If you’re reading this, you probably know that the Internet is the perfect place to entertain yourself when you’re bored, procrastinate when you have a term paper due, and waste time alone in your room. There’s a lot to see and do online, but one of the most mindless ways to pass the time on the world wide web is to troll around for internet memes–bits and pieces of content that go viral for one reason or another.
Most memes are harmless, entertaining, silly, and funny. Like this one, this one, or (one of my favorites) this one. Going viral can change lives–it can turn people into celebrities; get them record deals; and make them household names. Just consider the stories of Antoine Dodson and Rebecca Black.
But some memes are not only distasteful, they are mean and cruel. Just last week, one sixteen-year-old girl who has Down Syndrome discovered she was, as a child, the subject of a terrible internet meme–and that she and her family are now helpless to do anything about it.
According to Mashable:
When does an Internet joke go too far?
Years ago, a photo of a baby with down syndrome was taken from a support group website and turned into a controversial Internet meme. That child — now 16 years old — is Heidi Crowter, and Heidi just discovered what the entire Internet has been saying about her photo, according to The Sun.
Here you'll find a picture of a grown Heidi holding a laptop displaying the original meme that trolls posted to Facebook years ago. The meme is a picture of her as a child along with the caption “Lose your virginity to a retard.” Given how helpless and vulnerable a child with Down Syndrome is, the meme’s punchline–which is morally reprehensible for a litany of reasons–is especially disturbing because it has a hint of sexual violence in it.
Heidi’s parents have been trying to take the photos off the Internet, but that’s proven to be a very difficult task. Just last week, another website devoted to insulting people with Down Syndrome put the picture of Heidi up. You have to wonder who these sick people are–how could they derive pleasure out of bullying disabled children?
Heidi’s story highlights a central problem and tension in Internet culture: that the right to distribute content freely (which is arguably protected under the First Amendment) can clash against moral, decent, and civil behavior. The proliferation of the most lewd and disgusting forms of Internet pornography presents the same problem.
Why does Internet culture breed such uncivil behavior? The main problem, I think, is anonymity. When people can hide behind the veil of anonymity guaranteed by the Internet, they are more likely to abandon their inhibitions and flout societal norms in order to express and indulge their basest desires. After all, they don’t have to worry about their reputation. They are also removed from the real flesh-and-blood person that they are insulting (in the case of Heidi) or deriving pleasure from (in the case of online porn), which makes it much easier to be hurtful or perverse since compassion and empathy–emotions that thrive on the immediacy of human interaction–won’t kick in as a check on immoral behavior.
While most people are capable of cruel acts and depraved thoughts–it’s human nature–in society, those desires are checked. But in the online world, which is by and large unencumbered by social restraints, we see the scales of civility fall away. The golden rule is all but forgotten. In his essay for the book New Threats to Freedom (Templeton), Ron Rosenbaum explained this tendency perfectly:
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you truth.” So said Oscar Wilde. The problem with applying this insight to the culture of the Internet is not that the mask reveals the truth, but that the truth revealed by the anonymous “screen name” is a deeply disturbing vision of the face beneath the mask: a face frequently twisted with self-righteous hatred, fear, and paranoia. . . .
The blogosphere has certainly changed the character of political conversation, but in problematic ways. First, it has put the neighborly conversation that once took place over a picket fence or at the VFW dance on a vast and impersonal stage, before an audience that eggs on the most extreme ranters—those who seemingly have the leisure to spend their entire day haranguing the ether and harassing anyone who disagrees. Second, it provides a mask of anonymity that may have initially been intended to free blog commenters from the threat of exposure, but that now effectively immunizes them not just from exposure but from accountability, responsibility, and shame.
In The Moral Animal, Robert Wright noted that moral norms are meant to protect society’s weakest. When those norms (“accountability, responsibility, and shame”) are absent, it comes at the expense of the most helpless and vulnerable among us–people like Heidi.