In Defence of Ask.fm

While we're tackling unpopular topics, I may as well explain why I don't think shutting down Ask.fm is the solution to teenage suicide.

In fact, I'm not even convinced that preventing people from being able to use the service anonymously is the best thing to do - and I'm speaking as someone who was bullied, verbally and physically, badly enough at school that it stopped me from wanting to get out of bed in the morning.

The solution to bullying is not to shut down all potential methods by which that bullying might be delivered; the solution is to empower victims of all ages to know, without question, that they can speak out, and that there are people who will support them.

If that sounds obvious, well, it should be obvious. And yet when a young person takes their own life because of anonymous abuse received online, so much of the media coverage and public outrage seems directed not at the bullies, but at whichever platform has been deemed to be that on which the final, balance-tipping insult was received.

Ask.fm

First of all, Ask.fm's safety policy is pretty unequivocal on several aspects of the service.

Users are told to ignore and report abusive messages - including telling a responsible adult, and potentially reporting the abuse to law enforcement.

"Ignore it and tell a grown-up" might sound like simplistic advice, but it's the best thing to do. Ignore an abusive message, and it loses its power - it is, after all, only words on the screen.

Tell an adult, and it's an opportunity to discuss the issues that have been raised, whether they are purely related to bullying, or relate to the reason why the individual is being bullied - weight problems, sexuality, and so on.

Ask.fm's privacy settings allow you to switch off anonymous questions, so there is no reason why anybody should be exposed to anonymous messages via Ask.fm, unless they choose to be - remember, anybody receiving messages at all on there must have set up an account in the first place to do so.

The site also already incorporates a Report feature (compare that with Twitter's much-criticised decision to add an in-tweet Report button in early August 2013), and pledges to assist law enforcement officials in identifying any user who has committed a criminal offence.

So to summarise, Ask.fm:
  • only direct questions/comments at registered users
  • provide the option to switch off anonymous questions/comments
  • have a comprehensive safety policy in place for victims of abuse
  • have a function in place to allow abusive messages to be reported
  • work with law enforcement on any reports of criminal activity
That means, to reach the stage of committing suicide without anybody expecting it, a user of this service must have registered an account, agreed to accept anonymous questions/comments, received them without telling the site, the police or their parents, and ultimately taken the decision to end their own life, rather than alter their privacy settings or close their account.

I am not blaming the victim; however, for the above situation to arise, I suspect there must be wider issues at play in the victim's life, which are not going to be solved simply by removing Ask.fm from the mix - if that was going to be enough to resolve the situation, presumably the victim would have simply closed their account anyway.

In Their Own Words

Perhaps the best thing to do is to view Ask.fm through the eyes of its users - and Shout Mag's 'The Big Question' column did just that in June 2013.

Of ten responses, all made at least some kind of reference to bullying, or of using the service to send messages that said something other than 'nice things'.

One user called for better monitoring, and another for a better reporting system. But seven out of the ten made reference to using the platform for the 'right' or 'wrong' reasons - and one pointed out the positive support given by users of the service to a friend who was a victim of bullying.

A user identified as 'ewilliams.98' said: "I don't think it should be banned because if anyone is being bullied they should have the good sense to get rid of their account or set it so that no one can ask you anonymous questions."

If you're into your conspiracy theories, then yes, the grammar and spelling are pretty much spot-on in that response, and it does sound fairly close to what the Ask.fm marketing department would probably say themselves, but that doesn't make it any less reasonable of an observation.

Silencing the Web

So, Ask.fm are facing calls for them to be shut down completely, Twitter are veering ever further from their founding principle of free speech, and David Cameron doesn't want you to watch porn.

The attacks on online freedom currently taking place are akin to enforcing a switch-off of your television signal at 9pm, unless you register with your local broadcaster to be able to watch 'grown-up' programmes. And on top of that, just in case you've let a minor watch TV after the watershed, we'll ban any adult content anyway.

If young people in this country are killing themselves, there is clearly a problem - but it's bigger than what is, ostensibly, a single chat room on a very large, and largely unpoliced internet.

We cannot control every website in the world, nor would it be appropriate for us to do so; the solution is not to force Latvian companies out of business, or demand that they alter their business model because we are unable to raise teenagers to withstand verbal abuse.

Bullying Benefits

Going back to what I was saying up top, I was the victim of verbal and physical bullying at school. When I reported it - with a lump on my head and a broken finger - my head of year accused me of lying.

What followed was a piece of Mafiaesque manipulation that I was actually quite impressed by - two of my friends came to me saying they'd seen what had happened and were willing to tell the head of year, only for me to discover they'd actually been press-ganged into testifying against me by the bully involved.

Ultimately, the bully, my two 'friends' and I ended up in a room with the head of year, where the three of them gave a matching account - contradictory to my own - and made me out to have launched an unprovoked attack on a person who I was frankly terrified of.

Am I permanently emotionally and psychologically scarred by these events? Well, sort of, but only in the sense that I have a much clearer sense of right and wrong, a greater appreciation of the value of integrity, and I don't trust new people very easily (or long-term friends, for that matter).

My point is, we can't remain children for our whole lives. The world sucks, nobody is 100% good, friends will let you down, strangers will try to take advantage of you, and at some point you have to learn to deal with that.

If we shut down Ask.fm, it'll just be something else that pulls the trigger on young people; the pressure points, I suspect, are still to be found in school playgrounds, and in individual members of teaching staff - who perhaps don't have the support they themselves need in order to take action - who are not there when victims call out to them.

For that matter, perhaps we should embrace cyber-bullying; after all, with the correct record-keeping in place, even anonymous accounts are traceable, and that should allow us to tackle bullying head-on, without the bullies being able to deny everything.

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