Monday, January 12, 2015

(Series Piece 9) 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

Whatever happened to the good old days?

It used to be when we were upset, rejected, blinded by jealousy, had a grievance with someone, held a negative judgment of another, or were just plain done wrong - we aired those sour, unhappy or jilted feelings by complaining to our circle of family and friends. Sure, we could do a bit of damage to the villainous object of our detestation by poisoning the well with our self-serving emotional crusade in desperate search of garnering the sympathy and validation that in theory would somehow make us feel better. No matter how potent, persuasive, and vindictive our histrionic outbursts were, the depth of damage we could create for others was confined by limited reach to an audience that likely was not all that interested, and always counterbalanced by “the other side of the story.” We did not contact someone’s place of work attempting to get them fired by wheedling their boss with personal tales of our distress. We did not publish our version of dirty laundry in the newspaper, on billboards, or flyers left on random car windshields. We did not write to clubs, organizations, restaurants, churches, and gas stations urging them to refuse entry or service to a patron. We did not exploit the world available to us with the intent to destroy every aspect of someone’s reputation, livelihood, and life. Do these things sound absurd? Of course they do. That is why we did not do them.

We just cried, complained and groused about our feelings to the people who were part of, and among the closest, in our lives… those obligated, if not compelled to, commiserate with us. We did this until our emotions began to calm along with our need to vent them. That was what we did. That was what we were supposed to do. That is what we should still be doing today.

Oh yes, those were the good old days. But then, the internet happened.

Imagine this for a moment. You spend years working hard, making sacrifices, paying your dues, and saving your pennies. You finally have enough in the piggy bank to buy your own home, with or without the help and accompanying interest rate of a supporting mortgage. You finally move into your new several-hundred-thousand dollar personal space and then spend thousands more on remodeling, decorating, or landscaping the private oasis that you and your family will call home for years to come.

Suddenly, a vandal is on the loose. Perhaps your business has a disgruntled customer or client. Perhaps someone saw you run a four-way stop at the end of the street by a school bus crossing. Perhaps you betrayed a friend, made some off color remarks in the grocery store, had a fling with your neighbor, ended a relationship, broke someone’s heart, stole cable television service for your spare bedroom, didn't pay your taxes, or maybe you’re just not everyone’s cup of tea. So now, whoever in the universe you have allegedly offended approaches your house. It’s not difficult. It is located on the street where anyone can pull up in front of your door and have easy access. They saw down your trees, rip out your lawn and other landscaping, tear off your roof shingles, and sledgehammer your chimney. They smash your fine china and crystal ware, flush your valuable jewelry down the toilet, and then torch the drapes in your living room. From the curb, they watch in vengeful delight as your home, and everything in it, goes up in flames. The home you earned through hard work and sacrifice burns to the ground until only ashes remain.

This is, among other things, criminal vandalization. If you are a smart homeowner then you would at least have insurance to recover your losses, repair the destruction to your life, and rebuild. Though there are some damages that not even the best of policies can mend.

Fortunately, in the physical realm of our society this does not happen. We have grievances with others all the time. People hurt, offend, disrespect, and violate us in any number of ways. And if the wrong is so severe that we cannot simply let it go, we have a legal system put in place that allows us to file suit against those we believe have somehow wronged or damaged us. It is this fair method of conflict resolution that we as a society know to be the appropriate and accepted process for remedy, should such measures be necessary. We have no legal right, no matter how angry, hurt, jealous, or envious we may be, to help ourselves to any kind of self-defined vigilante justice by bringing destructive harm to another in the form of self-justified revenge.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for the online world and the virtual society we have created. There are no life insurance policies available for its users to buy. While many of us simply transfer the social standards and legal practices of the physical realm to our internet experience, cyber-abusers and exploiters do not. Their inability to do so is a common element in the pathology that drives their behavior.

