Multidisciplinary approach critical in building a safer World Wide Web

The World Wide Web stands as one of humanity’s greatest achievements, revolutionising communication and information sharing. However, alongside its benefits, we confront the harsh realities of online abuse.

Despite unprecedented connectivity, the digital age has spawned a new era of online ills, including trolling, bullying, and stalking, which inflict real harm on victims’ lives. This article delves into these online threats, dissecting their core issues, examining enabling conditions, and proposing remedies.

Online threats encompass various malicious actions aimed at harming individuals or groups. Cyberbullying, a prevalent form, involves using Internet platforms to harass or degrade others. Stalking exploits readily accessible online databases to relentlessly monitor and harass individuals. Moreover, the proliferation of discriminatory and hate speech, such as transphobia, fosters toxic online environments, perpetuating exclusion and vulnerability.

The anonymity and perceived distance of the digital realm embolden offenders, enabling behaviour they might not engage in, face-to-face. Holding perpetrators accountable proves challenging due to the ease of creating multiple personas and concealing identities. Additionally, the immediate and widespread nature of online communication magnifies the impact of damaging remarks, exacerbating the mental health consequences for victims.

Understanding the psychology behind online abuse is crucial for developing effective intervention strategies. Many online abusers exhibit aggressive, narcissistic, or power-seeking tendencies, indulging in harmful behaviour with impunity. The absence of immediate consequences further legitimises their actions, perpetuating an abusive cycle that is difficult to break.

Understanding that society’s complexities and flaws are mirrored on the Internet is crucial. The prevalence of online abuse reflects broader social issues like prejudice, inequality, and structural unfairness. Alongside technological solutions, cultural shifts are imperative to combat Internet-related ills. Fostering a secure and inclusive online community begins with educating people about digital citizenship and promoting empathy and respect in online interactions. As Professor Andy Phippen notes, “the Internet is just a collection of cables, wires, and routers; it does not have a dark side.” Rather, it reflects society’s worst aspects.

In the fight against Internet abuse, technical and societal measures hold equal importance. Robust content moderation methods and reporting systems are essential for identifying and mitigating harmful conduct. Strengthening data security and privacy controls can help individuals safeguard their online identities and reduce vulnerability to misuse. Collaboration between IT firms, legislators, and civic society is crucial for developing and implementing effective solutions.

Artificial intelligence (AI) shows promise in combating online abuse by analysing vast data sets to detect patterns indicative of harmful behaviour. AI-driven content moderation systems can automatically identify and remove harmful content, relieving human moderators and enhancing response effectiveness. However, addressing biases and moral issues is paramount. Rigorous testing, review, and diverse dataset training are essential to mitigate risks associated with AI implementation.

Addressing the pervasive issue of online harms requires a multidisciplinary approach, encompassing sociological, psychological, and technological perspectives. Understanding the root causes of online harassment, empowering individuals to defend themselves, and employing technology judiciously are key steps in creating a safer and more inclusive digital environment.

It’s imperative to prioritise this effort and collaborate across sectors to develop comprehensive solutions that uphold values of justice, decency, and respect in online interactions.

Professor Ts Dr Manjit Singh Sidhu is a Professor at the College of Computing and Informatics, Universiti Tenaga Nasional, Fellow of the British Computer Society, Chartered IT Professional, Fellow of the Malaysian Scientific Association, Senior with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and a professional technologist with the Malaysia Board of Technologists.