The Internet: A Magnifying Glass to Societal Problems

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 ( 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? ( 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?


27 thoughts on “The Internet: A Magnifying Glass to Societal Problems

  1. I think it is rather difficult for websites to monitor every comment. I’m sure most of you have noticed often times on YouTube there are random crude/offensive comments people make. Half the time they have nothing to deal with the content of the video. I think people feel that since they can be anonymous they don’t have to worry about who reads what. I think being anonymous just makes people feel even more comfortable saying inappropriate comments so remaining anonymous would only make the issue even worse. I’m not sure what features would help prevent this. I do know you can often report a comment or even block people from leaving messages. It is up to a user to keep themselves safe.

  2. Due to the access of anonymity online, it is very easy for users to leave inappropriate, racist and disrespectful comments to one another online. To properly monitor this type of behavior I think websites have to advance their technology to block or remove users whose comments can be seen as out of line. Removing the ability to be anonymous does help to an extent, but it would not stop negative internet behavior completely. The best way is for websites such as youtube or twitter to try and identify this behavior when it is reported by users and adequately protect those who are being attacked online.

    Personally, I have not said things online that I would not say in person. But I know many that have and it is very easy to do so. Inhibitions are relaxed and if something is said that can be described as out of line, the consequences of the action are not immediate therefore it makes it a lot easier to say questionable things.

    • I agree that removing anonymity would not remove the problem completely. Good point that consequences are not immediate (or even non-existent). As sad it is, most people will do whatever they want when there are no consequences that affect them directly.

  3. I have never threaten anyone online nor have I said anything online to anyone that I would not say in person. I believe that some people think that just because they are online they can get away with the negative comments and threats that they post, which is true. I really do not think that people take these threats seriously, like in the cause of Sarkeesian’s case for example, so they do not report the people who make such threats and disgusting comments. There would probably not be an alternative to prevent people from posting sexual or threatening comments because I believe that there will always be an issue with freedom of speech. However, I do believe if a person really feels threatened for their life they could sue for libel/slander. I also think that not allowing people to be anonymous may make a person think twice before posting a rude, sexual, or harassing comment because people would know who they are, but then again some people just do not have a filter.

    • Very true, I know a lot people that just do not have a filter. You make an Interesting point about suing. I had not considered that. It seems very reasonable (after reading the slurry of filthy comments on some of the female’s blogs) that they could sue for threats and slander over-stepping freedom of speech. I wonder how many have tried that before.

  4. It is amazing to see what people will do and say behind closed doors. When I say behind closed doors, I mean anonymous or not, but said on the internet where they aren’t saying or doing something in person. Many people’s inner racist and sexist self comes out on the internet. I think this happens because it is something they keep in in the public world, but like to communicate and express more privately. In public they could face more consequences. I am not saying it is right to do this either.
    For me, the internet has shown me that there are really racist and sexist people in this world. I wouldn’t say I am sheltered, but I am barely around people who blurt out comments or have harsh opinions. On the internet I’m able to see that there really are a lot of everyday people that have these feelings and aren’t afraid to show it by saying or doing something. Even on Twitter I see people saying racist things that I know they would never saying in person. In terms of reducing these comments and threats, more censoring of things like words and pictures could be put in place.

    • I agree that it is astonishing (and rather abhorrent) what people will say behind closed doors, when they feel the safety of either being anonymous or of having the consequences removed. What is also astonishing is that, like you said, most of the people leaving these comments are regular, everyday folks.

  5. Interesting insight Jacob! In my personal experience I have rarely seen this intense of conflicts, but I don’t doubt that they are quite common. It seems that responsibility for ones words and actions is lost when the actions have been converted to digital form. In my own online experiences I have definitely made remarks that I wouldn’t have made in person, although they weren’t particularly offensive. I think that it’s very easy to gain confidence in what you are saying when you don’t have to deal with the consequences in person. No facial expressions, no voice inflection, no apologizing because you regret it. Once you hit send you can delete it, or hide behind the World Wide Web. To me, I think removing anonymity would be a mistake. People have a right to do almost anything they want regardless of how much we like it. If however something is blatantly harassment or slander then I believe it should be taken down.

    • Are you saying that anonymity is a right? I’m not saying that I disagree with you, I just do not know the answer to that.

      Also, you bring up an interesting point regarding facial expressions. There’s a term in sociology called social referencing, where people uses other people’s physical cues (body language, voice inflection) to determine what is appropriate of our own behavior in a situation. A lack of this may be a partial contributor to inappropriate behavior online. Food for thought at least. Thanks!

