A Web of Deceit
Internet anonymity has gone too far
Imagine a world where people are free to say whatever they want, to whomever they want, with absolutely no fear of the repercussions. Imagine no more, because that is the reality of cyberspace today. Around the country, computers are being used as weapons. Nearly half of all kids claim they have been bullied online, and more than a third say that they have been threatened online. And cyberbullying is not just an issue among kids who don’t know any better displaying their immaturity in a public forum. One would hope that Harvard students would be well above sinking to this level, but as shown by numerous websites created and used by Harvard students, this is not the case.
The most recent example of this is Harvard Top Ten. The site, which allows users to create and contribute to top 10 lists concerning Harvard, was taken down a few hours after it launched because of derogatory lists and comments. Lists like “Top Ten Harvard Douchebags” called out specific students in an obviously negative way. Other seemingly positive lists such as “Most Interesting Harvard Woman” quickly turned sour, as people who disagreed with the names listed posted, in response, “so and so sucks.” Additionally, last year’s “Fifteen Hottest Freshmen” article in The Crimson saw readers anonymously posting negative comments about the attractiveness of the choices.
It seems as if every open-source Harvard Internet forum is plagued with these problems. A HarvardFML post a few days ago read “Didn’t do Primal Scream yesterday because I’m too fat. FML.” In response, along with constructive comments, user SF posted: “Your comment does not merit any sympathy, if that is for what you are looking. Lose weight; it really is not that hard.” This comment was “liked” five times. Or take an anonymous comment to a HarvardFML post about switching concentrations: “FYL cuz your stupid.” Although most likely made in jest, these comments on Harvard Top Ten, The Crimson’s website, and HarvardFML all fit the definition of cyber-bullying, and this is deeply troubling. In line with a March 2010 decision by the California Second Court of Appeals, which ruled against negative banter left on a Harvard-Westlake student’s website, statements like these can be grounds for a legal cyber-bullying claim.
And more importantly, these comments are just plain hurtful. In all honesty, what was the point of the HarvardFML comment on concentrations above? To insult the random original poster about switching majors? Or was it to make the commenter feel better about himself? As Harvard students, and more importantly as human beings, the anonymity of the web does not allow us to abuse our first amendment rights. We should not say things simply because we have the right to say them. As a school that perpetually preaches diversity and tolerance, Harvard ought to have a special commitment to end cyber-bullying. We often serve as a role model for other students and schools, and to allow the virtual bullying among our student body to continue would be a disservice to our school’s philosophy.
Yes, the anonymity of the web can sometimes be a good thing. In Iran, where an oppressive government often tries to silence the voice of its people, the web’s anonymity allows Iranians to blog or write without fear of repercussions. Additionally, emotionally distraught individuals can blog and post on others’ blogs to help relieve their emotions.
However, as clichéd as it is to say, with great power comes great responsibility, and the Internet has given the power of anonymous expression to millions of individuals around the world. So the next time you read a post on HarvardFML and feel the need to write back, think about this first: If your name was to be permanently attached to whatever you wrote, would you still go ahead and write it?
Samuel J. Doniger ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Wigglesworth Hall.