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The Ugly Side of Digital Anonymity

What is it about being anonymous or partially anonymous online that brings out the worst in humanity — even amongst people who are fairly normal otherwise?

It seems that digital anonymity affords a chance to be verbally aggressive with little self-repercussion, and an increasing number of people are taking the opportunity, sometimes going beyond civility into behavior that destroys or even ends other people’s lives. It’s an unhealthy trend, the negative side of social technologies such as social networking/ media and even group text messaging.

Caution: This information is meant to highlight some of the disturbing situations and statistics related to the negative side of social technology — not to sensationalize — and may be difficult for some readers to read or view.

Negative Forms of Digital Self-Expression

Whether we like it or not, sexting (sex-related text messaging), sharing sexy selfies (nude/ semi-nude self-shot photos), cyber-bullying and posting revenge porn have become part of online society. However, some of this anti-social behavior is not a side effect of technologies such as cell phones and text messaging, and the World Wide Web and social networking sites. Some of this behavior has actually been around since before the Web.

The Internet, which dates back to the 1960s and is thus much older than the Web (invented in 1989), and which encompasses the latter and other online networks, has had various news groups, chat rooms and other online communities since the 1980s and BBSes (Bulletin Board Systems) since the late 1970s. People sometimes posted salacious content, “flamed” each other in highly-charged disagreement, sometimes bullied each other, and possibly committed acts of revenge porn or simply aired dirty laundry. Except now these acts are more prominent because a much larger percentage of society spends significant time online on the Web or in text messaging, and because of the destruction of lives.

These problems have become worldwide, not limited to the United States alone. In fact, some of the problems are that victims might be in one country while instigators are in another, which often makes it difficult or impossible to stop objectionable behavior, or to make arrests.

Sexting and Sexy Selfies

A “selfie” — if you don’t know — is a photograph in which you take a picture of yourself with a handheld camera or cell phone, with or without other people in the photo — like Ellen DeGeneres’ group selfie at the 2014 Oscars celebration. It was a selfie so popular that when it got retweeted, it caused Twitter to crash.

The availability of reasonably good digital cameras on our smartphones has turned us into a nation of snap-happy amateur photographers, posting everything onto social media when we take pictures — and selfies are a part of that. Celebrities other than Ellen are taking selfies, including President Obama, Pope Francis and others.

“Selfie” was even proclaimed word of the year by Oxford, in 2013, and was the subject of a hoax news article on Mar 31st, 2014, stating that the American Psychiatric Association had declared an over-abundance of selfie-taking as a mental disorder. The latter was someone’s April Fool’s joke that went viral.

Selfies and Sexting as Criminal Behavior

Selfies seem innocent enough, right? Except it doesn’t stop there. Selfies are generally associated with cell phone usage, and a popular activity on cell phones is text messaging. Text messaging has its offshoot, sexting, where two or more parties exchange messages of a sexual nature. Enter the sexy selfie, which likely got its start on cell phones, sent along in a text message, and from there started being shared via smartphone apps for social networks, including Facebook, Vine and other sites.

Well, if the participants of sexting and sexy selfies are of age, are consenting adults, then you would think that there’s not much of a problem. Except they are not always of age, nor are they always consenting, especially regarding what happens to the photos afterwards (see revenge porn).

Teen texting habits and cell phone/ smartphone ownership is likely contributing. According to a Mar 2012 report from PewResearch (“Teens, Smartphones & Texting”), text messaging volumes have gone up amongst teens (defined in the report as ages 12-17), rising from a median of 50 text messages / day in 2009 to 60+, with an estimated 75% of teens using text messaging.

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As for sexting and sexy selfies, an earlier PewResearch report from 2009 (“Teens and Sexting) found that 4% of 12-17 year-olds have sent nude/ semi-nude pics via texting, and 15% have received them. The behavior is more common in older teens: 8% of 17-year-olds have sexted provocative images and 30% have received them. The percentage increases even further for teens who pay their own phone bills, rising to 17% of such teens who send sexy selfies. This happens not just between young couples but also between people hoping to be in a relationship (one or both). Sometimes one or both parties in a couple share images with other people.

Other studies suggest that teens texting over 100 times per day are more likely to be sexually active, and more likely to receive a sexual photo. Also, once a teen receives a sexted photo, they are “23 times more likely” to send one as well.

Of course, snapping a sexually suggestive photo becomes a criminal offense when the subject is underage. Since sharing such photos with people outside a relationship is not uncommon, the act then becomes distribution of child pornography, and teens are been prosecuted in some parts of the United States. Some teens are now registered sex offenders as a result. Some share photos as a way to brag; others do it out spite, after a relationship ends — often texting images to the subject’s friends and family. Occasionally, the situation goes beyond a wide share.

Sexting can be a criminal act, depending on either or both of the age of the sender and receiver. A 2012 study sampled sexting case data from American law enforcement agencies, acquired through a mail survey (87% of 2,712 agencies responded), plus interviews with nearly 700 (675) investigators. Of just under 3500 (3,477) sexting-related cases in 2008-2009, inclusive, about 2/3 of incidences went further, involving “aggravating circumstances.”

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While sexting usually refers to sexually suggestive messages or images sent via text messaging, it’s inconsistently also used to refer to similar behavior through social networking sites such as Facebook or one of many group chat or photo sharing networks. When this happens the problem escalates. One Scottish politician sent suggestive messages to a 17-year-old girl via Facebook. In the U.S., nine men were accused in 2014 of sexually exploiting a 13-year-old girl using Facebook. The girl received photos of the genitals of some of these men. Some tried to get her to send photos; others tried to set up sexual encounters. According to the FBI, the act of minors using Facebook to post or send nude/ semi-nude photos is increasing, and such sites enable “multiple people to exploit one victim.”

