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In the medieval times, people who thought or acted differently could be chased down by angry villagers with pitchforks and torches, publicly shamed and burned at the stake as witches. Nowadays, the village deploys less gruesome strategies to conform its inhabitants behavior to societies’ norm. However, in certain corners of the internet, the same medieval village-mentality persists. Internet trolls and social media mobs continue to set social standards and ruthlessly punish behavior that deviates from the norm.
Shaming tactics have been used throughout the ages in order to control people and maintain the underlying structures of society. It is my belief that mockery and condescension, harsh accusations, the spreading of unsubstantiated rumors on the internet, along with the infamous trials by social media, are all symptoms of a larger movement in society that strives to maintain the existing structures. The main difference between the mobs in the present day and in the medieval times is that the masses now refrain from using pillories and physical violence to fulfill their purpose. The fear of being mocked, shamed, and hung out on social media is sufficient to keep most people in check.
Human beings are social animals, and we all carry an existential fear of being rejected, abandoned, and left alone by our closest tribe and the larger community. The fear of social sanctions makes internet users hold back from sharing controversial viewpoints, they support commonly accepted causes instead and act more decent in their private lives as well. Seen in this light, internet trolling is not necessarily a bad thing, as it serves the function of socially regulating atypical behavior. However, punishment by social media – when a large group of internet users (a so-called social media mob) “gathers around you” and collectively shames or mocks you – have the potential to ruin a person’s public image, career, family life, and in some cases it can drive the victim to commit suicide. Why are these social media mobs so brutal, and what can be done about them and the general harsh tone on social media platforms?
Online Communication v. Face-to-Face Communication
The first thing we need to look at is the inherent difference between online communication, also commonly referred to as computer-mediated communication, versus face-to-face communication. I believe that the relative anonymity the internet offers, makes it psychologically easier for internet trolls to express provoking viewpoints and mock people, as they can do it from the comfort of their homes.
It is estimated by experts that 70-93 % of communication between people is non-verbal. One feature that characterizes discussion on social media platforms and instant messaging, is the lack of non-verbal cues such as physical distance, body orientation and lean, eye gaze, facial expressions, and tone of voice. Nonverbal cues are helpful to understand many of the nuances of language that humans have, such as the expression on someone’s face or the inflection of their voice. Additionally, nonverbal cues add clarity or emphasis to what is being said. The absence of non-verbal cues are commonly referred to as a lack of physical proximity.
Another distinct characteristic of online communication is the medium’s asynchronicity, which enables users to take time and think about what they are sharing and what is being shared. This among other things allows for greater control over self-presentation.
A positive effect of the lack of physical proximity and asynchronicity of online communication is that internet users with social anxiety have an easier time to form meaningful relationships with other people online. A negative effect is that online communication is more impersonal, because of the relative social anonymity that social networks provide, which I think causes the sometimes harsh tone on the internet, the so-called “trolling culture”. The lack of physical proximity and asynchronicity could be co-related with a sense of less accountability towards other people’s feelings compared to face-to-face interactions, which allows people to be more outspoken and express things they would not otherwise say to a person in real life.Punishment by Social Media.
Governing freedom of expression on social media
The dilemma of minimizing the effects of internet trolls and social media mobs ultimately comes down to a question of governing freedom of expression. Social medias effect on freedom expression can be described as a double-edged sword. A report from The Danish Institute for Human Rights, describes the duality in the following way:
“On the one hand, the ease of sharing opinions with a broader public is an advancement for freedom of expression; on the other hand, the ease of expressing hostile and discriminating attitudes can deterothers from freely expressing their views.”
Freedom of expression is universally protected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 19:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Freedom of expression is considered to be one of the cornerstones of a democratic society. The European Court of Human rights has on several occasions stated that: “Freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society, one of the basic conditions for its progress and for each individual’s self-fulfillment.” In the US, freedom of expression is strongly protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Traditionally, freedom of expression protects individuals from censorship and interference by the government in what they say or express non-verbally. It is unclear to what extent human rights law applies to content on social media platforms. Legally speaking, the relationship between the platform and the user is governed by the terms of service (contract law), rather than human rights law. It can also be argued that social media users, should be more aware of the possible consequences of sharing personal details and viewpoint on a publicly available platform, because resistance and even hateful messages is an inevitable risk when posting data online, especially if the content is provoking or controversial.
One might ask how the private social network providers should draw the line between online statements protected by freedom of expression and statements containing punishable offenses such as defamation, libel, racism, threats, and instigation to violence? What content should the social network provider filter out, and what content should stay on the site in the name of freedom of expression?
The answer is actually straight forward. The same principles that the national legal systems apply to freedom of expression in face-to-face communication in criminal law and in media law can be extended to the private actors in the online world. Perhaps an even wider protection of freedom of expression should apply to online communication, due to the lack of physical proximity and asynchronicity as explained in the previous section. All in all, it seems like there is an apparent grey-zone between legally prohibited behaviors such as defamation or instigation to violence online, and immoral “hurtful” behavior such as internet trolling and vicious personal attacks. I do not think that any legal solutions can be proposed on behalf of the latter issue.
In the medieval times, it might have been impossible to escape the pitchforks and torches of the angry village mob. In our modern era, however, there is always the possibility of deleting or deactivating our social media accounts. The power of the angry, hurtful voices is only fueled by social media presence, and in some situations, it is more powerful to turn the other cheek, than to fight a fruitless battle against trolls and social media mobs.Punishment by Social Media.
 Nicole Rae Brandon (2016), The Effect of Face-to-Face versus Computer-Mediated Communication on Interpersonal Outcomes in Getting-Acquainted Situations, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, pg. 13.
 Ibid. pg. 14.
 Ibid. pg. 13.
 Ibid. pg. 21.
 See Shiri Prizant-Passal, Tomer Shechner, Idan M. Aderka (2015), Social anxiety and internet use e A meta-analysis: What do we know? What are we missing?, University of Haifa, Mount Carmel, Haifa 31905, Israel.
 Rikke Frank Jørgensen & Lumi Zuleta (2020), The Danish Institute for Human Rights, Copenhagen, Denmark, Private Governance of Freedom of Expression on Social Media Platforms: EU content regulation through the lens of human rights standards.pg. 53.
 UN General Assembly. (1948). Universal declaration of human rights (217 [III] A).
 See, for example, Lingens v. Austria, 1986, Sener v. Turkey, 2000, Thoma v. Luxembourg, 2001, Maronek v. Slovakia, 2001, and Dichand and others v. Austria, 2002.
 Jørgensen & Zuleta (2020), pg. 56.
Punishment by Social Media.
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