writer, blogger and social researcher

The rise of online hate and how to shut it down

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Published in Cosmopolitan, October 2011. Copyright Rachel Hills 2011.

Cosmo investigates why the internet brings out the nasty side in some people – and reveals how women are fighting back…

When Melbourne blogger Sarah Kempson, 27, (sarahsstyleemporium.onsugar.com) won a competition to write about fashion for a major shopping centre, she was warned that the comments might get a little bit nasty…

As the photos of Sarah wearing the centre’s clothing ranges were uploaded, the anonymous vitriol rolled in: “Your boobs look droopy in that playsuit.” “That top makes you look like a street-walker.”

Catty, definitely, but not unusual. The internet has unleashed a less savoury side to our personalities, it seems. As UK columnist Tanya Gold observed, “Pre-Twitter, only a maniac would write anonymous hate mail. Now it is normal and socially acceptable.”

But if new US reality show H8R – in which celebs like Kim Kardashian and Jersey Shore’s Snooki confront their detractors in person – is any indication, the “hated” are ready to fight back…

Why all the hate?

The angry basement-dweller hiding behind their computer screen is a familiar stereotype, but it’s not just the cloak of anonymity that makes us more inclined to lash out online. In many corners of the internet, being catty is “cool”, as she who is most scathing wins the most followers, book deals and virtual high fives.

Psychologist Kate Swann* likens it to teenagers “slagging each other off” while they tan their legs in the playground. It’s also a response to contemporary celebrity culture, which not only demands we worship people we might not believe are worthy, but also gives us the tools to transform into figures of worship ourselves.

Sites like Hollywood Snark and The Superficial play to our suspicions that the stars aren’t as “all that” as glossy magazines suggest. Get Off My Internets, a snark blog that turns its eye to self-styled web celebs, is as much a critique of narcissism, bad self-Photoshop and blatant grabs for free products as it is of dubious fashion choices
and (supposedly) dimpled thighs.

But Stanford University psychiatrist Elias Aboujaoude, author of Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality, is not convinced. “It is easy to justify online bullying if we convince ourselves the target somehow deserves it, but I disagree with that approach,” says Aboujaoude. “It would be healthier to politely criticise disagreeable online traits such as narcissism without resorting to cyber bullying tactics ourselves.”

The painful truth

That online haters don’t have to look their victims in the eye makes it easier to “just let fly,” says Swann. “You often find that bullies have very little awareness that their actions might be hurting someone.”

But, of course, they do. “You can be in a great mood and then you log on to Twitter and the pit of your stomach just
drops,” says Sydney style blogger Caitlin Bradley (closet-confessions.com), who – like the bloggers profiled on Get Off My Internets – has been accused of being “selfish” or “just [blogging] to get famous”.

Speaking out

The very public nature of cyber-hate can make it hurt even more than other types of criticism, as Anna Rose, 28, discovered when she appeared on ABC’s Q&A in May.

As cofounder of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, Anna is no stranger to hate mail. She has even been on the receiving end of “very graphic” death threats. But none of that prepared her for the discovery that someone had been watching her while she ate dinner before the show: tweeting what she was eating, making comments about her
weight and suggesting she wasn’t smart enough to come up with her own talking points for television.

The tweets were outweighed by more positive comments during the show itself, but Anna couldn’t bring herself to
look at them. “I thought about deleting my Twitter account altogether,” she recalls. “It would be so much easier just to insulate myself from anonymous jerks.”

Instead she decided to fight back, writing about the experience on her blog (annarose.net.au) and even contacting the
user who posted the original offensive tweets. He was unsympathetic, but plenty of others felt differently.

Anna’s blog post went viral, reaching thousands of readers and attracting more than 100 comments, offering everything from sympathy to advice on how she could track the user down and report him to the Australian Federal Police (it is an offense under Australian law to use the internet to abuse or threaten a person). “For me, writing about what happened was so important in being able to move on from it. I feel a lot stronger now that I’ve talked about it openly,” she says.

Her next step? Stopping this kind of abuse from happening to other women. “We need to support young women to be
able to deal with this kind of sexist abuse,” says Anna. “We need to make it clear on Twitter when we see a comment that is acceptable.” Over to you…

Written by Rachel Hills

December 29, 2011 at 1:21 pm

Posted in articles, tech, womens

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