  6. Nice post, man. I have a very pessimistic response to your first question. I believe human beings to be the worst creatures in the galaxy. We are, in my opinion, primates and if you’ve ever watched a documentary on apes such as chimps, you’ll know how dreadful these creatures are. They are violent, cannibalistic, cruel beasts and so are most people. It’s no surprise to me that the internet brings out the worst in the cesspool of humanity. One only needs to scroll down the comments on any youtube video to view a cross section of humanities’ flaws. I watched a video recently of some middle school band students performing a Duke Ellington piece, as was my want, and to my horror stumbled upon posts containing the words “faggot” and “kill yourself” referring to the children in the video. My shock and ire only abated when I imagined what a sad, sexless, joyless life the “commentor” must lead. Shoving handfuls of taco flavored doritos into his/her gaping, purulent maw to be washed down with that most hateful of beverages, Mountain Dew as they tip, tap, tap away, in hate, at their ejaculate encrusted keyboards. Their constant want for the material possessions owned by the characters on their favorite terrible TV shows, fueling their mispelled hate speech. I swear to you, I have on more than one occasion, read “faggot” spelled as “faggit” and “fagget.” They can’t even spell their slurs! How can I be offended when I feel so bad for the person who can’t spell faggot? Not empathy mind you, but “feel bad” as in the feeling one gets when one sees a dead dog on the side of the road: “Poor little guy.” The same goes for those what post ill-conceived vitriol such as “dyke” or “ugly bitch” on feminist websites and blogs. “You’re an ugly dyke because you made me think about how lonely and horny I am.” is what they should read. I guarantee one look at these people, well let’s face it man-boys, from any female from any walk of life, would lead to gagging on one’s own bile. And no of course they would never say these things in person.They wouldn’t get the chance to say them as their deoderant stained ICP t-shirts act as a flare, warning all of humanity: “avoid conversation with me at all costs for I’m repulsive and voluntarily semi-literate!” Lastly, before this class, I’d never posted a comment on any website of any kind. Guess why? Because I chose not to engage in any discourse with the sort of people who spend most of their time dickin’ around on the internet instead of living life.

    • You have a rather strong opinion of this, but I can’t say I disagree with you. I believe that humans are inherently self-serving, and inherently “bad people” if you will. We have to learn to be good (through consequences, reinforcements, group socialization etc.) Some people have found ways to bypass these consequences. I have never posted any comments online before either (besides on my own Facebook posts). My reason is this: There is no arguing with the unintelligent and morally bankrupt. You will watch your words be trampled by ignorance.

  7. I think we’ve all said something we wish we hadn’t, but not to this extreme extent. People may feel like because they are looking at a screen rather than looking at the person that’s it’s okay to say whatever they want. When really that’s not the case. Some people leave these comments out of hate or jealousy, but nothing makes saying these rude comments nice. I think it’s really hard for websites to monitor every single comment/post, but I do know that some websites do realize that there are people who do leave these mean comments. For example, I know that on Instagram you can not only delete someones comment from under your picture but you can report it as abuse too. I’m sure every website has something different to try and minimize these mean comments. Anonymous or not, I personally do not think it would make a different. You are still posting the comment and saying mean things, what does it matter if you’re anonymous or not. You shouldn’t be saying or leaving these comments to begin with.

  8. Personally, it disgusts me when people leave such rude comments on social media website. I personally have never done anything like this, because I would hate it if it ever happened to me. I have a tumblr, and whenever I log on the amount of anonymous posts there are saying such mean this is horrible. But when the people are posting things as themselves they only say nice things. I think removing anonymous posts would be one step closer to removing all the hate from social media websites. I also think that these websites could do a little more to help prevent it, such as lock them out of their account for an hour after so many attacks on other people or something similar. It would just be beneficial to everyone and possibly change some lives if there were things helping to prevent this from happening.

    • The removal of the ability to be anonymous, and even locking people out of a website for a certain amount of time would definitely deter a majority of trolls. Does this infringe on freedom of speech? Do you think it possible for moderators to keep up with the countless comments?

