Most of us have heard about slander, abuse and bullying over the internet and their tragic consequences – people’s lives and reputation ruined by lies, harassment, stalking, defamation and worse.

When businesses become a target the results can be just as damaging for both the business and its employees – loss of revenue, inability to attract and retain clients as well as employees, and even bankruptcy.

It’s no secret that businesses, many of them retailers, are struggling to find ways to effectively defend against attacks online. Whenever a retailer does something wrong, even unintentionally, it can be blown completely out of proportion.

At any time and without legitimate cause, an anonymous online crowd can gang up on an individual, group or a business. In all cases the victims are real people and the fallout is virtually irreversible.

French social psychologist Gustave Le Bon commented that crowds emerge because individuals in the group increasingly conform, shedding their identities and personal responsibility. The catalyst for this loss of individuality is anonymity. No other medium offers more profound anonymity than the internet, making it the perfect breeding ground for crowd formation.

However, even more frightening is the way how the internet amplifies and prolongs the actions of destructive crowds. Search engines make the vitriolic content so easy to find yet so hard to erase. Unlike physical crowds that at some stage disperse, the cyber-mob’s presence and actions are crawled, indexed and accessible indefinitely.

Add to this the globally connected broadcasting and social networking technology we all have at our fingertips, and cyber-mobs can do more damage, faster and with less effort than most physical crowds. At least a broken shop window can be replaced, but when something is damaged on the internet, it stays damaged.

Free speech versus responsible speech

Without a doubt, if nothing changes, the social and economic cost of cyber-mob attacks will grow higher, as their frequency and intensity increase. Already websites exist to act as hubs to coordinate such attacks.

We urgently need a systemic solution to prevent further moral decay and reckless damage that undermines, and one day could paralyse our social and economic spheres.

But, how can we retain free speech while still effectively protecting others and their rights? I would postulate that we need to make a clear distinction between free speech and reckless speech. It is the latter that needs to be curtailed.

No one can dispute that people are less inclined to behave irresponsibly if they need to remain visible. Responsible freedom of speech can replace the cyber anarchy so common today, and it is not as far fetched an ideal as you may assume. It can be achieved by expanding the existing anti-masking laws.

Anti-masking is common offline, but online…

Countries like Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Switzerland and many states in the US already enforce anti-masking laws that prohibit people from concealing their identity in public. These laws are designed to deter crime, in the interest of public safety and also to protect shops and venues from damage and abuse.

No reasonable person would dispute that such laws make sense, as there are many infamous examples of masked groups propagating destructive ideas or actions (e.g. Ku Klux Klan).

But even in the countries where you would be reprimanded or punished for concealing your identity in a public gathering, you can do the same without fear of consequence if you hide behind the anonymity of the internet. This is why I believe that anti-masking laws should be extended to the internet.

Would anyone really argue that free speech principles, so crucial to our democracy, were also meant to give us an unconditional license to cause harm with our words? This wouldn’t be freedom but anarchy. Common sense dictates that our right to free speech should be tempered to respect the rights of others, especially if they have no way of defending themselves.

Defamation laws offer some protection, but not when the person posting the attacks remains hidden. We need something more far-reaching. We need a law to support responsible free speech by prohibiting the anonymous release of information on the internet.

If such a law was introduced, the latest government website filtration rules would make it easy to block the sites that choose not to respect the law and continue to facilitate anonymous mobs.

Note that I don’t advocate censorship here, as what I propose is different. Anyone should still be able to say whatever he or she wants, but with their faces unmasked in the light of responsibility. People must be prepared to stand behind what they say in public, as I do by putting my name at the beginning of this article. But, if people are not prepared to stand behind their words, they should not speak.

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Justin Cohen has been working in marketing and media for the last 15 years, mostly in the digital space. He has augmented his journalist studies with extensive travel, giving him unique insights into commercial and social spheres of life. Justin looks after Retail Directions’ marketing direction, brand positioning, digital content and community. He is highly respected by his audiences, colleagues and the senior team at Retail Directions.
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