Editorials

Online abuse is a silent pandemic affecting millions

News that Hana Kimura, a 22-year-old pro wrestler who starred in the popular reality show “Terrace House,” apparently committed suicide after receiving hundreds of hate messages sent shock waves across the nation late last month. It was a tragic reminder that the government has been slow in taking measures to protect victims of cyberbullying.

“Some people say that you should just refrain from reading these comments online. But social media has become an essential part of our lives and it is extremely difficult not to see them,” Shiori Ito, a journalist and symbol of Japan’s #MeToo movement, stated at a recent news conference.

Ito has been receiving online hate messages for more than three years after going public with a rape accusation against Noriyuki Yamaguchi, a former Washington bureau chief of Tokyo Broadcasting System Television Inc. Some of the hate messages were directed at her family and friends as well. After scrutinizing some 700,000 messages online, she filed a lawsuit on Monday against cartoonist Toshiko Hasumi and two others for defaming her on Twitter. Ito claims Hasumi’s cartoon defamed her by suggesting she filed a false rape accusation and is pretending to be a rape victim.

As more and more people use social media today, cyberbullying is emerging as a potentially life-threatening concern. It’s time for the government and social networking services to hammer out effective measures to prevent online abuse.

One of the main reasons why such abuse is ubiquitous is that people can make defamatory posts anonymously and it is almost impossible to detect them because of the complex procedures involved.

To identify such individuals in Japan, victims have to go through multiple court proceedings. First, they must ask the court for a temporary injunction to request social networking service operators, such as Twitter, to disclose the IP addresses of individuals who posted defamatory messages. By identifying the IP addresses, victims can find out which internet service providers have been used to post the messages.

Second, they must file a lawsuit to request that the internet service provider disclose personal information, such as names and addresses. Only after going through this procedure, victims can file lawsuits against the offenders.

Successfully taking each step remains difficult as well. For instance, even if a victim manages to obtain the IP address of the poster, they must prove their rights were infringed upon by the spread of the post in order to obtain personal information from the internet service provider. If the post was made from a device that is used by multiple people, for example a PC at an internet cafe, it is almost impossible to identify who made the post.

The cost of lawsuits poses another obstacle and the benefit of filing a lawsuit is limited since the average compensation in damages reportedly ranges from ¥300,000 to ¥600,000.

To simplify the procedure to identify offenders, an Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry panel on June 4 agreed that victims of cyberbullying should have the right to ask website and social media operators and internet service providers to disclose the names and phone numbers of people who make defamatory posts. Once phone numbers are obtained, lawyers can contact mobile operators and learn the identifies of the individuals making the abusive posts. The government aims to revise the related laws as early as the end of the year.

Another way to crack down on the problem would be to impose stricter regulations on online posts. Many experts, however, urge caution as doing so could restrict freedom of expression, and say that social media operators and website operators can play a greater role instead of the government.

Individual messages may not constitute illegality, but if tens of thousands of hate messages are made online against an individual, they can become a powerful weapon to psychologically ruin that person. Social media operators and website operators should create a system to prevent cyberbullying, such as giving people warnings or removing hate messages on their platforms.

Moreover, people should also learn how to use social media responsibly. In the United States, Trisha Prabhu a high school student, has invented an online app called “ReThink’’ that gives a pop-up alert if a message that the app user is writing contains offensive words. It gives them a chance to reconsider sending such words in an email, text or social media post. According to Prabhu’s research, more than 93 percent of adolescents changed their minds and decided not to post the offensive message after reading the alert.

Prabhu described cyberbullying as “a silent pandemic affecting millions and millions of kids around the world.’” We must use our collective wisdom to overcome this scourge.

The Japan Times Editorial Board

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