Online nastiness has been there since its inception, but once upon a time, one could make the argument that there was a line between cyberspace and the “real” world. “Don’t like it? Don’t read it” was the short-sighted thinking.
But the lines aren’t just blurred today; they’re nonexistent. The internet has become an indispensable part of the modern world, and real lives are affected all the time now. The Houston Chronicle’s running a story today, for instance, about a woman who’s photo went online in February.
“It’s been completely humiliating,” she said. An anonymous person posted a photo of the woman with a mean-spirited message saying she has herpes, is fat, is sexually promiscuous and uses cocaine.
Near as I can tell, the site where this photo appeared exists for the sole purpose of maligning other people. How pathetic.
(An aside: You’ve probably have heard of this slimy website already. This is the same site that’s doing its level best to attack Carrie Prejean (Miss California) by releasing “semi-nude” photos of her, complete with pointed commentary.)
But there’s more driving this post than a local woman’s online humiliation at the hands of “anonymous” via some pathetic smear-mongerer. The anonymity inherently possible in the cyberworld has given rise to a teeming cesspool of hate and maliciousness that boggles the mind, and for me, the most horrific example is the story of Nikki Catsouras:
Not long after their 18-year-old daughter died in a car accident, Christos and Lesli Catsouras were forced to relive their grief.
They soon began receiving anonymous e-mails and text messages that contained photographs of the accident, including pictures of Nicole Catsouras’ decapitated body, still strapped to the crumpled remains of her father’s Porsche. A fake MySpace page was created, which at first looked like a tribute to Catsouras but also led to the horrific photos. [Snip]
The images became so persistent that Lesli Catsouras stopped checking her e-mail. Nikki’s three younger sisters were forbidden to use the Internet, and 16-year-old Danielle was taken out of school to be home schooled out of fear that her peers might confront her with the pictures.
“There was threats that people were gonna put the pictures on my locker, in my locker,” said Danielle. “I remember her in such a great way, I don’t wanna see it and have that image stuck in my head.”
I can’t even imagine the level of moral depravity required to inflict such injury on a suffering family.
Worse, the victims of these sick, soulless zombies are unable to stop the madness. It’s just too easy to toss stuff out there. Furthermore, some repulsive people are hiding behind the First Amendment.
“We’ve asked them to please take down the pictures, and they’ve said, ‘No, I don’t have to because I’ve got my First Amendment rights,” says Lesli Catsouras of the Web sites that still carry the photos. “But we have rights, you know, we’re living in the United States of America.”
The family finally gave up on the losing web battle and, in an effort to create a deterrent against future horrors, sued the California Highway Patrol, since that’s the source of the leaked photos. And again they lost (though they’re appealing).
In March 2008, [the case] was dismissed by a superior-court judge, who ruled that while the dispatchers’ conduct was “utterly reprehensible,” it hadn’t violated the law. “No duty exists between the surviving family and defendant,” the opinion reads, because privacy rights don’t extend to the dead. “It’s an unfortunate situation, and our heart goes out to the family,” says R. Rex Parris, the attorney representing O’Donnell. “But this is America, and there’s a freedom of information.”
This is not just sickening. It’s a real problem.
The online fight to protect free speech, however important, is both misguided and self-destructive, because the traditional societal tools — censure, civil or criminal charges — are completely useless against an anonymous tormentor.
Reputations, sanity, and common decency have been cast aside as secondary to the internet’s rampant growth. Business, industry, and society have all been transformed by this technology, and it’s fully integrated in almost every aspect of the modern world.
But it’s a free-wheeling madhouse spinning out of control. We’ve unleashed a monster, and unless we get some laws into place to protect people, the pathetic cowards who hide behind their “anonymous” shields are going to destroy the tool on which we’ve all come to rely.
And while I both hate and fear the level of regulation this will require, I hate and fear the power “anonymous” has over people’s lives more. We’re going to have to unmask the filthy cowards, and expose them to the legal and social consequences of their words and actions.
Postscript: I understand the arguments for anonymity online. I even agree that without it, there are situations in which people would not feel able to express opinions at all. But I do not see a way to protect that anonymity without exposing others to permanent, malicious emotional, social and/or economic damage from which they cannot defend themselves. If you have another solution, I’d love to hear it.