Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.
Targeted harassment online is becoming all too commonplace in the world of social media. It’s a phenomenon that increasingly bears a resemblance to the bully pit of the schoolyard playground, but with higher stakes than bloody noses and hurt feelings.
Scapegoating is the practice of displacing negativity or insecurities like anger and resentment onto a person, community or even non-entity. This persecution practice is as old as humanity itself, and, despite our progress, has never really left us.
In our more “enlightened” times, scapegoating has transformed and evolved, and has historically been seen on any playground, office or home — wherever someone or a group seeks to dominate another. While the phenomenon was widely practiced, its effects were localized and limited. People dealt with the problem on their own terms.
With the rise of social media, the public square has expanded to include the world. The democratization of information and communication has had a tremendously empowering effect on individuals everywhere. Unfortunately, it has also empowered a certain set of society that also aims to dominate others.
The neighborhood or schoolyard bully now has a world stage and the capacity to magnify their own voice through sock accounts. And worse, cutting off all avenues of escape for the victim by going anywhere social media goes.
Unfortunately, those in positions to directly address these problems have failed.
While we may not ever completely eliminate this problem that has been with us since the Stone Age, tech giants can implement policies that can disincentivize this behavior. If technology contributed to this mess, technology can get us out of it.
Here are four practices that can help minimize the phenomena of targeted harassment and scapegoating:
1. Non-Objective Standards of Speech
While we acknowledge that a private business can enforce any standards it chooses and not be violating your rights, the ever-shifting sands of the algorithms do not seem to discourage anyone from engaging in relational online cruelty.
If anything, the overt prejudices of a company purporting to represent the new public square are emboldening online harassment through the perception of unfairness. As one side goes unchecked and the other looks for solutions to the perceived dishonesty.
If social media companies were to adopt the objective standard of threatened violence, fraud, libel and slander, it would not only project an image of fairness to the diverse community it claims to serve, but it would also discourage these behaviors that become so common online.
2. Mass Anonymity
Anonymity is an attribute of privacy, and the personal protections privacy affords is a real concern. Further complicating the matter, privacy is often conflated with rights and is often jealously guarded as a “right.”
As a consequence, anonymity has become a luxury many don’t want to lose.
Online anonymity can incentivize reckless behavior by dissociating the victimizer from the consequences of their own actions. In the same way, a person hidden within a crowd will be more likely to throw a rock at another because they can easily melt back into the crowd, so someone hidden behind a “sock account” can harass someone.
Since the penalties are only an account suspension, which does not preclude the individual from starting another anonymous account and continuing to harass, user’s identities should be directly linked to their accounts, with any additional accounts they manage listed in their bio lines.
This isn’t a new procedure; blue-badged accounts are known quantities, because their online identities are linked to a legitimate form of identification, without their personal information finding its way into people’s hands. Thus, this is a proven method that does work.
More troubling, many online bullies could be minors. If their accounts are linked to their parents’ information, it could incentivize less sock account creation and more watchful parental practices, as they are subject to liability based upon their child’s online activities. For public figures, there can be an alternative way to confer “status” on these platforms.
Tweets are especially prone to de-contextualization or the removal of statements from their full context in order to create a narrative that will cause the maximum amount of mass outcry and damage to the victim’s reputation.
There are already tweet threaders available for those who chose to follow and keep whole dialogues, but what if that practice was automatic? What if it was impossible to decouple a tweet from its thread without everyone knowing, by either linking the tweet thread automatically or sending a disclaimer that the tweet is part of a larger context.
Social media already warns us about potentially fallacious material in the transmission of news — I see no reason they can’t do it beyond just news content.
4. Ease of Account Creation
Often a harasser utilizes multiple (anonymous) accounts that give the appearance of popular support for a point of view. The resulting fake virtual mob tends to encourage casual observers to join in the targeted harassment.
When this capability is combined with a lack of real consequences, a feedback loop ensues, where responses trigger more vigorous responses, leading to an overwhelming amount of accusations leveled by a perceived large volume of harassers.
We believe that if anonymity is effectively removed by linking accounts to real people and by automatically listing those accounts on social media profiles, there will be less incentive to start sock accounts for the sole purpose of harassing others and the epidemic practice will die for lack of incentives.
In addition to legal reform, social media companies are in a position to significantly reduce targeted harassment, while making the diverse community it serves feel like the various companies truly are trying to be a catalyst for positive change, inclusion and responsibility.