It has been around for less than three decades, but the internet has changed our lives vastly. But even as we laud the progress the worldwide web has bestowed on us, every now and then we are reminded of its dark underbelly. The announcement by Zelda Williams, daughter of Robin Williams, that she is quitting social media because of troll attacks is a prime example of this.
The veil of anonymity has allowed the internet to bring out the beast in many people who until now had no platform to air their perverted thoughts. But from an occasional hate mail or vile comment on discussion boards from those who seek self-gratification, cyberbullying has now reached a new level with the advent of social media.
Celebrities enjoy the advantages of social media to boost their popularity and keep in touch with their fan base. But they also face the wrath of trolls, who treat them to a stream of abuse. Some go to great lengths to achieve this. Two of the trolls who were sending Zelda Williams vicious Twitter messages had actually taken the effort to photoshop Robin Williams' picture to show belt marks around his neck.
Twitter now says it is looking to change its policy on such abuse. Until now it was reluctant to tamper with this in the name of free speech. It drew a lot of flak when a British feminist started getting rape threats after she campaigned to place the face of Jane Austen on the British currency. The threats that a CNN journalist based in New Delhi faced were even worse. A troll messaged the details of her teenage daughter's name, class and school as a warning.
Most of these threats are seen as just pranks. But the tragic results such actions might prompt were clearly illustrated in the heartbreaking case of Canadian teenager Amanda Todd. The 15-year-old killed herself two years ago after being tormented online by classmates. The YouTube video she posted about her helplessness caught the attention of internet users worldwide only after she died.
The freedom to say what you want and putting it at your fingertip is a revolution that the internet brought to millions. It has improved the lot of many, but at the same time brought the evil of trolls to the world.
Alex Lo is on leave