Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, has admitted disappointment in the way that the Internet has facilitated hate speech while also admiring how the Web allows the “wonderful side” of the human mind to expand. His long history with the Web helps put in perspective the current Gamergate controversy and fresh studies indicating that cyberbullying is far more common than initially thought.
Beners-Lee helped create the Web in 1990 when he was working for the European Organization for Nuclear Research, better known as CERN, in Switzerland. In a conversation with the BBC News on Friday the developer and scientist said he hoped “the Web would provide tools and fora and new ways of communicating that would break down national barriers and allow us to just get to a better global understanding.”
But that optimism has struggled of late, with cyberbullying making headlines and the Gamergate movement attracting hordes of misogynists who have threatened female video game developers to the point that they were forced to flee their homes.
Berners-Lee said he found the way the Web has developed “staggering.”
“I think it is human nature, we have always had a wonderful side -- and a dark side -- and the Web is fairly accessible to those who wish to exploit it,” he said. Berners-Lee explained that he still has hope, in part because of the opportunities that exist to “keep people on the path of collaborating rather than fighting.”
But the prospects of collaboration instead of the alternative appear to be dimming, or at least facing growing challenges.
Consider research into so-called Internet trolls, people who purposely inflame others online for amusement.
The Pew Research Center on Wednesday released the results of a study indicating that 60 percent of all Internet users admitted witnessing someone being called derogatory names, while 53 percent said they saw one person deliberately attempt to embarrass someone else. Other figures indicated that physical threats, stalking and sexual harassment have become almost commonplace, especially against young women.
“Social media is the most common scene of both types of harassment, although men highlight online gaming and comments sections as other spaces they typically encounter harassment,” the report’s authors said. “Those who exclusively experience less severe forms of harassment report fewer emotional or personal impacts, while those with more severe harassment experiences often report more serious emotional tolls.”
That abuse has been on display most recently in the ongoing Gamergate controversy. Ostensibly about ethics in video game journalism, that cause was quickly overshadowed when some gamers took to social media sites and comment sections to attack women who suggested that video games, and the culture surrounding them, was profoundly misogynistic.
Games like “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” and the “Grand Theft Auto” series, critics said, portray women in an unrealistic and negative way, creating a barrier for an entire gender of potential customers. Such complaints have been shouted down, however, by mobs of male gamers lobbing death threats, sexual harassment and now doxing, the act of leaking a target’s personal information online with malicious intent.
Scientists who have studied this kind of activity have compiled evidence that the so-called trolls tend to have personality traits similar to real-world sadists.
Researchers at the University of Manitoba sought to determine whether there was a correlation between online commenting frequency and the level of enjoyment a user got out of trolling. Upon examining responses from 1,215 people, they found that trolls’ personalities are often comparable to sadism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism, defined as an individual’s willingness to manipulate others for their own gain.
“Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others,” the study explained, as quoted by LiveScience.com. “Sadists just want to have fun, and the Internet is their playground.”