Another Teen Cyberbullied To Death: Has Internet Anonymity Become The Latest Weapon?

Image @ LeicesterMercury

As cyberbullying drives another child to suicide, social media anonymity that gives users the ‘tools’ to attack, denigrate, bully may want to rethink. Image of 14-year-old Hannah Smith @ LeicesterMercury

Hannah Smith, 14-years-old and one of the 60 million users of a social media question-and-answer site called Ask.fm, made the egregious error of being vulnerable, allowing herself to engage in online chatter that ended up being filled with the now-classic invectives of cyberbullying. The list was long and ugly but after it included a suggestion that she actually kill herself, the emotionally fragile teen clearly hit a tipping point: she was found hanged to death in her bedroom by her older sister. Cyberbullies strike again.

Ask.fm is a Latvian-based site started in 2010; it comes with a Facebook-like template and the de rigueur anonymity of its users. It was immediately popular; by June of this year it had registered up to 60 million customers. The business model is simple: users invite friends and strangers to ask them questions (most do so anonymously) and it’s purportedly designed to give kids a way to “gossip without adults around”… which not only sounds suspiciously like code for “let’s rip the shit out of each other behind our ‘cloaks of invisibility,'” but it has turned out to be exactly that: the site is linked to up to a half-dozen deaths. From The Guardian:

Hannah’s death is not the first to be linked to Ask.fm. Two Irish girls, Ciara Pugsley, 14, and Erin Gallagher, 13, took their lives last September and November after being subjected to sustained anonymous bullying on the site.

In April, Josh Unsworth, 15, from Lancashire, was found hanged in his parent’s garden after complaining of abusive messages (“You really are a freak”, “you deserve sick things to happen to you”) on the same site over several months.

Another Lancashire schoolboy, 16-year-old Anthony Stubbs, killed himself in January; his family have said both his girlfriend and cousin have since received “horrible” abuse on Ask.fm. Friends of Jessica Laney, a Florida teenager who hanged herself in her bedroom last December, have said they are convinced constant anonymous bullying on Ask.fm pushed her to it.

The bullying on Hannah Smith’s page was also incredibly brutal, as her father attested:

Among the comments left on Hannah Smith’s profile were “cow”, “fat slag” “ugly fuck” and “self harmin cunt”. One user said she should “go die, evry1 wuld be happy”, another recommended: “do us all a favour n kill ur self”. Someone told her “no1 would care if ya died u cretin”.

Hannah’s father is in little doubt that it was this kind of abuse that led her to take her life (the thought does not seem to make much difference to some Ask.fm members. On the profile of a different, unrelated Hannah Smith yesterday, an anonymous user posted: “Yoooou slaagggggg drop dedddddd”.)

One can only wonder who the people are behind the anonymous screen names, who would feel entitled to exchange such ugly hate-speak all in the fun and games of “gossiping without adults around.”

In fact, what all these cases have in common is just that: the anonymity of the users. How easy is it to sit with a keyboard in hand and spew out the kind of bile that translates into abuse, designed to generate a sense of helplessness and annihilation in the recipient? How do you fight back or attempt to control a cipher who’s hiding behind a fake screen name and just keeps striking out at you? You either disengage and walk away… or you internalize the verbal assaults and allow it to break you. In the case of these kids, it broke them.

What’s the answer? Clearly the bullies using social media for their assaults have missed seminal life lessons related to empathy, compassion, civility, and kindheartedness. Blame the parents, the teachers, the mentors… blame the kids, who should surely know the right and wrong of this. Blame the culture, rife with every kind of trolling hate-speak, from adults on TV and radio talk shows, to commenters under anything posted online. Blame the sites, set up to ostensibly tap into that primal, uncivilized urge to strike out for no reason and with no responsibility.

In fact, the Irish government is turning its sights toward the company. They’ve asked Latvia to investigate Ask.fm; advertisers are being urged to take their money elsewhere and petitions are being launched to close down the site, which initially took a stance reminiscent of the NRA’s attitude about guns: it’s not the site, it’s the user. From The Guardian:

Ask.fm’s five co-founders are not very forthcoming. Several have argued that the “negativity” on Ask.fm is merely a reflection of society’s failings, and of a lack of proper internet education. On his own Ask.fm profile, Mark Terebin said last year that media criticism in the US, UK, Ireland, Canada and New Zealand over the past 12 months had largely been misplaced.