  9. Unfortunately people in reality are racist, sexist, etc. and this is no different than before the internet. What does this say about us? It shows that people still need to change and that we live in a world that suppresses the problem by trying to hide that is exists. It’s not the internets fault that people still think these things but it surely does give them an outlet to express them. It seems like trolling is a part of pop culture nowadays. Most of the time they say these things because they know people will react and for whatever reason this makes them happy. Some do it because they think it’s funny and others do it because it is their sick little way of getting back at the world. They do it because they can get away with it without anyone knowing who they are most of all. On Youtube I see these types of comments all the time and they are usually made by accounts that are created just to troll. It’s very difficult to tell these days who is trolling and who is serious. So what can be done about this? They need to monitor the comments and allow the users of the community to take matters into their own hands if necessary. If a blogger is posting racist comments then others should be able to ban him/her permanently as well as remove the comments. The problem with banning an account is that the troll can just make a new one under a new e-mail. Perhaps they should make you submit your i.p. address so they can ban it from using the web service. It’s going to be very hard to remove the ability to remain anonymous because all he/she has to do is lie about their information. The fact that this issue is so hard to control is one of the reasons it is so common.

    • You’re right, it is not the internet’s fault. People being racist and sexist is obviously not new, and it’s obviously not something of the past either, unfortunately.

      The idea of having to use your ip address is very interesting. Great thought! I have not heard of a more effective to monitor anonymous users and prevent repeat offenses. However, it would definitely stunt the growth of a website. Many people would be scared to give this information and wouldn’t go to that particular site at all. I’m not sure these websites would buy into that.

  10. Preventative actions online are merely a myth. The internet is (like you said) a breeding ground of fearless bloggers who believe they can say what they want without penalty. If they have something to say then they will say it, even if they aren’t anonymous, what can a person in New York do to a person in California? People aren’t anonymous on Facebook and other social networking sites and they seem to speak their mind, even if they know it’s not the right thing to say. It really is a nearly impossible task for websites to monitor all the comments people post, even with blocks on swears words; people still find a way to say what they want to. It’s a sad truth, and it’s even led people to suicide. The only way to prevent such a thing is by teaching people and children proper online edict, programs are already in place to raise awareness, it is up to us to spread the message that people should think twice before posting something online.

  11. I think that it really does show something about people’s character’s, highlighting these kinds of racist, sexist, offensive comments. You’ll notice, we really don’t hear this kind of stuff in day to day, face to face interactions between people. However, once people have the veil of anonymity from the internet, they unleash a completely new side of themselves.
    Sure, some people do it just to troll or to act like their the tough guy, but is it really necessary to tell a woman gamer to show you her boobs because you think it’s funny? The answer is no.
    There are people on the internet that don’t even read the article their posting a comment on, or watch the video their posting about. They just go and leave obscene comments in hopes of getting attention or starting some sort of riot among other users.
    I believe the people that do this kind of stuff on the internet really have this side in real life, but they choose not to show it. However, when they have anonymity, they can be whoever they want to be, even someone invisible. They must hide behind this veil to protect themselves because they can’t even stand behind their own words that they type out for the world to see. When they are caught, the are surprised or embarrassed, but it doesn’t change how they think. The internet is a place for them to become popular, even when they are invisible.

  12. It just shows are disgusting the human race has become. We are like animals. We have no remorse and no conscious. We say whatever we want, especially online because we know we can get away with it and we won’t be punished since it is anonymous. Instead of using commenting as a way to express thoughts and views in a respectable way, we use it to be rude, disrespectful, and racist. It is absurd the comments people make over the internet, however it doesn’t surprise me at all. It is so sad that people have committed suicide over cyber-bullying, it sickens me. I have not, I am a straight forward person. I actually cannot stand when people deal with their problems through internet.
    Honestly, I think they need to remove commenting space, or comments need to be reviewed by the website owner before being posted on their page. I know some websites actually have done this, but more need to do so. I remember watching a girl on YouTube, she was young probably about 12 dancing to a song and singing, and some of the meanest comments were being posted about this girl. I don’t think removing being anonymous will do much. It will help but some people really don’t care. Like I stated before, some humans have no conscious.

  13. Whenever I post a comment that’s aimed at someone or in response to someone, I always try to think about what I am actually posting and hopefully not offend anyone. I’m really not a confrontational person in real life and I tend not to be online either. However, like you mentioned, the internet seems to “act” the opposite of the way I see myself on the internet. As for what actions websites can take, I think an effective method would be having actually people as moderators who monitor comment sections. They can easily ward off useless comments, but they can also make mistakes. It really is a tough call for websites and companies.

  14. I hate to admit that I have said things through the internet that I would not have said in person. However I am lucky to say that this happened more for me when I was younger, and it something I grew out of. I feel as though in this day in age, getting “tough with the keyboard” is really just part of growing up. You’ve got to do it, regret it, and know that it’s wrong in order to learn, grow, and not do it again. At least, that’s what I went through. Today, I would never say something to someone over the internet that I wouldn’t say to them in person. But also, being “grown up” for me means that there’s not much I wouldn’t say to someone’s face, if it is something that needs to be said. Essentially, I don’t need the keyboard anymore to have the ‘guts’.

