Disclaimer: This article may discuss sensitive issues such as stalking, harassment, cyber bullying and misuse of the Internet.
In the early days of the Internet, when web pages were little more than glorified Word documents meant for sharing information, the limitless potential of this new technology was already apparent. However, it was the subsequent rise of social media that truly revolutionised communication. And just when things couldn’t get any more convenient, mobile technology entered the scene, allowing people to stay connected anytime and anywhere they pleased.
In an article on Medical News Today, Dr. Adrian Ward stated, “Social media has fundamentally changed how we access, share, understand, and sometimes misunderstand information, transforming our understanding of the world around us.”
Yet, the impact of the Internet goes beyond personal communication. It has the power to highlight important issues that may have otherwise remained hidden. It can shift the balance of power from the hands of a few to the masses. In fact, the Internet has proven its ability to do great good, playing a significant role in various positive trends and campaigns.
An example of this can be seen during the 2021 lockdown when the white flag campaign, known as #benderaputih, gained traction. Struggling to make ends meet, many lower income families struggled to afford basic necessities. To plea for help, Malaysians hung white flags outside their homes. In response, netizens, neighbours, businesses, and even celebrities rallied together to offer aid, providing food and other essentials. This heart-warming campaign showcases the Internet’s potential as a platform to spread awareness and highlight the compassionate side of humanity.
As the Internet thrives on human interaction, it is undeniable that the Internet holds power in our lives. However, with great power comes great responsibility—a responsibility that everyone now possesses, yet not judiciously exercised by all . The Internet, like a double-edged sword, exposes the dark and cruel side of humanity in the digital world where anonymity and hiding behind screens allows people to engage in inhumane behaviours with little to no consequences.
Trolling, online harassment, and death threats
When factors like anonymity, lack of authority, and the nature of digital communication come into play, they can strip people of their sense of empathy and restraint, causing them to say or behave in ways that they wouldn’t in “real-life” situations. Psychologists call this the “online disinhibition effect” where people online feel more uninhibited to express themselves freely. The trolls, negative comments, and destructive criticism are all evidence of the callousness that has emerged due to the invisible nature of the Internet.
Those who take pleasure in this online freedom are commonly known as trolls — a term originally derived from a fishing technique of slowly pulling a lure from a moving boat. However, the meaning quickly evolved to describe individuals who post controversial and irrelevant messages with the intent to incite conflict and provoke others. Internet trolls often claim that they engage in such behaviour purely for the sake of their own amusement, but their actions can range from harmless practical jokes to relentless harassment, and even violent threats.
A popular example of this can be seen in the recent rumoured ‘feud’ between Selena Gomez and Hailey Bieber. The feud, sparked by fans unwilling to accept the breakup between Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber after Justin married Hailey in 2018, gained considerable traction in online communities. While the narrative itself was merely speculation by fans, the online backlash faced by Hailey Bieber was very real. Some fans took it upon themselves to seek justice on Selena Gomez’s behalf by launching vicious criticisms, labelling the model as a “mean girl” and a “nepo baby.” Numerous videos analysing and dissecting Hailey Bieber’s personal life and marriage had also surfaced on the Internet. Despite Selena and Hailey speaking out against this behaviour, urging fans to cease targeting others on social media, the onslaught of negative comments and even death threats directed towards Hailey Bieber persisted.
According to the Cambridge dictionary, “doxxing”, alternatively spelled as doxing, refers to the deliberate act of finding and exposing someone’s private information online without their consent, often with malicious intent. This includes disclosing the victim’s name, phone number, home address, identification number, or any other previously confidential details. This would also often lead to the exposure of the victim’s identity, leaving them vulnerable to harassment, stalking, and other real-life threats.
While the term “doxxing” is relatively recent, the act itself can be traced back to 1791 during the French Revolution. A tragic example of doxxing was when a 17-year-old French girl named Rose Mainville had her name, address, and physical description revealed in a pornographic book advertised as a detailed guide to the sex workers of Paris. Overwhelmed by shame, humiliation, and fear of facing others, she tragically ended her own life by consuming a bottle of nitric acid.
Cut to today, doxxing has victimised not only celebrities, politicians, and journalists but also influencers. Numerous cases have emerged, ranging from high-profile figures such as Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Jay Z, and Beyonce to ordinary individuals with lower profiles.
In a recent incident that occurred on April 19th, an influencer named Jackie La Bonita was ridiculed for taking selfies during a Houston Astros game. The two women who were sitting behind her allegedly mocked her by laughing, photobombing her pictures, and even gesturing the middle finger towards the camera. La Bonita uploaded an edited video of the incident on TikTok, which quickly went viral. The two women were subsequently identified, harassed, and publicly shamed, earning themselves the label of “mean girls.” As the Internet has a tendency of escalating situations, users have even gone as far as publishing the names and identities of their family members and even one of the girl’s ex-boyfriend, contacting their workplaces to get them fired and also sending them death threats.
A TikTok user commented that the two girls “need a little taste of their own medicine.” Ironically, this attempt to address the girls’ behaviour on behalf of Jackie has only perpetuated a cycle of hate, mirroring the same cruelty that they claimed to rally against.
