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Obama raises hopes for online civility

As a columnist and radio commentator, I avoided endorsing a candidate in the recent presidential election. But as an Internet safety advocate and co-director of, I have to say how happy I am to see a setback for the politics of fear and rumor mongering. I say this because over the past year or so, many of us in the Internet safety field have been retooling our messages to focus more on digital citizenship and civility as we realize that the fear of predators has been grossly exaggerated. In terms of numbers, the larger danger to both kids and adults is "cyberbullying," harassment and defamation — often between people who know each other in the real world. And that's exactly what we saw during the campaign: fear mongering and defamation. It was especially sad to see this coming from Sarah Palin, the mother of five children, including three teenagers. Children learn from their parents and other adults including our leaders.

Palin’s “leadership” during this campaign served as a negative role model, implying that it’s OK to spread rumors and call people names. While she never said that Obama was a terrorist, she did say he pals around with them. She also called him a “socialist,” which gave ammunition to some on talk radio and in the blogosphere to imply that he’s a “Marxist” and “communist” and therefore a likely dictator.

It wasn’t just the presidential campaign that nauseated me. There was the comment by Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., to MSNBC’s Chris Matthews implying that some members of Congress are un-American. And who can forget defeated North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole’s implication that her opponent (a Sunday school teacher) was “Godless.”

What happened during the campaign parallels what happens online. Too often, online discourse is not civil. Going back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, we have seen too many “flame wars,” in e-mail, on forums and now on social networking sites. People seem to forget that the other people online have the right to be treated respectfully even if they strongly disagree with you.

Several surveys of teenage Web users have found that cyberbullying is a significant problem. Cyberbullying, says Nancy Willard, director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, is “the use of electronic technologies to engage in repeated and/or extensively disseminated acts of cruelty towards others.”

Willard added that “it’s really hard to talk to young people about avoiding harmful and cruel behavior when they are bombarded with political ads with nasty rumors, innuendoes and attacks.”

The connection between politics and Internet behavior doesn’t stop at bullying. For the past seven years, the politics of fear has dominated the political landscape. A certain amount of fear is productive if it keeps us from taking unnecessary risks. But when fear becomes pervasive or is based on false information, it can lead us in the wrong direction.

A recent study commissioned by McAfee, an Internet security company, and conducted by Harris Interactive, found that “about two-thirds of mothers of teens in the United States are just as, or more, concerned about their teenagers’ online safety, such as from threatening e-mails or solicitation by online sexual predators, as they are about drunken driving (62 percent) and experimenting with drugs (65 percent).” Perhaps these moms aren’t aware that 6,552 people last year were killed in auto accidents involving young drivers, while there were only a few known cases of teens who were physically harmed by adults they met online.

What the Internet — and indeed, our entire society — needs is greater civility. I’m hopeful that the Obama administration will encourage a culture of respect in which people engage one another in dialogue rather than name calling. There has been a lot of talk about Obama — as first African-American president — showing young people around the world that artificial barriers can be shattered. But that’s only one measure of progress. Another measure is a society where everyone — regardless of your appearance, or your sexual, religious or political orientation — can be treated with dignity and respect.

If we can accomplish that, we can easily solve the problems of cyberbullying and Internet harassment.

It’s a new day.

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