoring the internet is not the solution. Well, not mine anyway.
People will find other mediums to be cruel to one another. For instance, girl-on-girl fights are becoming a strange new Youtube trend. We are very resourceful people. As long as love exists, so will hate. And there's no way the government can or should regulate either.
Sure, anonymous may have the power to attack, but I wield the power to delete.
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