Quora: What is the single biggest problem on the internet?

 In Online Safety, Social Networks

It has to be the proliferation of dangerous content. For good or for evil, many social networks and online communities are built around the concept of total anonymity — the separation of our (socially, ethically, and legally) accountable offline identities from our (too often hedonistic, id-driven, and highly manufactured) online identities.

People have always behaved badly. That’s not pessimism or fatalism; it’s just the truth. We are not perfect; often we are good, but just as often we indulge our darkest desires, even if they hurt other people.

And so with the advent of a virtual space where accountability is all too often non-existent, the darkest parts of the real world—harassment, rape threats, child abuse — all moved onto the internet. In the “real world” (an increasingly amorphous concept, but that’s a topic for another day), we are generally held accountable for our behavior, whereas online we are responsible only to ourselves. And sometimes, we cannot be trusted.

Facebook Live is a recent example. When used to share, engage, connect, and tell stories, it’s a beautiful tool. It’s benign online disinhibition at its best. But when it’s used to live stream murder and sexual assault — that’s toxic online disinhibition at its worst. And in the case of that sexual assault, at least 40 people watched it happen in real time, and not one of them reported it.

How did this happen?

It started with cyberbullying. We associate bullying with the playground, and since those of us who make the rules — adults — are far removed from the playground, we forget just how much schoolyard bullying can hurt. So from the beginning social networks have allowed bullying to flourish. Bullying became harassment, which became threats, which became hate speech, and so on, and so forth. We’ve tolerated and normalized bad behavior so long that it’s built into the framework of the internet. It’s no surprise that 40 people watched a live video of a 15-year-old girl being assaulted, and did nothing. It’s not difficult to trace a direct line from consequence-free rape threats to actual, live rape.

When social networks operate without a safety net, everyone gets hurt.

The good thing is, more and more sites are realizing that they have a social, ethical, and (potentially) legal obligation to moderate content. It won’t be easy — as Facebook has discovered, live streaming videos are a huge challenge for moderators — but it’s necessary. There are products out there — like Community Sift — that are designed specifically to detect and remove high-risk content in real-time.

In 2017, we have an opportunity to reshape the internet. The conversation has already begun. Hopefully, we’ll get it right this time.

Originally published on Quora

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