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There's a Need to Police the Internet: More Than Half of Americans Say That They Have Been Harassed Online
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There's a Need to Police the Internet: More Than Half of Americans Say That They Have Been Harassed Online

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Don’t get me wrong; I am against online snooping done by governments. I firmly believe that the internet should remain free from government interference. The massive online surveillance program that the US government conducted during Obama’s rule was not just unconstitutional, but it irrevocably harmed the democracy that generations of Americans have toiled to preserve and strengthen. However, I am also very strongly in favor of online policing.

While both of these might sound similar, they are in fact two very different things. Let’s look at an analogy to better understand the difference. We all want our streets to be safe so that people can commute without the fear of being robbed. And we trust the police to do their job properly to keep the streets safe. A policeman’s watchful eyes give us a sense of security, not fear. If we know that a policeman guards a park that our kids play in, we believe the park to be a safe place. But imagine the same policeman staying in your home and sitting in your bedroom on the pretext of keeping you safe, will you be comfortable? Certainly not. Policeman guarding the street is policing. A policeman sitting in your bedroom is surveillance. I think this analogy also successfully quashes the argument that is very often presented to us in favor of surveillance that if you have nothing to hide, you shouldn’t be wary of government surveillance.

You might well ask why does the internet need policing. It is, after all, a treasure trove of knowledge, a platform that has helped people bond together and a source of unlimited entertainment, be it watching the latest movies, or playing games, you can do it all on the internet. The internet today is a reflection of today’s society. And just like hate, harassment, bullying, and bigotry are increasingly becoming commonplace in our society, the same goes true with the internet.

According to a survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League, a nonprofit which tracks and fights anti-Semitism, 53 percent Americans confessed that they were subjected to hateful speech and harassment in 2018. 37 percent reported severe attacks, including sexual harassment and stalking. A similar Pew Research Center report found that in 2017, 18 percent of Americans were targeted with severe online harassment. The numbers show an even more dismal situation if you consider the young people, the people on whose shoulders the future of America shall rest. More than half of 18- to 29-year-olds said that they experienced some form of severe harassment online in 2018.

"Name-calling and rumor-spreading have long been an unpleasant and challenging aspect of adolescent life. But the proliferation of smartphones and the rise of social media has transformed where, when and how bullying takes place," said Monica Anderson, the lead researcher for the Pew report.

Today teens are on their phones or online very frequently. A previous Pew study showed that 95 percent of US teens had a smartphone and nearly half were online "almost constantly."

The latest report shows that over 65 percent of teens who say they are online almost constantly have been cyberbullied, compared with 53 percent of those who use the internet several times a day or less.

According to Pew, girls are more likely than boys to be the targets of rumor-spreading or nonconsensual explicit messages.

Most young harassment victims—about 59 percent— feel that their parents are doing an excellent job in addressing online harassment and bullying. However, they are not so hunky-dory about the role the politicians and the social media behemoths are playing in addressing the issue. 

These surveys paint a bleak picture of what Americans experience when they log into the internet.

The issue of cyberbullying has caught the nation’s attention, so it would be natural to assume that the custodians of the cyber world would take firm measures to curb it. However, the reality on the ground shows that the steps that they are taking, if they are taking any steps at all other than paying mere lip service, is no match for an increasingly ugly and tribal digital landscape. Facebook has pledged to use of automation to detect harassment, Twitter says that it is striving to make conversation on the site “healthier,” and YouTube is cracking down on violent videos, unfortunately, but none of it seems to deter the offenders.

"This is an epidemic, and it has been far too silent," said Adam Neufeld, ADL's vice president of innovation and strategy. "We wanted to understand the extent of it and the impact of it."

"This was significantly worse than we expected," he said.

The ADL survey is one of the many surveys that show a growing wave of toxic rage that's traumatizing internet users and normalizing deeply offensive points of view that would otherwise be relegated to the darkest alleys of the internet. The Internet is being rampantly used to intimidate political opponents, journalists, and lawmakers.

People who carry out such deplorable acts are people who harbor anti-social sentiments. These people are threats not only when they are online but in the real world as well. Several recent incidents show that threats online can spill over into real-world violence and turn deadly. Robert Bowers, who allegedly killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018, regularly posted anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi propaganda on Gab, a social network frequented by right-wing extremists. Cesar Sayoc, who's accused of mailing homemade explosive devices last year to critics of President Donald Trump, made repeated threats against public figures on Twitter. 

Understandably, the public tends to pay the most attention to online hate when it boils over to offline tragedies, Neufeld says. But these new results show the sheer scope of damage being done online alone. “We notice the boils—Pittsburghs or Dylann Roof—but the simmer itself is really important," he says. "It's affecting millions of people's lives."

Americans understand the risk. Regardless of their political affiliation and whether they have personally been harassed, they want lawmakers and technology companies to take more aggressive steps to counter online hate and harassment and keep users safe. About 80 percent of those surveyed said that the government should strengthen laws against online hate and harassment and improve the capabilities of law enforcement to deal with such crimes. About 75 percent of them want tech companies to make it easier to report hateful content and behavior, and 81 percent want companies to provide more ways to filter out the content. 

Data shows that people want the internet to be policed. They want it to be a safe place. But the question is whether the government will muster enough courage to rise to the challenge? Any attempt to police is sure to face some flak by people who do not understand the difference between surveillance and policing. People who use the wild world of unregulated internet to further their unholy agenda will also protest. But the right sense must prevail, the government must take decisions that are necessary and not bog down under the fear of protests.

Author: Pradeep Banerjee