Social networks – a threat for Russia?

Social networks – a threat for Russia?
Cyber-bullying has come to Russia. One of its first victims, a 20-year old man from Southern Russia, hanged himself after his former lover used a social network to spread rumors that he was homosexual.

Now many in Russia are wondering if the virtual world will claim more lives.

Caught in the network

It started as a love story. Vladimir Golubov was only 16 when they met. She was 10 years older, but his being underage didn’t bother her. Their love story lasted even through his conscription and army service. Until the moment when Anna – for that was the young woman’s name – announced she was pregnant and Vladimir was the father. He’d never told her, but he was sterile after an operation he had had as a child. According to the local investigative department of Krasnodar region, Vladimir refused to acknowledge paternity and broke up with Anna. She had her pregnancy aborted and extorted money from Vladimir’s mother to cover the expense.

Eager for revenge, 31-year old Anna Simonenko registered on one of Russia’s most popular social networks – “Odnoklassniki” or “Classmates” – under several fake identities. The investigators say she knew Vladimir’s soft spots and how much he treasured his manhood. She started distributing false information about him being gay on his webpage and sent messages to his friends and acquaintances. The young man decided he had been dishonored and suicide was the only way out. Vladimir has become one Russia’s first victims of what has become known as cyber-bullying.

Real deaths in the virtual world

Both cyber-bullying and trollying are new for Russia, in all senses. But experts say they are quickly becoming part of everyday life.

“The amount of such cases in Russia is close to none. Those are individual cases. So far, cyber bullying has been mainly taking place in Western countries, for one reason: they started with the Internet earlier,” says Dr. Sergey Yenikolopov, Head of the Department of Clinical Psychology at the Centre for Mental Health, who takes a special interest in criminal psychology. He is absolutely convinced that “such crimes will soon come to Russia. These kinds of problems have no cultural borders.”

Cyber-bullying through social networks has become a real phenomenon in the United States, with the suicide of Megan Meier in 2006 one of the earliest high-profile examples. The mother of a “friend” of Meier’s created a fake MySpace identity and made friends with Meier, eventually telling her, “The world would be a better place without you.” That day the girl committed suicide. It was just one of around 100 suicides that reportedly take place every day in the US.

According to the Center for Safe Internet, Russia will not be able to keep itself separate from a world that’s more and more entangled in the World Wide Web. Cyber-bullying and trolling will inevitably replace traditional threats and problems.

“Cyber-bullying is as dangerous as drawing a child into sexual exploitation – but it’s more large-scale compared to pedophile groups that can be quite self-contained, and organized crime groups that are filming certain types of content,” believes Urvan Parfentiev, coordinator of the Center.

Anna Simonenko, who was responsible for Vladimir Golubov’s tragic death, has been sentenced to one year and nine months in a penal colony. She must also pay 800,000 roubles – less than US $30,000 dollars – in compensation to the young man’s family. So much for the value of the life that she so casually brushed aside. Experts say it is not clear which criminal article has been applied in her case.

“Driving someone to commit suicide is an almost non-working criminal article – it’s very difficult to prove someone’s guilt,” Andrey Stolbunov, lawyer and Chairman of Board of Directors of the rights group “Spravedlivost“ (“Justice”) told RT.

Crime and punishment

In Russia there is as yet no legislation aimed at creating a comprehensible system of punishment for cyber-bullying and harassment by computer. And social networks with their abundance of personal information open the door wide to such abuse. The most recent research showed that every fourth child in Russia has been stalked or humiliated on the internet.

“It can be a threat to any person who is not anonymous on the Internet. We don’t have any laws regulating this sphere – but we’d better start now before it’s too late,” added Dr Yenikolopov in an interview with RT.

However, some say the problem cannot be solved purely by legal methods.

“The Internet is a very special thing – and it’s not about social networks, they are just one of the instruments within the web. The main thing really is that humanity has become hooked up to this source of information. The web is omnipresent. We should come to terms with it and regulate where we can – but I’m afraid those who mean harm will still find a way,” adds Stolbunov.

Those trying to fight the new cyber-evil say the only way out is “promoting awareness, education and positive change to children, parents and educators in response to ongoing bullying and cyber-bullying in the children’s daily environment.” And all psychologists agree, those who have been bullied once need to be closely watched in the future: statistics says more than half of former victims become bullies themselves as their craving for vengeance locks everything into a vicious circle.

Darya Pushkova, RT