A cyber-abuser sees nothing wrong, strange, or unusual, about inflating a set of emotionalized and self-serving circumstances that are personal, private, and pertain only to them and those involved with them, by publicizing those circumstances on a universal scale in the public domain of the internet. This taps into a part of their pathological belief that convinces them their sentiments on an issue must be heard because they are deserving of worldwide attention and are of global importance. They perceive themselves to be anointed “truth” tellers and view their actions and behavior as righteous, when in reality their actions and behavior are vindictive and their personal conflicts, envies, jealousies, or relationships are relevant only to a finite sphere of significance in their physical lives.

This is how and why cyber-abusers intentionally exploit the internet to cause severe harm and damage to others. From the start, their aim is to destroy. Much like the exaggerated home scenario I used before, they deliberately set out to vandalize a person’s life, reputation and livelihood simply because they can and have easy access to do so. The internet provides them the limitless audience they crave with the potential to create the most severe and long lasting damage to their victim and the vigilante reign to exact their desired revenge.

In our hybrid society of today, balancing our professional and personal lives between our physical and virtual realms, many of us conduct business, interact with potential customers or clients, or manage our reputations, interests, and skills on the internet. With no restrictions in place to govern our virtual society it is easily exploited by those seeking to self-serve. As a result, relationships, careers, and even entire lives can be ruined, or severely crippled, within hours.

The internet should not be used as a weapon of manipulation and tool of psychological terrorism in which to hurt, harm, or humiliate others. For all the brilliance we have created, and the internet is certainly among the most jaw dropping with the most potential for good, we have effectively invented a quick and easy way to allow online vandals to burn down homes, investments… lives.

And the other shoe drops. This is where we must decide what our virtual society will be and if we will continue to allow cyber-abusers who aim to kill, in any way they can, to vandalize the lives of others.

Have you ever upset anyone? Have you ever broken a promise? Have you ever ended a relationship badly, hurt another person, made a mistake, told a lie, cheated, provided poor service, snapped at a customer, said a bad word, didn’t pay someone back the money they loaned you, stole fruit off of your neighbor’s apple tree, or sneezed on someone’s sandwich and served it anyway? Have you ever done anything wrong or had any bad thoughts run through your mind? Ever? Of course you have.

Should we burn your house down? Should we try to damage your reputation and career hoping we can thwart your income and deny you a living? Though you live in Florida should we make sure everyone in California knows that we think you are a loathsome person?

Of course not.

Twitter is not a courtroom. What cyber-abusers need to be taught with swift justice and exposure is that they are not the judge. And that whatever vigilante sentence they believe themselves righteous and important enough to hand down by using the global stage of the internet… that sentence will be overturned.

Case dismissed.


  1. Another superb piece Anna! Glad to have you back from your holidays. Your work is no less than outstanding. Thank you, we appreciate you. - David Simms, The Global Institute for Cyber Safety and Standards

  2. Hello :) You are success in how you say this. I like to read this so much thank you. Good luck.

  3. Enjoy your column and views on this subject. You seem to have a talent for making it understandable to everyone and not just the unfortunate victims. It's hard for some to understand the level of distress victims go through or the destruction to their life. I personally do have some understanding after watching my sister going through something similar to what you describe. Insurance is an interesting idea. With the suicides and lives destroyed do you think we'll start to see the same kind of options we have offline to insure ourselves if we want to? Seems a viable idea.

  4. Aye aye, well done!

    The world needs more champions like you for the cause who speak out with your kind of initiative and passion. If you stack up those the world has lost to suicide only due to internet existence the crisis can't be ignored. It's a boggle the internet system has gone on this way for as long as it has. Would the trolls and abusers fancy the removal of laws from their real lives? Can't imagine they'd much like that if their lives could be so easily vandalised. No society can operate safely and successfully without safety systems in place. The internet has become an interactive and intertwined society. The tragic fact in all the mess is it takes so many deaths before we see change to the current lawlessness. Victims are fortunate for champions like yourself doing much in moving progress along. Of course one suicide is one suicide too many.

    Cheers from down under!

  5. This is wonderful column. What's a crime offline should be a crime online and criminals should be brought to justice. Simple as that. Free speech doesn't protect people from setting out to destroy your life offline so it shouldn't online either. I don't understand what's complicated about this for the officials who pass our laws.