One of the signature characteristics of the Internet is anonymity. The widespread use of screen names and the difficulty of verifying the identities behind them makes the Internet a playground for frauds, cheats, and predators.
Of course, there are plenty of honest people on the Internet, too. The Internet has opened up new markets, created global awareness on a scale never seen in history, and boosted the productivity of businesses worldwide.
My point is that anonymous communications from the dark side of humanity taint the credibility of the medium and poison the waters for the rest of us. They undermine people who use the Internet for good and legitimate purposes. There don’t seem to be many ways to stop the hoaxsters.
In 2006, a 13-year-old girl named Megan Meier committed suicide after a case of cyber-bullying on a popular social networking site. Allegedly, the mother of a rival girl at Megan’s school created an account on the site for a fictitious boy named Josh. Her intent allegedly was to get Megan to reveal details about herself that could later be used to humiliate Megan. The ensuing cyber-bullying had tragic consequences. Megan hung herself. Numerous suicides related to cyber-bulling have been reported since.
Internet anonymity does not always contribute to such tragic consequences. Some cases are simply highly embarrassing.
This month, Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o, who led the Fighting Irish to the BCS championship game this year and finished second for the Heisman Trophy, said in a statement that he fell in love with a girl online last year who turned out not to be real. Te’o said during the season that his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, died of leukemia in September on the same day Te’o’s grandmother died, triggering an outpouring of support for Te’o at Notre Dame and in the media. All the details are still not clear, but the story is making national headlines.
Elaborate and highly publicized hoaxes such as these undermine the credibility of the medium. I’ve often likened the Internet of today to the Wild West. Pretty much anything goes.
This is a shame. At a time when people trust advertising less and the credibility of traditional news sources has trended down for more than a decade, who can you trust?
Marketers have begun to rely on online reviews as references, but many of those can’t be trusted either. My company has been approached by others to get us to create fictitious product reviews favoring one company and slamming its competitors. Even though the business would have been lucrative and easy, we turned it down.
How many times have those online reviews sucked me in? Last week, I upgraded the security system at my office to one that supposedly allowed me to monitor my cameras over the Internet. The system had glowing 5-star reviews online, yet when I loaded the app on my iPhone and iPad, it was very buggy. It works only about half the time for reasons I cannot understand.
Kinda makes one wonder about the integrity of that online review process!