The rise of the Internet police

For decades, the Internet has been like the Wild West, with anonymous users creating racist or hate-filled posts. Now the world’s largest social networks are doing something about it.

Anisha Vora remembers when she first realized something was wrong.

It was February 2012, and the then-22-year-old student learned that photos showing her naked or partially clothed were circulating on the Internet. The culprit was an ex-boyfriend she’d dated on and off for four years and had known since childhood.

Photos she’d sent him during their long-distance relationship were soon posted on more than 300 websites, including Tumblr, Flickr and Facebook, and her friends, family and neighbors were invited to view them. Some of the posts gave her name, address and phone number. Strangers were coming by her house.

Online harassment isn’t new. From the earliest message boards to the newest social apps, if there’s a way for people to say something, you can bet someone will say something awful. But it’s gotten even worse. Those operating in the shadows can now connect to billions of users through Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, and disseminate racist and hate-filled messages. Some publish disturbing images of murder, child exploitation and sexual abuse while others resort to so-called revenge porn to humiliate former lovers. Perhaps most distressing: A few threaten rape and other forms of violence, then release their victims’ addresses and phone numbers so strangers can terrorize their targets even further.

“Dangerous people are everywhere, but when they have the power of anonymity behind them and the power of distance, they become more dangerous,” says Karen Riggs, a professor of media arts and studies at Ohio University. “It’s part of human nature: We have people who will be abusive and lurid.”

The Internet just makes it that much easier.

Policing the wild frontier

Never before have so many people come together as they have on Twitter and Facebook. More than 300 million people use via Twitter every month, while more than 1.4 billion users sign on to Facebook.

For the past decade, the social networks have been working behind the scenes to police their sites.

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