    I don’t think that removing the ability to be anonymous is the way to go. Perhaps more people monitoring comments on certain sites? Keeping them appropriate and friendly?

  15. I have said things online, on a game of counterstrike for example, that I probably wouldn’t have said in person. I mean, in essence it doesn’t matter if you say someone “sucks” while playing a game against them but the fact that I can tell that to a total stranger is a good sign that the internet makes us more confident, where we assume nobody knows who we are and our words don’t come back to us. For the most part, there are no consequences (to ourselves) of what we say. This is something that I think the victim is able to overcome (if it’s something minor) but for big things, it can have a devastating impact. I suppose if the owner of a website decides to remove something, that’s very fair (someone who doesn’t want racism on their blog, maybe?) Some things are obviously offensive, and some things seem more offense to certain people. Even if we wish it weren’t, the internet is a place where all kinds of people go to say what they want, and we are almost forced to just deal with it.

  16. I hate how the internet tends to bring out the worst in people. It’s so easy for some people to say all of these hurtful things, to threaten, and to harass just because they can hide behind a computer screen. Personally, I don’t say anything online that I wouldn’t say in person.

    I think there needs to be harsher punishment for cyber-bullying, especially when it comes to middle school and high school kids. I mean before, at least kids could escape to their homes and find some peace. Now they have to deal with it online as well as in person. I can’t imagine how terrible that must be.

    As far as people in general go, I don’t think there’s a quick fix for this problem. It would be difficult to monitor every single comment and message that goes online. People need to change in general before we see any change online.

  17. I think that the best way to reduce the amount of racist and sexist comments is to remove the anonymity for all posts and comments. It’s too easy to hide behind the cloak of a fictitious screen name with no accountability. If one feels the need to post sexist and/or racist feelings one should have the courage to expose themselves to the public for the same type of scrutiny. I don’t agree it’s a limitation on free speech, as it wouldn’t stop anyone’s ability to post, it would just remove the anonymity

  18. I totally agree with what you posted on your blog. People sometimes use social media or any type of internet communication to express personal opinions or problems that they see in our society. Some people that post those comments on Facebook or Twitter use double identities. Some people use Facebook to express those ideas or feelings because they are ashamed of themselves or afraid to express those ideas or comments in public. For example, racism, (society is always going to have this problem, because as you mention in your blog, this is not a perfect world) is easy for a person or a group of individuals to express over the internet.
    In response to your first question, personally, I never post comments that can hurt someone. I realize that the chance that I would say something I don’t mean to say when I’m mad is great. We have to keep in mind that for every action, there is a reaction, so we have to take responsibility for what we say and do. It is hard for social media sites to control this type of behavior or comments, because the need to respect the “freedom of one’s speech” is so strong.

  19. While I certainly don’t agree with these types of comments or condone the actions of anonymous authors who post hateful and cowardly comments, I don’t believe censorship is the tool by which to combat offensive speech. First, who is going to make the decision on what is and isn’t offensive? Content curators? Advertisers? Users? Political Leaders? Judges? I believe that as soon as censorship begins, special interests will find issue with almost any kind of content and demand it be removed, castrating the internet and shutting down the most expressive and liberating invention ever created. Instead, I would propose adding tool to sites that allow readers to filter out comments that they would find offensive. Certainly natural language processing has advanced enough to enable this type of functionality. This way all speech is protected while sensitivities can simultaneously be honored.

  20. I feel that some steps need to be taken to help contain the current trolling problem online. Although I feel that anonymity is a part of the experience I feel making you sign up for an account is not a bad thing. This account is a pseudonym you are not using your real name and for the most part no real information about yourself is given. Sites like Gizmodo and Jalopnik are great examples of a strong moderation system. Both sites are ran by Gawker and I frequent them both and will rarely see any kind of trolling. They have virtually eliminated the problem while still keeping a lively and often sarcastic flow of comments going strong. I feel that if more sites adopted their model of moderation the internet would be a much nicer place. Visit my project two to learn more about their system.

    One other thing to consider is the good uses of the internets anonymity. Often people are able to share more and possibly receive help for problems that they are to afraid or embraced to share in a more personal forum of communication. Without this anonymous system to reach out through some people would not receive the help that they desperately need. Unfortunately this is far out shadowed by the bad brought about on the internet.

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