Keeping online trolls at bay

Photo courtesy Pixabay
Photo courtesy Pixabay

THE CANCELLATION of physical classes at Holy Name Convent on Monday because of a covid19 case underlined the education sector’s continued reliance on virtual learning going forward, even as we continue to hope for the best in 2022.

But while students and young people will continue to be required to make considerable adjustments to their expectations, it is not apparent that any of the traditional challenges of the online space have been alleviated by cultural shifts or renewed efforts at revitalising existing digital policies.

In fact, problems like trolling and cyberbullying seem worse than ever. And our young people are more vulnerable to them.

Virtual learning is here to stay, and so too are –for better or worse – social media and all their paraphernalia.

But whereas prior generations engaged with online tools after having had real-world experiences in socialising, the pandemic has birthed an entire generation that will learn all about human engagement not through traditional social gatherings but almost exclusively through meme culture.

This is a problem. Even before the pandemic, the online world was becoming less and less hospitable. As the widespread dissemination of covid19 misinformation by social-media users has proven, ordinary standards of probity and restraint have almost entirely been thrown aside.

The care and consideration that would normally be expected in face-to-face interactions has all too often been exchanged for a kind of virtual mass mania. People have a warped relationship with online tools, something which those tools were very often designed to exploit.

The result is all manner of unpleasantness.

Addiction. Anxiety. Aggressiveness. Actors emboldened by their anonymity or a misguided feeling that somehow saying terrible things online is permissible.

That libel laws have now been expanded to cover social media commentary has not stopped abuse.

Young people in particular are disproportionately affected by all of this. Several international studies have linked social media use to depression and even suicidal ideation. Whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, recently alleged that company withheld information that suggested its platforms worsened the risk of children self-harming or developing eating disorders.

While online trolls frequently complain of their freedom of speech being hampered by moderation tools, there is a growing belief that there is not enough regulation and control of hate speech and abuse, including by companies such as Facebook/Meta platforms.

Given the harmful effects of online abuse, effects which have been amplified by the pandemic, it is imperative for the authorities to keep measures to combat cyberbullying under constant review.

But more fundamentally, people need to rediscover common courtesy and decency. If it is impossible to go back to a world before online media, it is not impossible for basic decency to make a comeback too.

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"Keeping online trolls at bay"

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