With an exponential increase in the popularity of social media in the past decade, the public has seen the Internet expand as a medium for a miscellany of purposes.
No longer just for connecting families across the globe, social media has proven to be a significant tool for anything from kick-starting new businesses to providing a place to rally support for causes and fundraisers.
Although the proliferation of beneficial websites has been one of the upsides of a growing online network, with this increase of influence, comes the potential for negative online behavior.
Arthur Chu was invited to Elon University last Monday night to deliver a speech on an issue that has only intensified with the increase of online connectedness: cyberbullying.
Chu, an 11-time “Jeopardy!” winner has used his fame to draw attention to aspects of society and culture that he feels passionate about. He has written columns for The Daily Beast and later for Salon.
His appearance marks the beginning of a lecture series that is funded by the Lauren Dunne Memorial in honor of an Elon freshman who was killed in 2011. The series aims to teach students about healthy relationships and coexistence.
Chu has spoken out in the past about being cyberbullied — one of the negative consequences of winning “Jeopardy!”
According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, one in four teens are cyberbullied in the U.S.
Chu claims that part of the reason cyberbullying seems to be so prominent is the anonymity factor that the online medium provides.
“There is something about the way online interaction works where we feel freer to be cruel and nasty to each other than we do in face-to-face interaction,” Chu said.
Chu told his audience that because the Internet “promises to free us from the things that are limiting about face-to-face interaction,” it becomes easier for people to harass, degrade and punish one another.
There is an inherent dichotomy proposed by the online medium, which is the ability to be honest and genuine and, at the same time, be demeaned for that honesty and sincerity.
The potential for good is too often counterbalanced by the plethora of uses that have made the Internet a weapon against others.
This leads to Chu’s broad question: is the Internet a good thing, or a bad thing?
The usual answer, Chu maintained, is that it is neutral.
“It’s a tool,” Chu said. “it depends on how people use it.”
Part of the reason the Internet has been such a successful “tool” for bullying is because of the “24/7 real-time connectedness.”
Whereas in the past, before unlimited cyber-connection, there was a period of recess where a victim could escape a bully for a period of time by going home; being online, however, allows a bully to be present in a victim’s life constantly and relentlessly.
Chu noted that in the worst cases of bullying, a person is bullied face-to-face, then the bully follows them electronically when the victim goes home.
Another issue that makes cyberbullying so powerful is the potential for the bullying to “go viral.”
Going viral, as Chu states, can be great when it’s amassing positive attention for something like raising money for a charity or garnering support for a cause; unfortunately, however, it can work just as rapidly with negative attention.
Chu listed several apps that have been known for negative viral attention.
“Kik, Ask.fm, Secret and Yik Yak — these are the fastest growing, most popular apps. [A] feature that they tout [is that] anyone can post anonymously,” Chu said.
After four suicides, resulting from cyberbullying on Ask.fm, users requested the site be shut down.
The anonymity paired with the ability to view and join in on conversations at any time creates the potential for users to spawn hostile environments at any point with little to no repercussions.
As seen with Ask.fm, Chu stated that something that began with innocuous intentions mutated into an instrument for users to find vulnerable people and “start throwing attacks their way.”
“Secret raised $100 million at the same time that [it] was being linked to a rash of suicides,” Chu said.
In this rare instance, the negative press coupled with demands to have the site shut down led to its closure about a year ago.
Not all websites and apps, however, choose to “close their doors” due to negative usage. In fact, most only monitor the amount of traffic their site gets, not the content of that traffic.
Chu noted the infamous August 2014 nude leak in which someone hacked iCloud and posted hundreds of nude photos on reddit of celebrities such as Kate Upton, Jennifer Lawrence, Arianna Grande and McKayla Maroney among others. Significantly, Maroney was underage at the time of the leak.
What was important about this list, Chu claimed, was that they were nearly all photos of women. Chu asserted that being a female, particularly a female celebrity, earns higher amounts of online abuse.
Ultimately, it was not the distress of the women that lead to reddit taking action; it was the legal claims of copyright infringement and threats from the Children’s Online Protection Act (COPA) that resulted in attempts to take the photos down.
Because reddit gained so much traffic from the photos, it took a week for the photos to be taken down. By that time reddit had earned enough money from just those photos to fund 27 days of their server time.
Chu’s main argument was that not only is it nearly impossible for a website or app to monitor every post or comment made, going viral, regardless of negative or positive content, only benefits the web and app owners.
“We were promised that connectedness would give us a flat world, a world where all of us had…the ability to express ourselves safely,” Chu said.
The problem with this, Chu expressed, is that if everyone has the freedom to speak, some “have the power to scare other people out of talking, to shut other people down.”