What is allowed in netiquette?

From time to time threatening and bullying messages are brought to light by the media. What kind of rules apply online? Can nearly anything be said without anyone being held accountable for it?

Even though it is practically impossible to make sure that everyone is playing by the common rules, it is good to keep in mind what kinds of issues based on legislation and ethics should be taken into consideration.

The basic rule of internet communication is, however, that the same rules apply as elsewhere. For example, stealing and harming someone’s work, identity or possessions are as illegal online as elsewhere.

One can also be held accountable for violating copyrights online as well as offline. Many services online such as YouTube are international. Violating copyrights will lead to deleting the material at the very least but, at worst, can lead to criminal charges.

The basic rule of internet communication is, however, that the same rules apply as elsewhere.

On one hand, the same laws concerning, for example, defamation and inciting ethnic or racial hatred apply online and this often seems to be forgotten in midst of polarised online conversations. On the other hand, freedom of speech, manifested for example in laws and international treaties, protect one’s right to express oneself and one’s opinions.

In addition to legislation, netiquette includes many ethical questions. First of all, once material is uploaded to the internet, it will likely to stay there forever. Given this, when publishing information or pictures that concern others, one must be extra careful. Even family members and friends are protected by the laws against privacy and defamation. What is even harder is to set limits on rights to publish photos of one’s own children. At what age does the decision on publishing photos online move from the parents to the children themselves?

Along with the growing rates of internet access penetration, it is also only natural that some of the bullying has moved from classrooms and workplaces to the internet. Cyberbullying can include messages that are mocking or threatening by nature, which can also be published on the ‘wall’ of the person who is being bullied:

  • Spreading rumours or personal information
  • Manipulating and distributing photos
  • Using someone’s name without authorization
  • Barring someone’s access to a group or a discussion
  • Establishing groups with the intention of disparagement
  • Tricking people into giving their passwords
  • Slander on a blog or other publication.

Trolling is also a form of cyberbullying. A troll is an internet slang word, which refers to a person who intentionally misleads discussions online, such as on forums or in comment threads. The main intention of a troll is to annoy people, cause conflicts and provoke people online. This might happen in the form of slandering or leaving inappropriate comments, or just by writing unnecessary messages so that, in the end, following rational discussion comes well-nigh impossible.

Because trolls seek to provoke an emotional response, the best way of dealing with them is to ignore them completely. There’s no point in debating with a troll.

Part of the etiquette also includes acknowledging that clicking is power. Nearly all media websites count the number of visitors by counting clicks. Sometimes even decisions on publishing content are made based on clicks.

Because trolls seek to provoke an emotional response, the best way of dealing with them is to ignore them completely.

Many positive things have been achieved by liking and sharing. However, it is good to remember that a click also reinforces negative phenomena.  A click is basically anonymous: it does not tell whether you liked the content or not. It only tells the hard fact that a certain amount of people became interested enough to click it. For this reason, the only way of preventing unpleasant, inappropriate or bullying content from being shared and spread online is to resist your own desire and curiosity to click on it, and simply leave it be.

For example, videos shared online by extremist militant group ISIS have generated this type of discussion. In these videos ISIS kills its hostages, some of whom have been well-known reporters. The sole purpose of these brutal videos is to cause fear, terror and utter shock. This is their way of creating conflict. The more people clicked on these videos, the more effective their campaigning will have been.

In editorial offices, decisions on whether to publish these images are carefully considered every day, and there is a large group of people involved in the decision-making process.

Tips for social media friendships

  1. Do not tell people on social media what you cannot tell them face to face in the presence of others.
  2. Do not write on social media what may embarrass you if it was read by your family member, boss or idol.
  3. Always remember to deal with the issue presented and not the person who presented it. Personalising issues does not benefit anyone.
  4. Think seriously about how people will receive your response or comment, and how many of them will admire it, adopt it, or share it. A good and appropriate response will be admired more than one that is full of errors and mistakes.
  5. It is sometimes hard to fully communicate your emotions through short postings. The reader sometimes cannot tell if, when writing them, you were angry, critical or cynical and they may misunderstand you. The use of sarcasm in particular should be carefully considered.

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This article was updated on January 14th 2020.