Ask.fm has become the face of the social networking threat. After a string of tragic suicides relating to the site, most recently schoolgirl Hannah Smith, Ask.fm has found itself under an immense amount of scrutiny as public discussion turns to questioning just how safe social networking sites are for children- and whether or not all is being done to securely protect them.
There is no question that the ‘internet troll’ is the unseen figure that plagues recent times. Beyond Ask.fm, similar sites such as Twitter and Facebook also find themselves in the heat of public debate as these unfortunate occurrences come to pass – often as the result of endless written assaults from anonymous individuals who, safely behind a screen, cower behind their supposed blamelessness with the thought that words can never hurt to such an extreme extent.
Without a clear figure to blame however, accusations have turned on the creators of these websites and none have been as viciously hounded than Ilja and Mark Terebin, the Latvian brothers who conceived Ask.fm. What followed after Hannah’s death is a scathing attack on the Terebin’s that went beyond the way the site itself is run and instead ripped into their personal lives in an example of an astonishing blame game. The media, rather than purely focusing on the technicalities of the site, instead began to piece together their evidence in a case against the brothers themselves- determined to make the Terebin’s the picture of social networking villainy. Questionable stances on homosexuality were uncovered, a lavish and excessive lifestyle exposed and most troublingly their parents found and interviewed only for their father to be labelled as a ‘USSR loyalist’. The poison apple, the media implied, doesn’t fall far from the tree. In an instant, the brothers were seemingly held as personally accountable for the deaths of the teenagers who’d suffered from abusive comments on their site, their personal habits and lifestyles the perfect backdrop for the intention to place them as the ones responsible despite a complete lack of direct involvement.
The backlash isn’t unfounded. Prior comments from the duo concerning internet bullying seem carelessly dismissive, citing parental responsibility and attention seeking from teenagers, the brothers say, who may be the ones sending these messages to themselves. As far as PR goes, they’re undesirable figures, now hiding from the media eye and instead relying on statements reporting their sincerest sympathies for Hannah Smith and a pledge to cooperate fully with ensuring Ask.fm provides a safer environment for their users. They’re not perfect people, evidently; however the personal attack on them from the media is unprecedented. Should the unfortunate situation that occurred from their site be placed wholly on their shoulders not just as creators- but also as individuals?
Any website has a workforce than goes beyond its founder. Whilst Ilja and Mark Terebin may sit at the head of the table, there are countless more seated and yet there has been no investigations into those individuals. The brothers were explicitly chosen to be condemned. The media desires a face to put to the enemy. With the Terebin brothers, it’s just coincidence that there wasn’t far to look in terms of undesirable habits.
As dismissive as some of their previous comments may have been, they’ve not been incorrect in making them (insensitive, undoubtedly). Where the brothers suggested the problem may be with the child themselves, a recent source regarding the Hannah Smith tragedy reports that allegedly Hannah posted a large bulk of the anonymous messages to herself (her father has recently gone on to deny these reports). Similarly, where the brothers blamed modern parenting, we have to question just how much awareness a parent has over their child’s internet activity. None of this is to say that the victim or the parents should be held accountable in anyway, however it does raise questions as to why exactly the Terebin brothers are being vilified when they’re making points that may require some valid consideration (even if those points are poorly made).
The true responsibilities will only ever be on the fingertips of the individuals who make the statements that lead teenagers like Hannah Smith to tragedy and as long as they remain unseen the media will always turn elsewhere to find a face to hold responsible. It is an unfortunate practice, not only likely causing unnecessary persecution towards the founders of these sites but also drawing away from the most pressing issue- that it’s the users committing these acts of cowardice, not the individuals who made the sites possible.
Social networking is in need of change, in order to prevent cases such as Hannah Smith from becoming a tragically frequent occurrence. However there’s little use is holding two men as solely accountable purely for the reasoning that they may not be ‘nice’ people. Personality is not the game of business. Whether or not the brothers seem caring is irrelevant. What needs focus are the site, not its founders, and what can be done to improve it. Bring in education to schools teaching about responsibility on the web and the harm actions can bring, work on making it clear that there are outlets (whether online or in person) that can help anybody faced with harmful online abuse- these things would be helpful. Making a point to essentially string up the Terebin brothers is anything but.