Jennifer Aniston. She’s funny; she’s gorgeous; she’s smart; she’s successful. She looks like a real pal for a convivial chat over coffee, a great gal for a hilarious hoot over cocktails. The Friends star should be constantly out with friends in the real world. But instead, she is staying home alone to avoid cyber foes in the online world.
It’s a sad irony that the Internet, which is a fantastic tool for the democratisation of education, entertainment and empowerment, can also be used as a ferocious weapon in the hands of the petty, the ignorant or the downright cruel. And sadly, there are plenty of those milling around on the Internet.
In the olden days – well, even only twenty years ago – to get something published was a real coup, be it an article in a specialist magazine, a quote in a national newspaper, or even a chapter in a book. I know, I achieved those in my early years as a lawyer and media commentator, and probably ran around the room excitedly on seeing my name in print. But today everyone with access to a computer or a smartphone is a potential publisher and photographer. While the Great Wall of China can be seen from space, the great wall of the Internet is invisible but accessible world wide and it is childishly simple to get something published online. Journalists with a modicum of legal training and some concern about publishing in the public interest used to rule the print world, but now keyboard warriors with little knowledge of the law, and even less interest in it, roam the cyber world, brandishing their views with apparent impunity.
So our Jen has decided to stay home to minimise the harsh things that could be reported about her. She told the British newspaper the Daily Express, ‘you do the best you can but it feels like it’s getting worse and very nasty because of bullying on the internet’. If she stays home, she presumably rationalises, there is nothing for social media stalkers to torment her over. If they can’t see what she’s wearing, how she’s done her hallowed hair, if she looks fit or flabby, young or craggy, then spiteful, hurtful, personal online attacks are likely to be fewer.
Maybe Jennifer Aniston is not the best example if you espouse the mantra ‘live by the camera die by the camera’. She has had plenty of opportunities as a result of her media profile; she has significant resources as a result of her public profile to shield her from the worse excesses of the Internet. But she is a useful poster child to remind us of the dangers of the Internet.
Traditionally, my clients have sought my media law advice to mitigate the damage done by defamatory allegations; and to preserve and protect privacy pried into by the paparazzi and the public. But now, more and more, those who seek my assistance include victims looking for help to rescue them from harassment of the most horrendous kind.
Some are subjected to thousands of e-mails, tweets and texts by a former spouse who cannot let go of their partner, but have seemingly let go of reality. Others are threatened with the exposure of private information on the Internet by disgruntled former colleagues or disenchanted former lovers. Teenagers are tempted to sext-text and then find themselves caught in a web of harassment, privacy and even criminality, where intimate images are included. And even younger children are subjected to insidious insults and Internet bullying by anonymous attackers.
It seems Internet trolls know no bounds. Only recently, the bereaved daughter of actor Robin Williams had to extract herself from social media engagement. She didn’t post enough pictures of herself and her now deceased father online apparently, for the liking of some cyber bullies, and they have criticised and tormented her as a result during what should be a very private, but what is now a very public, period of grief.
The Internet provides a Harry Potter cloak of anonymity to those who want to use it for ill. If you are not brave enough to expose your thoughts and activities to the detergent of sunlight, what better way for a small-minded bully to get their kicks than to kick someone else anonymously? It’s not hard to carelessly throw an insult against the wall of the Internet that Monica is fat or that Joey is ugly, or that the world would be better off without Chandler… A victim of such anonymous abuse will likely take it to heart far more than if he or she could see their abuser; beauty is only skin deep, but if the abuser is in fact, no oil painting, it may be easier to rationalise that the insult should be ignored where the bully-boy or girl is in front of them. Where the attack is anonymous and could be from anyone – obvious foe or even supposed friend – the hurt is harsher, the abused has no point of reference, and no way to face their attacker and require them to face the music.
Social media sites have acceptable use policies, guidelines and terms and conditions with which users should comply. And there are laws: of defamation; privacy; and harassment across various jurisdictions to prevent and punish these activities if they come to light, and if the perpetrator can be found. I advise my clients that all instances of such abuse should be rooted out and that none should be tolerated. Only by outing these cowardly online aggressors, in the same way that we would shame him or her in the school yard, will they ultimately be shown that society does not accept this behaviour and that it is they, and not their victims, who are small-minded, big bullies unworthy of attention.
So back to the funny, gorgeous, smart, successful Jennifer Aniston. Why is she being cyber bullied? Because she is funny, gorgeous, smart and successful. Some may say that she should have broad enough shoulders to bear this relative low level online bullying (and if the attacks get too virulent, she can perhaps cry on the shoulders of her dashing French fiancé Justin Theroux). But any petty jealousies we may feel aside, if even she feels she needs to hide away in the real world because of activity in the cyber world, then it is a timely reminder of how the less fortunate, and certainly the younger generation, desperately need protection from the real danger of anonymous online bullying. We need to stand up to our foes, and offer the hand of friendship to all those at risk of, or suffering, online attack.
Amber Melville-Brown is Head of Media & Reputation Management at Withers LLP.
This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post and is reproduced with permission and thanks.