Preventing Cyberbullying

19/03/2015 13:41 GMT | Updated 17/05/2015 10:12 BST

I joined Reddit the other day. That was a mistake. I foolishly published a blog that I wrote about Platonic morality in J.R.R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Patrons of the Fantasy subreddit didn't take too kindly to my interpretation. Apparently, I'm a terrible human being because I overlooked Samwise Gamgee's supposedly superior ethical position.

A harmless personal attack concerning the absence of Samwise doesn't constitute cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is a spiteful, often unnecessary, attack on an individual in the hope of triggering an emotional response. It's the act of creating discord with extraneous, pointless and hurtful remarks.

Cyberbullying is a negative side-effect of some of the greatest aspects of the internet. By its very nature, the internet is dialogic, decentralised and democratic. Unlike monologic and centralised cultural mediums - television, radio and newspapers - the internet offers a greater forum for debate and interaction. It is, in many ways, a liberating medium. Take, for example, the role of Facebook in the Egyptian revolution. Imagine if censorship eliminated the opportunity for Egyptians to proliferate revolutionary ideas against an unjust government - as often happens in countries under authoritarian rule. The internet, in this sense, has led to a wider democratisation of the world and thus we have to be incredibly careful about any form of censorship.

There should be no limit to what people say online, as long as those words remain in the realm of free speech. Free speech allows individuals to voice their opinion however they choose, limited only if that opinion causes direct harm to another individual. Cyberbullying, of course, can cause direct harm. Cyberbullying has led to several high-profile instances of suicide. How do we therefore tackle this issue without excessive censorship?

Firstly, we need to create a no-tolerance culture - led by key players in the industry, such as Reddit, Twitter and Facebook - that ensures we hold cyberbullies accountable. Depending on the severity of the incident, this could mean anything from suspending or deleting accounts to reporting users to the police. There has admittedly been some progress here, but we need to go further.

Secondly, we need to raise awareness about the effects of cyberbullying. It might seem somewhat harmless to sit on the computer and make superficial remarks about an individual, but those remarks can have devastating effects. We should raise the profile of charities and support groups that deal with these issues on a daily basis. We should include brief lessons in schools to educate young people about the harmful effects of cyberbullying.

Thirdly, we should seek to create further legislation that would hold cyberbullies accountable. Presently, the laws on cyberbullying are somewhat ambiguous. While I don't believe the government should play a large role in this issue - government censorship can be a slippery slope - the authorities could perhaps work with support groups to create a clearer legal definition of what constitutes cyberbullying. This would allow for harsher punishments for excessive instances and simultaneously act as a warning against any harmful acts online.

None of the above propositions pose a serious threat to the democratic nature of cyberspace. The government would not play a large role and we would maintain our freedom of speech. These measures simply seek to prevent the harmful and hateful side-effects that often accompany democratised mediums.

We should promote measures that would ensure that people are still allowed call me a terrible human being on Reddit. People should still be able to argue for their political parties - however absurd or seemingly foolish - and they should still be allowed to start a revolution. They should still, of course, be able to cover their Facebook walls with infinite cat videos. People should not, however, be allowed to bully individuals to the point of suicide. Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of our society and the internet is a great forum to exercise that freedom. However, there will always be hateful individuals who abuse that freedom to the detriment of others. We have to ensure that these individuals are held accountable.