Attacking others online is both cowardly and repulsive—even if you get away with it.
It doesn’t take much to find an audience these days. Platforms like Twitter, Reddit and the anonymous social app Chillabit make it easy to engage with a large group of people without disclosing one’s name. Unfortunately, this makes it all too easy to bully and abuse others online with little fear of consequences.
Numerous Augustana students have been targeted on the app Chillabit (formally called Chitter) since the app made its debut on campus last year. These posts, which range from students deriding the actions of their peers and on-campus organizations to character assassinations and defamation are disgusting, often unfounded and cowardly.
Chillabit does moderate its content and has rules against posting “any image or language that is obscene or offensive, threatening” and “defame, abuse, harass, stalk, threaten, or otherwise violate the legal rights (such as rights of privacy and publicity) of others.” However, these rules are enforced only after a user has posted, at which point it’s too late.
Realistically, the worst consequence a Chillabit user faces for bullying others online is to have their post removed and to be banned from the site. The perpetrator walks away with a slap on the wrist while the victim must deal with the all-too-real social costs from false rumours and defamation.
This is never less evident than during this spring’s Augustana Students’ Association elections. As soon as the ASA candidates were announced, students were quick to voice their opinions—anonymously on Chillabit. One candidate came under a particularly heavy amount of fire from students who didn’t have the integrity to put their name to their accusations.
The anonymous posting poses a new challenge for the ASA’s Deputy Return Officer Jacob Rohloff, who oversees the election.
“It is extremely important to give candidates a fair and safe opportunity to debate their platforms,” said Rohloff. “I am unable to tell who is posting what, therefore I am unable to impose sanctions on candidates if they were unfairly and anonymously slandering other candidates online.
“Anonymous online forums take the responsibility of treating others fairly and kindly away from original posters (OP’s), allowing them to target others without fear of being kicked out of the election. […] If potential holders of office can use anonymous apps to slander and attack their candidates out of the race without consequence, the election process is unable to filter out unsuitable candidates for public office.”
Traditionally, making accusations about others meant risking your reputation on your claims. At the very least, people would know who was attacking them and could take action to defend themselves. Anonymity eliminates the ability to take recourse and punish those who harm others.
This is not to say that online anonymity is never useful. Expressing unpopular opinions can lead to social ostracization and mob-justice style retaliation. There is a big difference, however, between shielding someone from unfair persecution and shielding them from any responsibility for their actions whatsoever.
The difference is evident in other areas of our justice system, but online discourse is inexplicably immune. For example, Canadians have a right to privacy in their homes but police can obtain a search warrant if the courts deem there is enough evidence connecting them to a crime.
But a lack of consequences doesn’t make the actions any less wrong much in the same way getting away with sexual assault or theft doesn’t make it acceptable. And it’s not just the posters of the malicious content that are at fault. Every user who up-votes and otherwise encourages and enables these toxic posts bears moral guilt. If a post were to lead a student to develop anxiety or harm themselves, everyone involved would bear responsibility.
Perhaps former Prime Minister Kim Campbell put it best in a tweet responding to false allegation from an anonymous Twitter user: “Anonymous slanderers = pathetic!”