Filming without consent
Today, practically everyone has a mobile phone equipped with camera features, making it incredibly convenient to capture every moment of their daily lives. However, this ease of access has given rise to a problem, where society has grown accustomed to filming strangers without their permission, thrusting a camera onto unsuspecting individuals and placing them in the unwanted spotlight of viral fame.
One trend that has normalised such behaviour is the “acts of kindness” videos. While the idea of spreading kindness and generosity is inspirational, these videos often result in unwitting individuals achieving viral fame without their consent or knowledge.
In a particular video that went viral, Harrison Pawluk, a popular TikToker known for his “random acts of kindness” content, approached a woman with a bouquet of flowers. He asked her to hold the flowers as he put on his jacket, and she obliged. Then, he walked away, wishing her a pleasant day. In the video, the woman, still holding the flowers, was visibly confused by the encounter.
To the average viewer, this act of kindness may appear inspiring, perhaps worthy of a like and some positive comments. Sure enough, one comment under the video read, “I’m not crying, you are.” However, the woman, later revealed as Maree, shared her experience, expressing how she felt dehumanised by the interaction with Pawluk. She voiced her concerns about the lack of consent, misleading context of the video, and Pawluk’s potential financial gain from it, referring to it as clickbait.
Such stunts may not immediately strike audiences as intrusive, given their familiarity with watching strangers’ lives on their screens. However, these actions can come at the expense of someone else’s privacy and well-being. Although filming people in public may not be illegal and appears to be harmless at first glance, the videos viewers see may not always represent the truth, leading to a false narrative while overstepping the victim’s boundary and privacy.
What leads to Internet Shaming?
Truth be told, the Internet has been a safety net for many users to voice their opinions and share their secrets with no qualms — basically, it has allowed them to be themselves. While social media and other websites act as platforms to express oneself freely, it should not be taken as a tool to vindicate or be spiteful about a certain person, movement, religion, race or colour. There are lines to be drawn on how to address certain matters; be it virtually or a one-on-one interaction.
One of the root problems that has led to the toxic culture on the Internet has a very simple explanation — it is also the cause of any form of bullying: insecurity. As a matter of fact, social media platforms have diminished the unique characteristics of individuals. The fear of missing out, or more commonly known as FOMO, has infinitely increased and made many conscious of their lives, when seeing updates of other people’s lives on social media. It has become an incessant matter to keep up with everyone — to try out that trendy cafe, take photos from a particular angle etc.
As such, the internet has acted as a veil, where one can conceal their identity and act spitefully by commenting harshly, posting videos without consent, spamming hate messages, stalking and even hacking accounts and apps. In many cases, no one can truly ever know who the person behind the screen is. Ironically, while the Internet provides a safe space for people to be themselves, it has also instilled a false sense of security for netizens to be anonymous.
Many derive a sense of power by being rude and making negative comments. For netizens, they assume that it’s a way to assert their dominance by making a stance. Mostly, it is done with the intention of drawing a reaction from the other party and to make themselves feel good. But why? Why go to such petty lengths to feel good about oneself by making another person feel bad? The truth is, posting offensive videos and making derogatory remarks while being anonymous, in reality, is cowardly.
It is all too well known that the Internet is able to spread any news, whether real or fake, rapidly across social media platforms and websites, with news reaching people at the other end of the earth in a matter of minutes. Politics, economy and social issues are highlighted and they cannot escape from the torrent of comments, likes and shares from netizens all around the world. In a way, the internet raises awareness among citizens, especially when the wrongdoings of the government are exposed to the people. Evidently, this has caused the mistrust towards the government to grow and at times, netizens have resorted to take matters into their own hands.
Calling out someone for their mistakes is one thing, but going as far as harassing them, stalking them down to their jobs and family, is simply taking things too far. Think about it. Would you like it if your whole life were to be exposed for the world to know? It is crucial to understand that fighting for justice is an admirable act. The question is, how does one go about doing it, or is it truly necessary to go to such extremes?
One must also be aware that whatever content shared or posted on the internet may not be entirely true. At times, details could be omitted, part of it could have been spun out of lies or even worse; the whole issue could have been fabricated. However, most issues end up being ‘viralised’ and netizens tend to escalate matters into a bigger issue than it was initially. Try not to be hasty; not everything is true. Pause for a second, before you press on the share icon. Read the comment you’re about to share. One small blunder could cause someone to feel hurt, have their privacy violated and even traumatise them.
Morals and Ethics
Ultimately, it all boils down to basic human decency. The internet does not make us worse people; yes, it is a catalyst, but it also comes down to how we choose to behave; whether we behave appropriately and do the right thing. It is up to us to decide whether we use words to heal or hurt. Whether we use the power given to us to uplift or oppress.
It doesn’t take much to be nice on the internet; a cheerful remark or a positive saying can make someone feel better after a long and rough day. Instead of putting a frown on people’s faces, try to turn that upside down. You never know when it will come around again when you need it the most. So, think before you say or do something, and most of all, be kind.
Written by: Poorani, Wen Li
Edited by: Caitlin