Revenge Porn

In 2014, an estimated 55 billion camera-phone photos will be shared. Not all of it will be revenge porn, but some of it will. Revenge porn is essentially the posting online – after a relationship ends – of sexual images, often originally taken as sexy selfies for a partner or snapped by the partner. The intent is to humiliate and/or damage the photo subject’s life.

Worse, several online “entrepreneurs” in recent years have turned this malicious behavior of jilted ex-partners into profit, by blackmailing photo subjects. Some go so far as to hack into the subject’s email and other accounts to collect very real personal info such as full name and location, all of which is posted with the photo. (One such revenge porn publisher had a plan to set up an interactive map.)

The extortion racket is that they then demand payment – sometimes for thousands of dollars – from the photo subject, else they threaten to share the images with the subject’s family, friends, workmates, employer. The net result has been lost friendships, lost jobs, lives ruined, or worse, and sadly even lost lives.

Some revenge porn sites have photos of women (and sometimes men) of all ages. Even when revenge porn sites are not used but photos are shared online, the damaging results are similar. At the extreme end, women as young as 15 years-old are committing suicide as a result of sexually suggestive photos of them being shared online — photos which were sometimes coerced in the first place or only meant for partners.

It’s not always ex-boyfriends (or girlfriends) posting nude photos. One woman in Seattle hired a freelance computer tech in 2011 from Craigslist to fix a computer problem. In Dec 2013, she started receiving harassing phone calls and later found out that some of her private photos had been copied and uploaded to a revenge porn site by the computer tech. Apparently, they had also been emailed to some of her friends and family. Other women in the U.S. and Canada have undergone similar situations with hired computer techs.

Legal or Illegal?

Some arrests have been made in the U.S., in 2014, of a small handful of revenge porn Web site operators. In some cases, the Communications Decency Act may protect publishers for user-generated content. As well, arresting the original uploaders is not a simple process. Copyright of a photo belongs to the person snapping the picture. While there are laws regarding “model release” permissions, revenge porn is often published to Web servers in other countries to dodge laws. So U.S. authorities, at least, cannot always do anything about the content. Some American and Canadian judges have also ruled that posting nude pics of someone is not illegal, if you took the photo of them. In fact, in 2013, USA Today reported that sharing sexually explicit photos of someone without consent is legal in 48 states.

Several U.S. states are moving to pass laws pertaining to revenge porn. California was the first such state. California’s law has a fine of up to $1,000 and imprisonment of up to six months for a first offense. Upon a second offense: fines of up to $2,000 and imprisonment of up to one year.

Since California passed their law, several states (between 20-24, according to various accounts) either have a revenge-porn bill on the table or a law being instated. Arizona’s governor signed a bill into law in May 2014. Other states with a law include Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Maryland, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin. (Colorado’s law passed in Jun 2014 and carries a minimum fine of $10,000.) However, there are critics who say that some of the revenge-porn laws are too broadly written and, according to the ACLU, could outlaw legitimate photo sharing.

Courts in other countries are taking action against revenge porn, in some cases trying to prevent such situations. In Germany, one court ruled in May 2014 that if a relationship ends and one party requests the deletion of intimate photos, that it should be done so, even if there is no intent to ever publish the photos anywhere.

Cyber-Bullying

Cyber-bullying is a digital beast on its own. Sometimes there’s a connection to revenge porn, other times it’s just trolling that goes too far. It has been around since the “flame wars” in chat rooms and other online communities of pre-World Wide Web days on the Internet.

The CDC calls cyber-bullying “electronic aggression”. Electronic aggression resulted in a total $87M of awards in lawsuits in 2012. The channels for electronic aggression include text messaging, group messaging mobile apps, chat rooms, social media/networking sites, blogs and more. According to a CDC report, teens who are victimized online are likely to also be victimized offline, since “electronic aggression is associated with emotional distress and conduct problems at school.”

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Celebrities also get cyber-bullied, including singer Adele, who received death threats when her baby was born. Celebs also become trolls. Singer Adam Levine criticized singer Lady Gaga for how “recycling old art for a younger generation” didn’t make her an artist, and actress Amanda Bynes called a number of performers ugly on Twitter.

Of course, celebrities are typically adults who either know how to deal with such situations or have people to handle it for them. Not so for underage children who are bullied — sometimes by other minors, sometimes by adults. This is happening not just in the United States but in Canada, the UK, and other countries. Far too many teens have been the subject of sexual abuse followed by emotional blackmail by perpetrators sharing photos of the victim. Sometimes peers abuse them after the fact, and their lives sometimes end in suicide from depression due to the bullying.

Sites such as Facebook are not necessarily safe for them, with some teens being cyber-bullied for merely blogging about depression. Many of these teens later commit suicide — sometimes egged on by peers or even adults, live over webcam. Some victims are children are as young as 12. Children in the UK have been noted to become self-harming as a result of cyber-bullying, with hospital admissions for this behavior rising 30% over a year. One seven year-old tried to poison himself, and one ten year-old tried to hang himself. UK freedom of information act data shows over 12,600 children 17 or under admitted to hospital in 2013 due to self-harm resulting from cyber-bullying. In 2012, the number was 9,800. The actual numbers might be much higher. There is a significant rise in the rate of self-harm amongst 12 year-old girls, according to the director of selfharm.co.uk.

Amongst adults, anything that’s a controversial topic is fodder for cyber-bullying behavior: climate change, world overpopulation, genetically modified organisms/ food – all of these lay down the opportunity for someone to verbally harass another person with an opposing opinion. It’s something that we seem to have collectively accepted as being a part of digital life.

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