Monday, November 3, 2014

(Series Piece 4) Anna Kavanaugh - Syndicated Columnist. Column - Cyber Abuse: The Virtual Violent Crime

Written by: Anna Kavanaugh, Syndicated Columnist
Published for syndication by: The Global Institute for Cyber Safety and Standards

“If you build it, they will come.” And so they have.

In all online interactions, more time is spent on social media sites than any other. Statistics reveal an extreme acceleration of growth in usage that is demonstrated by the 88 billion minutes logged in 2011 to an even more astonishing 121 billion just one year later. This has translated into the pursuit and achievement of enormous profits for sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, among several others, who make their money supplying interactive platforms for their online users. The architecture of cyberspace is a digital masterpiece. The networked systems intertwined in this virtual civilization comprise an information super-highway that is nothing less than a true marvel of technology. Sadly, in the complex blueprints and building of this vast and profitable online world, something fundamental has gone overlooked. And as a result, the creation of this marvel has come at a high price for a staggering number of users who have been left stranded in the darkest corners of the public domain.

To build comes with great responsibility. In the physical realm, we have learned this truth throughout history and, often, at painful consequence. These lessons learned provided us with invaluable hindsight that gave birth to the concept of “safety first” and led to the establishment of an enforceable set of standards governing all we aspire to build. Without this collection of laws, regulations, and ordinances put in place for the protection of people, the world we live in today would be fraught with danger and our lives impaired by hazardous conditions at every turn. Routinely, we would all witness tragedy. Homes would burn, buildings would collapse, airplanes would crash, bridges would fail, and restaurant patrons and hotel guests would become ill or injured. And so on. Fortunately, health and safety codes, while sometimes violated, keep those tragedies at a minimum. These requirements strictly mandate those who either engineer or functionally operate our society to keep us safe, as reasonably possible, by adhering to specific standards of precaution and protection. Why then is the same not true for the builders of our simultaneous virtual world? Considering the staggering number of suicides, and other tangible and traumatic damages that online victims are sustaining as a result of cyber-abuse, how can our lawmakers neglect to impose a similarly suitable set of safety regulations on our digital engineers? And how can so many of the builders of these online environments, playing host to such destructive abuse, deny any responsibility and disassociate themselves from all accountability?

Social media is the most interactive medium existing in the world today; having exploded in both usage and popularity from when first introduced in the virtual realm. The internet has given us ease of access to information but the social network system has redefined the means and manner in which we interact with one another. In these various networks and communities, we can now express ourselves creatively, share ideas, develop or maintain relationships, find emotional, educational, medical, or technical support, and even play virtual versions of our favorite board games with others – and we can do so anonymously. Unfortunately, as it stands now, embedded within the fiber of social media itself, are the ideal conditions to create an open channel for pathological deviancies to weaponize. And this is how, at the fingertips of cyber-abusers, these deviances become devices of mass destruction aimed at the victims they choose to target. This is not news to the companies at the helm of these profitable platforms. They cannot deny their awareness of what is going on and how their networks are so often being used. By allowing the abuse and exploitation of the social networks they have built, companies are, in effect, allowing the abuse and exploitation of their users. They are placing a higher value on the ability of cyber-abusers to freely harm others than on the protection of the victims whose lives are devastated as a result. Human decency, moral and ethical code, and basic common sense should be core values built into the operational policies, procedures, and practices of all domains on the internet, but most certainly all social networks providing interactivity with other users or the ability to leave public comments. Neglecting to provide victims an immediate form of intervention and relief by promptly addressing and removing all defamatory, abusive, harassing, and clearly malicious content posted by third-party visitors, these companies are condoning, and even encouraging, the continuance of what is indeed a virtual violent crime. A crime that destroys lives, and in a growing number of instances, ends them.

Common sense alone should dictate the appropriate addressing of cyber-abuse. If exercised, such an extreme double standard would not exist between the physical and virtual realms we simultaneously navigate in our daily experience. If a man were to stand up in a movie theater and begin screaming insults and obscenities at someone he takes issue with for some reason, the theater staff would demand he stop immediately, not to mention many other upset movie-goers witnessing his behavior while having their evenings interrupted. If the man did not cease his behavior, the staff would remove him from the premises or call the authorities who would do so, regardless of how justified the man felt in inflicting his abuse.  If a woman in a grocery store began harassing another shopper and pressed the intercom to broadcast unsubstantiated and defamatory claims about that person to the rest of store, she would be asked to leave her cart full of groceries and exit the premises immediately. If she refused to leave, the authorities would be called to escort her out of the building. These are two exaggerated examples that may, on some level, seem ridiculous. They would seem that way only because the social norms and accepted standards of our physical society generally prevent these situations from becoming commonplace realities. However, in very sharp contrast, we see these realities playing out daily in the public domain of the internet.

