There is a widespread conviction that the internet has resulted in an invasion of privacy and the global accessibility of personal details. Bank accounts, emails, state secrets (if the tabloids are to be believed), public scandal… they’re all there for our consumption. However, there is the other side of the coin, the side that not many of us tend to look at.
Yes, the internet has provided us with almost unlimited access to all sorts of information previously barred from view. But it has also given us a vast cloak of anonymity. Fake e-mail addresses, pseudonyms on Twitter, alter-egos on Facebook… The internet lets us be whoever we want to be. Sometimes this ability to literally hide behind a screen doesn’t go as far as complete anonymity. Those of you who use instant messaging in various forms (Facebook chat, BBM, Whatsapp etc) will know that it’s sometimes easier to type something in a little box than it is to say face-to-face. You might not call that person you got with the other night, but saying hi through social media is far less scary and somehow more acceptable. These different forms of communication are less personal than a standard conversation, and therefore convey less emotion. After all, what easier way to back out of an accidental confession of feelings than putting ‘mega lolz ;)’ at the end?
And then there’s the slightly more sinister end of the spectrum, in which live those morally questionable people who use the digital masquerade of the internet to do some serious damage. Hackers and virus-spreaders make up the more tangible part of this group, and while I agree that the harm they do is serious, it is, mostly, repairable. What makes me see red is the type of person who uses the internet to psychologically abuse others. Call it internet bullying or whatever else you like, the fact is that playground behaviour has moved to cyberspace, and this time it’s not just children who are both the perpetrators and the victims. On a personal level, I’ve been on the receiving end of slightly vicious and unnecessary comments posted by people posing as friends. To the person who went to all the trouble to create a fake Hotmail account and then write a comment telling me to ‘get a life’, all I can say is, take your own advice. Better still, if you feel that strongly about something I’ve written, own up to it and tell me in person. And I think this is what gets to me the most. Ultimately, these people using a shield of fake names and encoded IP addresses are displaying an extreme form of cowardice. It’s becoming easier by the day for someone to say something negative and make derogatory comments, and yet stay hidden from view. I’d understand if we lived under an oppressed regime and had to preserve our identities for fear of being dragged away in the middle of the night by some KGB-esque force, but we don’t.
Ultimately, hiding behind a name plucked out of thin air and writing insulting, hurtful and sadistic things on the internet is rather petty, and incredibly pathetic. Comments that have been written on my blog (and have since been deleted) are small beer compared with what has appeared in the media in recent years. One person’s violent campaign of hate against a teenager, complete with messages sent from multiple fake email addresses, which resulted in the suicide of the victim, is just one example of what internet anonymity can bring about. I doubt that this is what this masked messenger had in mind, which just goes to show how effective communicating through the internet can be, and how quickly it can get out of hand.
We are lucky enough to live in a part of the world where we won’t be punished for voicing our opinions, and I feel we should use this right to its full effect. However, there is a huge difference between this and abusing the privacy offered by the internet. My view is, if you can’t admit to saying something, then it’s probably not worth saying at all.