Anonymity leads to animosity

By Rachel Cannon

Staff Writer

A news reporter whose migraine headache caused her to garble her speech on air during the Grammys has sparked a discussion about how the Internet is affecting our sense of empathy.

The video clip of reporter Serene Branson’s “meltdown” quickly went viral, and all over the Internet, users were watching, laughing and making fun. It soon spread beyond the Internet; disk jockeys were joking at Branson’s expense on the radio as well.

This behavior is outrageous and uncalled for – it suggests a lapse in our collective humanity.

At least part of the fault of this shocking loss of empathy may lie squarely with the Internet.

In the age of online video, we have become fascinated with clips and news stories showcasing the unthinkable. We watch disasters great and small in incredible numbers, whether for the thrill, a quick laugh or just morbid curiosity.

If we were to witness in real life some of the scenarios we watch online, we would (hopefully) be shocked and saddened to witness such unfortunate events.

Why, then, do we respond to the same events online with curiosity and, worse, laughter? The biggest problem is probably the anonymity that the Internet offers.

It’s much easier to lack empathy when you know you’ll never meet the person whose misfortunes you’re laughing at and forwarding to everyone on your friends list. In fact, the Internet is causing us to be meaner people in general.

A quick glance at any online message board will reveal that Internet users use hyperbole, insults and abrasive language at the drop of a hat.

People behave in shocking ways online, treating people in ways they wouldn’t dare to treat them were they in the same room. In addition to the security of knowing that your victim can’t retaliate in any concrete way, there are other factors at play here. For one, when all you know of someone is a username and a cartoon avatar, it’s difficult to think of him or her as an actual person.

This leads to the inhumanity that is rampant across the web. This revelation hits painfully close to home with a website that’s come to be known at CSUSB as simply “The Greek Gossip Site.”

This site – the URL of which I will not name so as not to encourage its use – allows users to anonymously trade gossip and trash talk about their campus peers.

A scroll through the CSUSB page at this site shows thread after thread full of venom-filled hate. Comments which students wouldn’t dare make to each other’s faces are anonymously posted here for all the campus community to see.

The damage done by these anonymous, cowardly posts is very real.

“I’ve had some terrible things said about me on that site, and it really bothered me,” said a student who wished to remain anonymous.

“But what I’ve gotten is nothing compared to the things written about some of my friends. It’s disgusting and it breaks my heart that people are saying things like that about each other.”

There’s no question that the Internet is encouraging the worst sides of human nature. The bright side is that this is a solvable problem.

First of all, because the Internet is now an inestimably huge part of our lives, I think it makes sense to start teaching basic “netiquette” to schoolchildren. Kids need to learn how to behave online, as well as realize the impact of cyberbullying.

Until that happens, though, it’s up to all of us to return humanity to the Internet.

The next time you’re about to make a cutting remark in a message board, or talk about who was a mess at the party last night on the gossip site, ask yourself: would you say this face-to-face with the person you’re talking about?

If the answer is no, think twice before you hit “send.”

Internet anonymity

Matthew Harp | Special to the Chronicle



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