Ian O'Doherty: Do you post anonymously? How brave...
Published 25/04/2014 | 02:30
It was a story that struck fear into every parent's heart – and it's not a solitary case. When 17-year-old Darren Hughes Gibson took his own life in Balbriggan in August 2012, his family's pain was made even worse when they discovered a series of abusive and bullying messages on his Facebook page, which they believe contributed to his suicide.
To lose a child, in any circumstance, must be unimaginable and to then discover that a bunch of nameless, faceless cowards were responsible must only add to that torment.
And now the young man's mother, Elaine Hughes, has launched a campaign to force Facebook to release the names of those responsible to the gardai, for further investigation.
Mrs Hughes says: "On the day Darren was found we started to hear the rumours but unfortunately most of them turned out to be true...I feel social media sites need to be taken more seriously. It's every day of the week we hear that someone is missing and they're getting younger and younger."
Since the circumstances surrounding her son's death became clear, she has been in contact with other families who have lost kids as a result of cyberbullying and you don't need to be a grieving parent to feel a sense of visceral disgust at the idea of a bunch of snivelling trolls hounding a young person to such an extent that they see suicide as a viable option.
Darren left three younger siblings behind and and, as their mother says: "You can't ban them from using social media. With phones and everything they will find a way to get onto it. I think the sites should be legally obliged to share the information."
As legislation struggles to keep up with technology, this debate is at the heart of the concept of freedom of expression. If anything, you could say the argument is more cultural than legal, because in the space of one short decade, the lines of acceptable communication have become so blurred that nobody really knows where they stand any more.
That social media is a democratising influence, giving a voice to the previously voiceless, is not in doubt and all the well meaning talk of banning sites like Ask.fm fails to take into account the fact that it is virtually impossible to force members to register with their actual name.
After all, the only surefire way to guarantee an account holder is who they say they are is to get them to register with a credit card.
And while kids may have more disposable income than ever before, I doubt many of them have their own Visa or Am Ex card.
Of course, one of the problems with giving a voice to the previously voiceless is that there was usually a good reason why they were silent – because so many people who spend much of their time on social media seem to be completely insane. And this is where the culture of modern communication needs to be addressed – because society cannot function properly when entire swathes of the population feel they can go online and abuse, bully or threaten the object of their ire, safe in the knowledge that they will never be outed.
This cultural disconnect when it comes to how we treat each other is at its most starkly unpleasant when you take even a quick peek through Twitter and other sites and see elevated aggression levels, threats of sexual violence against women – and some men – and levels of disproportionate and frankly ridiculous bile, all under the supposed auspices of free speech. Free speech is a sadly misunderstood term these days but it is the most precious tool we have. That's why it always irks me when, usually in the context of criticism of Islam and extremism, people trot out the old canard that: "Freedom of speech doesn't mean you can shout 'fire' in a theatre."
Well, I would suggest that when you smell smoke and burning, you have an obligation to alert people. But as crucial as this liberty is, it is also under threat from all sides – the powers that be, the legal system that allows rich people to stifle criticism and the worrying scenario we are currently seeing, where a criminal complaint has been made to gardai about a journalist for the crime of expressing an opinion.
People have the right to be as obnoxious and vitriolic as they want but the difference in Darren's case was that he was being actively threatened – the people responsible had warned him that they were going to break his legs and harm members of his family.
That's not just an unpleasant side effect of unregulated speech, it is a criminal threat.
And that seems to be a distinction that many modern social media users have a problem grasping – because while it may be thoroughly obnoxious to tell someone you wish they were dead, telling them that you're going to kill them brings things to a whole new level.
While Darren's family endured something that no family should ever have to endure, the vast majority of the abuse that passes for discourse on social media can be rebuffed with one simple question – would you say it to the person's face?
There have been numerous rather heartwarming stories about Twitter trolls who got the fright of their life when the person they were abusing tracked them down, and the people responsible are usually sad, socially inadequate losers whose idea of a good time is ruining someone's day.
But as the internet develops its own rules of self-regulation, it would be nice to see a sort of honour system develop where, at the very least, people pause before posting and ask themselves (a) would they say it to the person's face and (b) if they aren't prepared to put their name to it, why should anyone be expected to read it?
The trolls crave attention – take that away from them and they wither and die from lack of exposure.
And if you're in the habit of posting anonymously?
Well, congratulations on being part of the problem, rather than the solution.