Wall Street Journal
By JIMMY WALES AND ANDREA WECKERLE
Keep a Civil Cybertongue
In less than 20 years, the World Wide Web has irrevocably expanded the number of ways we connect and communicate with others. This radical transformation has been almost universally praised.
What hasn’t kept pace with the technical innovation is the recognition that people need to engage in civil dialogue. What we see regularly on social networking sites, blogs and other online forums is behavior that ranges from the carelessly rude to the intentionally abusive.
Flare-ups occur on social networking sites because of the ease by which thoughts can be shared through the simple press of a button. Ordinary people, celebrities, members of the media and even legal professionals have shown insufficient restraint before clicking send. There is no shortage of examples—from the recent Twitter heckling at a Web 2.0 Expo in New York, to a Facebook poll asking whether President Obama should be killed.
The comments sections of online gossip sites, as well as some national media outlets, often reflect semi-literate, vitriolic remarks that appear to serve no purpose besides disparaging their intended target. Some sites exist solely as a place for mean-spirited individuals to congregate and spew their venomous verbiage.
Online hostility targeting adults is vastly underreported. The reasons victims fail to come forward include the belief that online hostility is an unavoidable and even acceptable mode of behavior; the pervasive notion that hostile online speech is a tolerable form of free expression; the perceived social stigma of speaking out against attacks; and the absence of readily available support infrastructure to assist victims.
The problem of online hostility, in short, shows no sign of abating on its own. Establishing cybercivility will take a concerted effort. We can start by taking the following steps:
We need to create an online culture in which every person can participate in an open and rational exchange of ideas and information without fear of being the target of unwarranted abuse, harassment or lies. Everyone who is online should have a sense of accountability and responsibility.
Too frequently, we hear the argument that being online includes the right to be nasty—and that those who chose to participate on the Web should develop thicker skin. This gives transgressors an out for immoral behavior.
People need to know how to differentiate between information that is published on legitimate sites that follow defined standards and also possibly a professional code of ethics, and information published in places like gossip sites whose only goal is to post the most outrageous headlines and stories in order to increase traffic. People can and will learn to shun and avoid such sites over time, particularly with education about why they are unethical.
Adult targets of online hostility deserve a national support network. This should be a safe place where they can congregate online to receive emotional support, practical advice on how to deal with transgressors, and information on whom to contact for legal advice when appropriate.
Finally, it’s time to re-examine the current legal system. Online hostility is cross-jurisdictional. We might need laws that directly address this challenge. There is currently no uniformity of definition among states in the definition of cyberbullying and cyberharassment. Perhaps federal input is needed.
The Internet is bringing about a revolution in human knowledge and communication, and we have an unprecedented opportunity to make the global conversation more reasonable and productive. But we can only do so if we prevent the worst among us from silencing the best among us with hostility and incivility.