online harassment happens partly because people lose their inhibitions as soon as they go online

Online harassment: trolls exhibit ‘drunken’ behaviour

I shut the door behind me and start sprinting to the bus stop, but the 137 rushes by right past me. Almost on automatic pilot, I take out my phone and start scrolling on Instagram. My thumb lingers over the screen as I see a post about an amazing lady doing amazing things. I check the comments. “You go, girl!” “You are an inspiration to all!” And then…

“Go back to the kitchen!!!!!!”

I click on their profile. A private account. Their profile picture a random cat picture plucked off the internet. Following: a bunch of controversial accounts. Followers: none.

If there’s anything I find more problematic than online harassment, it’s the fact that these people mask their true identity. Internet trolls are teetering on the edge of being dumb enough to engage into this kind of bullying, but smart enough to know that they would face a backlash if their friends, family or employer would catch them spewing their BS on other people’s feed.

Intoxicated on the internet

Why do some people waste their time bothering others on the internet? As soon as we unlock our phones or log on to our computers, we move into a new space. You’re no longer in the room, you are in your own digital bubble, where you feel comfy and safe, hidden away behind a screen.

This (false) sense of safety is what leads some to act differently online, according to Mary Aiken, cyberpsychologist and author of The Cyber Effect. “People can lose their inhibitions and in a way act drunk, because, for some, being in the cyber environment can impair judgement and increase impulsivity, somewhat similar to the way alcohol can” When we’re online, we feel a certain sense of distance and anonymity, as well as a perceived lack of authority.

How to deal with online harassment:

  • Know that the conversations you see online don’t represent society as a whole. It’s usually the (drunk) loud mouths that speak up;
  • If you see a threat being derailed by internet trolls, spread the love by commenting something positive;
  • Always report the posts and comments you feel have crossed a line;
  • Choose your battles and don’t fight fire with fire: if you do feel the need to respond, remind the harasser that they are talking to a real human being. It sounds crazy, but they often forget this!

Cache me if you can

There is definitely less surveillance, and more opportunity to act like a total douche, but comparing the internet to a lawless jungle is a common misperception. We don’t see cop cars speeding through our social media feeds, but that doesn’t mean cybercrime and online harassment goes unnoticed.

Even in our online bubble, we leave behind our ‘digital DNA’ everywhere. The combined efforts of hate speech algorithms and human moderators make sure that comments get removed and fake accounts blocked. And in more extreme cases, the authorities are able to crack the code.

Someone being targeted by online harassment

It was only last week that 21-year old Brandon Fleury was announced to be facing US federal charges for using Instagram to harass, intimidate and threaten. He used several accounts like “nikolas.killed.your.sister” and “nikolasthemurderer” to consistently target family of some of the Parkland victims.

The Internet was created under values of equality, anonymity and freedom. As the line between our cyber-bubble and the physical space becomes blurrier each day, we need to be aware of how our behaviour online has real-life (offline) consequences. Let’s all work harder to make the internet a better place!