On March 19th, I learned something about the online world that I’d never heard put into concrete terms before. There is a dark world online that’s always looking for ways to silence the voices of women and minorities. Dr. Jessica Reyman and Dr. Erika Sparkby offered an enlightening presentation on this very subject as part of the STEMCafé’s series of lectures. Their discussion made me aware of an issue I’ve thought about while scanning Facebook. Until they shared their research, though, I had no idea the threat was so pervasive.
The most disturbing part of this factual information is that a communication tool, which offers promising possibilities of community and connection, can be incredibly detrimental. Nameless figures who think they have the right to intimidate diverse perspectives are determined to stamp out social media’s amazing potential. Even worse, there’s very little an individual can do to combat this pervasive phenomenon. Because platforms are owned and operated by large, profit-driven corporations that want posts to gain traction at any cost, protection against deliberate, heartless bullying is weak at best. This means the companies that operate these platforms don’t have an incentive to make changes which could realistically diminish traffic.
The depressing lack of alternatives often forces victims to submit to the harassment by simply disappearing from these sites altogether. While leaving the site altogether makes sense, the result is that hate prevails over thoughtful ideas, creative insights, and alternative modes of written expression. In a world where divisiveness has power over whole societies, routinely turning people against each other instead of being rejected by stronger, more ethical ways of thinking, the growth of online bullying is not at all abnormal. And this truth makes me feel horrible on numerous levels. It means that people with progressive ideas, individuals who wish to bring communities together, constantly face backlash from a few whose first impulse is to abuse with anonymity. I remember a time not that long ago when this kind of behavior was cast aside without any hesitation. But in today’s culture, a world that embraces personal attacks based on the most superficial qualities, nobody is safe from online assaults. I completely understand why those who have been targeted choose to withdraw. It’s in their best interest to shield themselves when our overall society regularly demonstrates a total lack of concern.
Despite the grim nature of this reality, though, I see hope in the future. The fact that scholars like Dr. Reyman and Dr. Sparby are addressing this issue demonstrates there will be a solution at some point. Even though the corporations that operate these multibillion dollar sites don’t do very much to deter mistreatment between users now, it doesn’t mean that won’t change. It’s interesting how companies revise their approaches as the surrounding culture reshapes itself, even in the tiniest ways. Before the survivors of the Parkland shooting became activists against gun violence, for instance, the NRA had what seemed to be an impenetrable stronghold. Mass shootings were accepted because of this group’s power over the politicians who could devise common sense gun laws. Now the NRA has lost a great deal of its influence and that’s because our culture has shifted. “Thoughts and prayers” are not allowed without derision and increased expectations from the general public. Because of a newfound cultural pressure from the public, gun manufacturers are now being held accountable for marketing their products in a way that attracts mentally unstable individuals. Profits over the real lives of innocent people are in the process of moving in anethical direction. Because of this rethinking of our values as a society, life is once more becoming valued above how much a corporation can make in a given year at the expense of humanity. The effort to stop the repeated incidents of horrific gun violence throughout the nation still has a long road ahead. But things are certainly changing for the better now. Due to this trend, I think online bullying will also be resolved eventually in a way where morals matter more than the so-called rights of any social media abuser.
In my opinion, the scholars I heard on March 19th are important pioneers in this field. I admire their skill in presenting such a complex topic with factual evidence that can be used to find crucial solutions. Their work will enable women and other minority groups to populate social media sites more frequently with their imaginative ideas and not feel afraid for their safety. This is the future I see and I thank Dr. Reyman and Dr. Sparkby for opening up an essential conversation.