Ban the banning

People have been clamouring to have social networking site (I use the word ‘social’ very loosely here) Ask.fm banned from Malta throughout this past week, so I was not surprised when an actual petition landed in my inbox.

The site is based on anonymous profiles, and has been linked to severe incidents of online bullying. It is probably a prime example of how we manage to use technology for all the wrong purposes, when we could be doing so many wonderful things with it instead.

Ask.fm is a sad waste of cyber-space, which is not to say that it should be banned, of course. I find it disturbing the way that, as a nation, we have a tendency to greet anything we disapprove of with cries of “ban it fast”.

Sometimes it feels like the Maltese would rather take a leaf out of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, instead of the modern notions of democracy.

It is so much easier to get something that we find threatening banned, insead of dealing with it in a rational, mature manner. In fact, I’m surprised that no-one has yet moved a petition to get guns, cars, alcohol and knives banned. After all, they kill people too.

Incidentally, getting a legitimate website banned is next to impossible. We are not Turkey or North Korea, and banning anything that isn’t based on an illegal activity opens up a whole can of anti-democratic worms.

But back to the real issue: getting Ask.fm banned would solve nothing. The bullying will simply move to another forum. Those who want to bully someone, will always find a way to do so, whether it’s online or in real life.

What we should be doing, of course, is raising awareness about why teens should be wary of using sites like these. And it is not only teenagers who should be made aware – it is also the parents. Parents can’t afford to be clueless about what goes on in the cyber-world anymore.

But even awareness can only achieve so much. It will not remove the natural instinct of some children to bully others. And it will not remove the innate vulnerability of those who are bullied.

What we need is a good, old-fashioned return towards promoting values like humanity and kindness.

If there’s one disadvantage that the age of internet has brought with it, it is the way it managed to dehumanise social interaction. It’s only too easy to bully someone online, because it’s almost unreal.

And this doesn’t apply just to teenagers ganging up on a social forum. It applies everywhere, across the board. From the person typing in a comment on a news report, to someone else replying to a status on Facebook.

Most internet users have abandoned basic etiquette in favour of personal insults, probably because calling someone ‘dumbass’ is more fun than using logic. The private messages I sometimes receive in response to some of my blogposts tend to be a hilariously inappropriate testament to this.

The blunt reality is that we have become desensitised to cruelty. Making fun of someone online, firing a sarcastic remark, uploading an unflattering meme… cyberspace offers us 101 creative ways to be nasty to others, without actually feeling that we’ve crossed the line.

Anyone with access to internet is guilty of this. Show me someone who has not done something of the sort at least once, and I’ll show you a politician who refuses to smile at babies.

So we can hardly act surprised when we see the younger generation mimicking the behaviour of their elders (I refused to add ‘and betters’) on more hardcore fora. It’s what teenagers do – they look at what happens around them and take it a step further.

Clamouring to get a website banned is a major cop-out, the equivalent of Pontius Pilates’s washing his hands. It is us admitting that we have no interest in tackling the problem seriously. It is us trying to salve our consciences because hey, we tried to get that nasty website banned, what else can you expect us to do?

I have to admit that it’s quite a cunning plan. Let’s try pin the current social malaise on Ask.fm, instead of recognising ourselves for the cold and cruel so’n’sos that we have become and trying to do something about it.

Unfortunately, I’m not quite buying it. And neither should you.

This post was first published on The Times of Malta.

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