Trust, Trolls and Online Safety

Stephen Balkam
April 3, 2017

These are trying times online.

News stories proliferate about bad behavior such as cyberbullying, doxing, swatting and online harassment. From fake news to hacking to online trolls, the Internet has never seemed so concerning.

That, at least, is one takeaway from the latest Pew Research Center study that surveyed over 1,500 tech and academic experts about the state of the Net and their view of its future.

Pew and Elon University asked:

In the next decade, will public discourse online become more or less shaped by bad actors, harassment, trolls, and an overall tone of griping, distrust, and disgust?

Remarkably, 81% responded that they expected things to remain the same (42%) or get worse (39%) while less than 1 in 5 thought that things would improve.

No less a figure than the “father of the Internet” and a Google VP, Vint Cerf responded: “The combination of bias-reinforcing enclaves and global access to bad actions seems like a toxic mix. It is not clear whether there is a way to counter-balance their socially harmful effects.”

These enclaves or “bubbles” as we’ve come to know them, played a big part in the recent US election – effectively separating users from posts or opinions that they did not share.

Paula Hooper Mayhew, a professor of humanities at Fairleigh Dickinson University, stated, “My fear is that because of the virtually unlimited opportunities for negative use of social media globally we will experience a rising worldwide demand for restrictive regulation. This response may work against support of free speech in the U.S.”

This is a fear shared by a number of the commentators – that many of the self-regulatory efforts to control bad actors have failed and will lead to more censorious legislation.

Taking a more positive note, however, technology entrepreneur, writer, and influencer, Esther Dyson wrote: “Things will get somewhat better because people will find it tougher to avoid accountability. Reputations will follow you more than they do now.”

She and others saw the rise of technology-based reputation systems and a shedding of anonymity as keys to a saner, more civil web. Dyson does warn, though, that anonymity will remain “necessary in regimes or cultures or simply situations where the truth is avoided and truth-speakers are punished.”

So how do we teach our kids and young people to treat each other fairly and respectfully when they see so many adults behaving badly? What should be our response when our teen makes up her own “alternate facts” about her classmates and spreads them online? How do you tell a young man not to denigrate a woman when some of our own political leaders use terms like “bimbo” or worse on Twitter?

I think we’re all going to have to dig deep and remind ourselves of our core principles and values – as parents, teachers and ordinary citizens. We will have some difficult and awkward conversations with our children and have to remind them about the Golden Rule and how it applies on and offline.

These next few years will present us all with many teachable moments. One positive outcome would be a return and a reminder of the basic values and principles that many of us learned in 5th grade civics class. That all men and women are created equal and thus should be treated with respect. And that beyond laws, our customs, norms and practices of basic human decency are the glue that holds our society together.

So, in that spirit, we stand ready and willing to work with this administration and Congress on a wide range of online safety issues – from revenge porn and online radicalization to the new world of connected toys and household devices.

We welcome the First Lady’s announcement that she will tackle cyberbullying as the focus of her efforts over the next four years. She could begin by drawing attention to the issue and to help raise awareness about the many resources that already exist while calling on the tech industry, educators, law enforcement, parents and the kids, themselves, to do more to counter bullying behavior online.

Machine learning tools such as Google’s Perspective, is a good example of the next wave of tech-inspired solutions to this growing problem. The innovative and energetic Project Rockit demonstrates how kids can be empowered in a school setting to lead with kindness and respect. And we’ll need the facts, figures and evidence provided by groups such as the Cyberbullying Research Center to ground our work and test our responses.

Finally, we hope that Mrs. Trump will help steer children and young people towards positive uses of technology and social media. And, just possibly, persuade her husband to think before he posts.

Written by

Stephen Balkam

For the past 30 years, Stephen Balkam has had a wide range of leadership roles in the nonprofit sector in the both the US and UK. He is currently the Founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), an international, nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, DC. FOSI’s mission is to make the online world safer for kids and their families. FOSI convenes the top thinkers and practitioners in government, industry and the nonprofit sectors to collaborate and innovate and to create a “culture of responsibility” in the online world.

Prior to FOSI, Stephen was the Founder and CEO of the Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA) and led a team which developed the world’s leading content labeling system on the web. While with ICRA, Stephen served on the US Child Online Protection Commission (COPA) in 2000 and was named one of the Top 50 UK Movers and Shakers, Internet Magazine, 2001.

In 1994, Stephen was named the first Executive Director of the Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC) which created a unique self-labeling system for computer games and then, in 1996, Stephen launched RSACi – a forerunner to the ICRA website labeling system. For his efforts in online safety, Stephen was given the 1998 Carl Bertelsmann Prize in Gutersloh, Germany, for innovation and responsibility in the Information Society and was invited to the first and subsequent White House Internet Summits during the Clinton Administration.

Stephen’s other positions include the Executive Director of the National Stepfamily Association (UK); General Secretary of the Islington Voluntary Action Council; Executive Director of Camden Community Transport as well as management positions at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (London) and Inter-Action. Stephen’s first job was with Burroughs Machines (now Unisys) and he had a spell working for West Nally Ltd – a sports sponsorship PR company.

Stephen received a BA, magna cum laude, in Psychology from University College, Cardiff, Wales in 1977. A native of Washington, DC, Stephen spent many years in the UK and is now has dual citizenship. He writes regularly for the Huffington Post, appears often on TV and has appeared on nationally syndicated TV and radio programs such as MSNBC, CNN, NPR and the BBC and has been interviewed by leading newspapers such as the Washington Post, New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, radio and in the mainstream press. He has given presentations and spoken in 15 countries on 4 continents.