“It is necessary to go deeper to find a root of a problem,” he said. “Ask.fm is just a tool that helps people to communicate, same as any other social network, same as a phone, same as piece of paper and pen. Don’t blame a tool.” [Emphasis added.]

Another co-founder, Klavs Sinka, said: “We created Ask.fm as an attractive way for people to communicate with each other. From the beginning, we have tried to create tools with which to fight and prevent publishing of unwanted content … However, despite all our efforts, we cannot completely prevent users from having a negative psychological impact on one another.”

In a rare interview in May, co-founder and CEO Ilja Terebin said the site’s “main public is teenagers, and it is often a problematic and aggressive target market. It is very hard to get rid of this altogether.”

He claimed young people “lack attention, mainly because parents are doing other things … When they come to sites like these, they start trolling themselves so their peers start protecting them. In this absurd way, they get the attention.”

So, the site is a “tool” and it’s everyone else’s fault. Might be – certainly there’s enough fault to spread around – but that response was incredibly tone-deaf given the number of deaths connected to the site and the age of the children involved. But while those comments were reported by The Guardian, the tone of Ask.fm was decidedly different in a piece over at BBC.News:

The Latvian-based company said: “Hannah Smith’s death is a tragedy; we would like to convey our deepest condolences to her family and friends.

“We have reached out to Leicestershire police and would be happy to co-operate with their investigation into the circumstances. [… ]

The apology follows a message written on Facebook by Hannah’s father, Dave, that he found bullying posts on his daughter’s ask.fm page from people telling her to die.

Mr Smith wrote: “Just to let all my friends know my youngest daughter took her own life last night.

“My heart is broken in 2 and is gonna take a long time to repair i just hope that none of you have to go through the pain im goin through rite now [sic].”

Maybe it took the anguish of a father to shake them from their cold-hearted talking points.

Clearly the issue is of global concern. There is no place on this earth that appears immune to the hateful ways in which the “tool” of the Internet is being used to hurt others. And like the argument for better gun control, there is something to be said for how social media is allowed to be used, how the need exists for purveyors of social media sites to step up and, not only make their billions off users and advertisers, but take a role of responsibility in helping to control their product – their ‘tool’ – from being used as a weapon.

With age comes the wisdom to survive and even outwit; hard to have that wisdom at 14. Image of Professor Mary Beard  @ Mirror UK

With age comes the wisdom to survive and even outwit; hard to have that wisdom at 14. Image of Professor Mary Beard @ Mirror UK

Which, in fact, San Francisco-based Twitter recently did: after several widely reported stories about bomb threats being made against female journalists and a particularly ugly attack on Mary Beard, a respected Cambridge professor who was trolled by a Twitter user who, very uninventively, took to calling her a “filthy old slut” via tweets, Twitter announced plans to take some control over the situation. From USA Today:

A post on the U.K. Twitter blog mentioned plans to add additional staff to the teams that handle abuse reports and updates to the Twitter Rules.

An “in-tweet” report abuse button had been introduced in the Twitter app on Apple devices and the mobile website. Next month the button will also be available in the Android app and on Twitter.com.

That’s a good step. Another good step was one Mary Beard took all on her own: she retweeted the offensive tweets and one of her followers recognized the name of the offender – a young man – and that follower offered (in a tweet!) to send a copy of the tweet to his mother! When he got wind of this, he deleted his original comment and sent an apology. Great story, but one wonders why he ever thought it was a good idea in the first place, particularly if he was ashamed for his mother to find out.

As for Hannah Smith, there was no such happy ending. The image below is one that was posted on her page just days before she killed herself. Obviously overwhelmed and in anguish, her message speaks painfully to the despair she was feeling. But she remained a very young girl, one who didn’t have the life experience of a Mary Beard to know there was a way out: a father to talk to, a sister to confide in; a decision to take down a page vulnerable to bullies. And so she died.

When anonymity gives users the ‘tools’ to attack, denigrate, insult and bully, social media sites may want to review those privileges. It’s going to take more than a village to fix this one; it’s going to take the entire globe.

A haunting image Hannah posted on her page just days before she killed herself.  Image @ DailyMirror

A haunting image Hannah posted on her page just days before she killed herself. Image @ DailyMirror