Human dignity on the Internet

It’s in our human nature to be embarrassed about the mistakes we make. As such, we all have our indiscretions we’d rather keep to ourselves. To err is human. But being able to keep them to yourself, is your human right as it allows one to keep its dignity and maintain a sense of self-worth in society.

While the concept of human dignity has been the basis for formulating a large part of our human rights, it becomes increasingly harder to protect ourselves as the information exchange on the Internet continues to spill over into our lives. Let’s explore the effects when your indiscretions surface. And believe me. One day, they will.

Our human nature exposed

Behind the relative anonymity of our keyboards, it has become all too easy to voice an opinion. Social media and studies show we love to demonstrate our inner evil as we increasingly succumb to the online disinhibition effect when granted the protection of anonymity.

Safely hidden behind nicknames, the Internet often fosters personal rudeness, even cruelty, and allows the angry and uninformed to give public vent to their ill will.

For some people, the Internet has become a mental torture chamber where millions indulge in the sadistic pleasures of humiliation and shaming.

Much like the barbaric humiliation and psychological terror practices by the Stasi during WOII, we conveniently diffuse our responsibilities and evade our accountabilities when publicly bashing people on the Internet, so we don’t need to consider the often diabolical consequences.

But for a growing number of persons this amplified cruelty becomes too much, resulting in depressions and shame suicides as some individuals no longer can carry the burden of public humiliation. And with the advent of social media, this humiliation becomes even more devastating and problematic.

But there is a lot of psychology that shapes our online behaviour, and research is ramping up quickly in this field.

The internet as an echo chamber

It is a growing problem as the unprecedented power of sharing information on social media is at the fingertips of billions of people.

Retweeting, sharing, liking and reposting are common concepts for the digital natives, turning social networks into global echo chambers, amplifying information and building group polarisation.

In consequence, this social amplification and mob mentality can turn the most mundane events being portrayed as a major happening. And yes, this effect also harbours devastating consequences in terms of public humiliation.

One particular example that always stuck with me, was the death of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, after how the devastating JSTOR trial and global exposure instilled such levels of guilt, anger and shame that it became no longer bearable. In a sense, Aaron didn’t commit suicide, but was murdered by his government. And you.

A perverted state of online journalism

While we all share a common responsibility, one particular crowd has an even bigger accountability as they have been granted virtual impunity by law for disseminating information. Yes, I’m talking about journalists.

Once acting as a collective conscience, many journalists today are being taxed on the number of clicks they can amass on their articles. Once former government watchdogs, many are forced to act as the PR tentacles for our managed democracies. For a growing number of online journalists and bloggers alike, their profession has become a shallow stampede for clicks.

This is how an entire industry under pressure destroys a noble profession, such as journalism, by turning to vanity metrics to assess the quality of news, trying to give an air they haven’t missed the digital boat.

Apart from cats and epic fails, crafting catchy headlines to continue bashing and incriminating individuals is a very grateful topic to get clicks. Nobody walks out a free man when we discuss the topic of public humiliation or shaming. Not even journalists.

Truth be told, we no longer have any idea about the quality of our information we eagerly share all over the place. Throwing disinformation in the internet echo chamber today has the power to overthrow rogue regimes, but equally to destroy the lives and the dignity of individuals.

Shrouded by legal provisions and protections, the freedom of expression and our right to privacy continue to be on a collision course.

Freedom of expression shouldn’t be a free pass for forgetting about our human decency or dignity, and the EU ruling about the right to be forgotten is a first step in coming to terms with this growing issue.

A call for kindness

So, isn’t it time we have to come to terms with the power we exert over others while being in front of our keyboards? As human beings, we need to embrace the accountability and responsibility that comes with it.

And if we must vent, we still have the equal opportunity to voice an opinion with an acceptable level of human respect, or we can choose to forcefully destroy someone by using barbaric humiliation practices in public.

So instead, why don’t we try kindness?

Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk is an inspiration to all, as well as a living testament about the consequences our actions have on others. A more compassionate attitude towards others, opens dialogue, understanding and constructive solutions where we all benefit from.

Living on the receiving end

If you become the victim of humiliation, obviously it’s not fun and games. Most likely you will lose your health, social life and perhaps even your professional integrity. But you can’t fight ignorance and stupidity, so instead focus on how you deal with the situation:

  1. Haters will hate. Some people just want to see your world burn. Most are just trolls. Accept that most don’t know you, don’t care about you, and therefore will share stupid, hurtful or ignorant comments. Ignore them. Go for a run. Find a new hobby, or do whatever it is you have to do, but let it slide. Don’t let anger boil up.
  2. Accept your flaws. If you accept your flaws, no one can ever use them against you. If you’ve made a stupid decision, man up to it, admit it and move on. People do stupid stuff all the time, and you’re no exception. We are all flawed. The only difference is you are exposed, while others aren’t. Yet.
  3. Don’t explain (“fight“), but own your story. Be transparent about what happened. In case of a legal suit, be transparent to your government or the police. Admit to your indiscretion and be done with it. But don’t bother explaining yourself. It’s useless, it will make you play defence, and it will weaken your position even more. Don’t feel the need you have to explain yourself, even though many people will continue to provoke you.
  4. Don’t isolate yourself (“flight“). This is where things go wrong for most people. Out of embarrassment, most tend to socially isolate themselves. While it is a very understandable and emotional response, it will only set in a downward spiral of negativity and isolation. The stuff suicide and depression is made of.
  5. Don’t apply self-imposed reticence. While you don’t isolate yourself, you might become more reserved in your actions, tone and thinking. This response mechanism happens out of guilt, but will reduce your chances for future success. Don’t let anything or anyone refrain you from reaching your full potential. Specially not yourself.

Fuelled by a misplaced sense of self-importance we are all trolls on the Internet at one point.

The fact we have the power to publicly humiliate a person on a global scale, our actions can completely obliterate someone’s dignity and reputation. Wether you are creating or sharing information, try to remember your keyboard can equally be a weapon or a redeemer.

The choice is entirely yours.

One Comment on “Human dignity on the Internet

  1. Pingback: A call for human dignity on the Internet | Official site of DJ Michael Heath