If our legal system, and accepted social standards, do not permit violence, assault, abuse, harassment, slander and/or the defamation of others designed to maliciously destroy a person’s reputation, career, relationships, dignity, and life as a whole, how then can the architects and operators of the internet allow these crimes to proliferate so rampantly over their websites, search engines, and social media networks? Shouldn't the builders of the internet, and various hosts of its social media sites, have a fundamental obligation to protect visitors from third-party abusers? Shouldn't they refuse to allow visitors to arbitrarily and anonymously post vicious and destructive comments or private data about others online? Shouldn't they be accountable for providing an open channel for cyber-abusers to intentionally plant false realities, blatant lies, harass, threaten and relentlessly humiliate their victims, often driving them to consider or fulfill suicide? Shouldn't they prevent these individuals from deliberately exploiting their platforms to propagate vitriolic virtual violent crimes to a potential audience of millions? Those are the questions. Ones we need to be asking. And more importantly, answering.

Cyber-abusers are solely responsible and accountable for the cruel and heinous devastation they purposely inflict on the lives of their targets. The architects and operators of cyberspace, and the social network systems within it, certainly cannot be blamed for the specific actions of these online criminals. However, just because they cannot be blamed for the abuse itself, does not remove them from the responsibility of hosting the poorly regulated services it plays out on. And it does not excuse them from neglecting to exercise basic common sense or moral decency in devising their practices, policies and procedures for dealing with the heinous and pandemic crime of cyber-abuse. If it would not be accepted in the physical world, they have an obligation to ensure it is not accepted in the virtual one. Crime is crime. Cruel is cruel. That is true whether it be online or off. So how could either of these go ignored; or worse yet, accepted?

It is time for the architects and operators of cyberspace, and hosts of all the social network platforms it is largely comprised of, to sit down in their boardrooms and ask the toughest questions of all. How many lives have already been destroyed by what we have built? And what are we going to do about it? As online victim suicide rates continue to rise, doing nothing can no longer be an option.


  1. What you have written here is exceptional Anna. Your work is gripping and adeptly exposes the core of cyber abuse as a masthead whilst defining its satelliting issues. It is an honour and privilege to work alongside you. - David Simms, The Global Institute for Cyber Safety and Standards

  2. Class column. Carry on!

  3. Wow! There are no words I could add that would even come close to the words of the writer so I won't try. This needs to be copied and sent to the corporate offices of ALL social media companies in ALL countries straight away!!!

  4. Yes yes. See some times so many times in life and history we build with ideas to make things better but even yes things are better the worse comes with. What is worth? People have more worth than anything else. With internet we have people in suicide because no one is helping them from the hurt. If people are losing the lives there is no worth it. This is not the good weighing more than the bad in this case with people who matter more. Easy sense with this but the internet owners do not show they think about these things or care for people more than money.

  5. I've been following your column. I hope your intelligent pieces will be seen by the powers that be and help make a difference for the kind of changes we need. As the parent of three wee girls I'm sure I'm not the only parent who would say I sleep better at night knowing someone like you is fighting so hard and so intelligently to make the online world a safer place for my children and others like them. They are just getting to the age of curiosity and interest in the internet and are exposed at school for projects and such they work on. I dread the day coming where I'm to turn them loose online as they demand more independence when I know the things that happen no matter how much I try to warn and teach them. I sincerely hope the climate online will be made to change so we're not still talking about this in 30 years when my children are trying to raise and keep safe their own who will live in an even more internet based world I'm sure. I'm keen to read more from you. Can't thank you enough for all you're doing to try and make cyber space a safer place.

  6. Couldn't be said better. It's so simple. If you can't do it in the physical real world why should you be able to do it in the virtual one? If you don't let people come into your store and beat up your customers why would you let them do it in your virtual stores? Common sense. Touche and keep the message coming Anna!