Freedom of Speech and Online Harassment

Why is it that people feel that they can say what they want about people on the internet that they wouldn’t necessarily say to someone’s face?.

It broadly goes back to the early days of the internet, where there was a perception that the internet was outside the scope of regulations and policing. It was a free space where people could do whatever they wanted; free speech was king, there wasn’t a government and in fact, the government tried to keep out of it as much as they could.

All the time, it created a sense of lawlessness and even an anarchy against some members of society. They were starting to develop the wrong belief that you can say whatever you want on the internet without suffering any of the consequences that you would have, if you had said the same things offline.

The Internet is a truly amazing tool and resource when used responsibly and with integrity and for many, they can use the anonymity of the internet to confidently connect with other people, join discussion forums, support groups and social media sites with all good intentions. Having the time to think about what they want to say before they write may not happen in a face to face situation.

So, what happens to these people when after sharing freely within their online group and feeling connected and supported, their inbox is suddenly filled with mocking words, threats and worse? It is hard to brush off if it’s persistent. It’s hard to ignore if it feels like a personal attack. You don’t know the perpetrator – whether it is a prankster from the other side of the world or someone that intends to carry out the threat that they are  making. Just knowing that someone is perpetually posting things to you or about you is harassing, even if it is or feels true.

Unfortunately, as Cohen Davis well know, there are so many people that become victims of online harassment just by merely opening an account online. Online harassment is not what anyone would or should expect and this is where freedom of speech crosses the line. Online harassment limits freedom of speech. If the user does not feel safe anymore, they are not going to use that platform, forum or group. If people have less access to public dialogue (particularly marginalised groups), they are systematically blocked to speak their mind equally.

Free speech

People that use the internet to harass people may feel that they can hide behind the internet, be untraceable and that they will never get caught. There isn’t a face to face conversation going on and it makes it easier to post negative things. It may seem more impersonal and less real because the person they are posting to (or about) is not standing in front of them. If it is mean-spirited, then it is real. It can cause great anxiety and feelings of harassment for the target. It is very real.

For those people that think they are untraceable and able to hide behind the internet, we want them to know that we have been able to track people down and hold them accountable for the online harassment conduct.

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