For quite some time there has been an ideal of the internet acting as an equalizer. Imagine a medium in which everyone had equal opportunity, everyone’s opinions were valued equally, and “we’d be able to communicate soul-to-soul” (Quoting Alice Marick in Jessica Valenti’s article “How the Web Became a sexist’s Paradise). Unfortunately, this ideal remains far from reality. Instead, issues of social stratification, racial prejudice, and sexism occurring online are widespread phenomena. What was expectantly thought of as a door to new opportunities of breaking down these issues has become a mirror to the already existent prejudice and bigotry.
It was thought that the digital divide (The disparity of internet access across different economic classes) was the main source of inequalities online. However, as boyd points out in her talk, that is not necessarily the case. The way in which different groups interact with the internet also comes into play. As boyd puts it “people with the same level of access engage [in technology] in fundamentally different ways.” If it is not issues of access that has left social inequalities able to run rampant online, what is it? I believe the answer is simply this: Humans comprise the internet. It is not a surprising fact that many people are racist, sexist, and classist. Why should they be any different online? We have falsely disconnected who we are “in real life” from our presence online (http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2010/07/10_reasons_to_stop_apologizing.html). What we see online is merely a reflection of the people that engage in the internet.
In fact, bigotry, racism, and misogyny seem to be intensified through the internet. Marwick fears that “people are creating online environments purely to express the type of racist, homophobic, or sexist speech that is no longer acceptable in public society”. It is no surprise that the internet is a breeding ground for inappropriate material. However, what I did find surprising is the amount and severity of these off-color comments in certain concentrated areas. What stood out to me especially was Helen Lewis’ article highlighting the misogynist attacks faced by female writers and bloggers online. The threats of death, rape, and abuse are disturbing to say the least. Are these comments a reflection of our population as well? While I have heard my fair share of off-color comments in face-to-face conversations, I have never heard anything this inappropriate and vile.
Is this a result of the disinhibition allowed by the internet? (http://users.rider.edu/~suler/psycyber/disinhibit.html) Are people so readily able to disassociate societal norms from their online experiences due to anonymity and invisibility? Is the internet acting as a magnifying glass, bringing into plain view the darkest places of these individual’s prejudices? From the evidence I’ve seen, the unfortunate answer is yes.
What does this say about us? You might not be the one making these extremely inappropriate comments, but have you ever said something online (Facebook, Myspace, blog comments etc.) that you wouldn’t have said in person? What caused you to do this?
What do you think are preventative actions that websites and blogs can do to reduce or remove the racist or sexist comments, threats, and other forms of hate speech from people’s comments? Is removing the ability to remain anonymous the way to go?