How Online Bullying Has Evolved Into The Threat It Is Today

Online bullying, cyberbullying, online toxicity. We’ve become so accustomed to seeing these words in tragic headlines, in scary statistics, and in some cases, from personal experience.

It was a matter of time before real-world bullying would make its presence felt online. And what started as a mere irritation has mutated into a scourge that threatens a high percentage of people today – especially children and minorities.

How can we fight online bullying? Spoiler alert: there is a way to use the latest technology to identify and address the challenge of online bullying. But more of that in a bit. For now, let’s understand the roots of cyberbullying and online toxicity.

Early Examples of Online Bullying

In the beginning, there was flaming. Flaming is “the online act of posting insults, often laced with profanity or other offensive language on social networking sites”. This behavior took place everywhere that the early internet allowed it: bulletin boards, Usenet, newsgroups and early chat platforms. 

This was a major leap forward in terms of online bullying: suddenly, the bully was anonymous, hidden behind a username or avatar. 

Associated with flaming, and just as disruptive, is trolling – the act of purposely creating discord online. Trolls purposely cause trouble, with their main aim to watch the reactions to their work unfold. 

In a comprehensive article by Gizmodo, the first use of the word “trolling”  can be traced back to December 14th, 1992 in the usenet group alt.folklore.urban, when someone wrote, “Maybe after I post it, we could go trolling some more and see what happens.”

The Turning Point

Perhaps one of the biggest turning points in online bullying came with the advent of 4chan in 2003. 4chan is an anonymous imageboard website, where posts and replies are bumped up and down and all users are anonymous. The site received over 27m monthly visitors, according to Wikipedia

Some 4chan users (again it’s important to note that not all 4chan users are included here) have used the platform to find people’s details – such as home phone numbers and addresses – and post them publicly, leading to massive amounts of anonymous hate messages. 

The Gizmodo article quotes a story wherein 2010, some 4chan users found an 11-year-old girl’s address and phone number and proceeded to call her homemaking death threats. For no apparent reason, or “for the lulz”. This theme has been repeated numerous times and includes posting leaked sensitive photos or hacking email accounts.

4chan, in turn, has spawned other anonymous messaging boards that have become home to extremists, bullies, and pedophiles. The recent mass shooting in New Zealand was discussed and posted to one of these boards, called 8chan.


Online Bullying Blurs Into Real-World Harassment

Unfortunately, it’s not just anonymous messaging boards that are a hotbed of cyberbullying. Any social media channel is likely to have bullying taking place, including the channels most popular with kids today: Snapchat, Instagram, Tik Tok, and online gaming platforms. 

Instagram, for example, has acknowledged the massive problem on its platform and is beginning to address it. 

In a typical story of cyberbullying on mainstream social channels, USA Today reports on Rachel Whalen, who while in high school would be mocked and threatened over social media. The cyberbullying was so distressing that Whalen even contemplated suicide. Whalen managed to get help in the end, but many others like her do not.

While some of these platforms have made efforts to curb cyberbullying, “grooming” behavior, and online toxicity, there is still much work that needs to be done. All of these are preventable problems, and technology can be harnessed in our collective fight against these maladies.

Shining L1ght Into The Dark Corners of the Web

The Washington Post’s tagline is “Democracy Dies in Darkness”. We say, “Bullying Thrives in Darkness”. We named our company L1ght because our role is to illuminate those dark corners of the web and expose bullying and online toxicity. 

By leveraging a multidisciplinary team of cybersecurity experts, data scientists, psychologists, anthropologists, and other professionals, we have created a solution that will ensure that the future of the internet does not belong to the bullies, the trolls, or the pedophiles. And that future generations will benefit from an internet that connects, enhances and entertains in a safe environment for all. 

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