“F— you bitch…” “You.. Are.. F—…UGLY!!!” “I just hope you die.” These are examples of comments made anonymously about American YouTube personality Jenna Marbles.
In terms of what people are capable of writing on the internet, these comments are somewhat tame.
She’s been subjected to comments even darker in nature: “I would f— her but only if I can brutally murder her afterwards.”
Many experts say the web has opened a space where anonymous hate posts have gotten out of control.
4chan is a website well-known for disturbing stories of posts made by its anonymous members. The site has a random board where posters start threads with little rules and no accountability. Posts made by the online community have included child pornography, evidence of animal abuse, death threats and cyberbullying.
Randy Uyenaka, program coordinator of the school of health and community services at Durham College, suggests group mentality plays a factor in online behaviour.
“You will be more inclined to say things or behave in certain ways when you are part of a group as a pose to just an individual,” says Uyenaka. It may be people who have these beliefs and feelings when they see other people supporting and agreeing with them, maybe then they feel more confident to go forward.”
David Clarke, coordinator of training and communications at Durham Mental Health Services, makes it clear that people who engage in hateful comments are not necessarily inclined to engage in other internet abuse.
He does suggest that if people feel validated in certain behaviour, it is more likely.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean that people who are making [these comments] are going to gravitate towards more extreme forms of harassment or abuse,” says Clarke. “But I think it is a continuum. That people can find themselves on a road to more and more outrageous behavior. Because, what are they defining as normal? What they find amongst the group they identify as their peer group.”
Larger media outlets have also faced problems with anonymous comments. Last November, CBC.ca shut down its comment section about stories about indigenous women. This was due to “uncivil dialogue.”
The website wrote: “We’ve noticed over many months that these stories draw a disproportionate number of comments that cross the line and violate our guidelines.”
In December, the Toronto Star shut down the commenting system on its website. Instead, the website began to feature its readers comments only through letters mailed to the editors, and those from social media.
This was so the Star could “highlight the most thoughtful, insightful, and provocative comments” made by readers.
But Clarke worries cultural norms are shifting in an “unhealthy” way towards continued abuse.
“I’m a pre-internet generation. All interactions were more or less face to face,” says Clarke. “Even if you wrote into a newspaper, you had your address and name on it. You were identifiable as specific unique individual. And that’s just gone away altogether.”