"It's anonymous, so nobody will find out." When people post controversial information online in this frame of mind, they can end up triggering an overwhelming barrage of online criticism, or "flaming." Just recently a hotel in Tokyo published an apology on its website after an employee revealed in a tweet that a popular idol was there.
Ken Ogiso, a safety team manager at internet-related company Gree has worked to enlighten people on how to approach online posts and avoid the net's nasty side.
"The internet has quickly infiltrated our lives without people acquiring sufficient awareness of its characteristics," Ogiso says. He has traveled across Japan giving over 300 lectures a year on how to avoid online blunders. Schools are the most common place.
"Children make full use of the internet without a good understanding of it. Teachers don't know what's happening, but they have to deal with it," Ogiso says, adding that this type of situation is seen across Japan regardless of the size of the school.
Ogiso takes a single view of the internet and the real world, using the busy scramble crossing in Tokyo's Shibuya district as an example.
"Writing or posting something online is no different from holding up a sign bearing your own information at a place where thousands of people come and go each day. But on the internet, it's rough because you can never take the sign down and have to continue showing it to people across the world.
"The internet is a place where your identity is going to be found out. When you post something online you need to stop and carefully consider whether you would be happy to have a piece of paper bearing the same information stuck to the front door of your home, and ponder whether this is on the same level."
The internet is not a place featuring a high level of anonymity; rather it's a tool making it easier to see people's personalities. If users are not aware of this, it is easier for online "flaming" to ensue. Statements, photos and videos posted on online forums such as social networking service sites can receive attention from a huge number of people, exposing the person to the threat of severe online bashing. Personal data obtained through analysis of the little information in a person's posts is exposed online, which can end up affecting their education, work and marriage prospects, or even cause a person to lose their job or position in society. During his lectures, Ogiso meets about five people every year who have been "flamed" online. In some cases, he says, students have been forced to change schools.
Facebook and some other sites have a feature allowing people to restrict the sharing of posts to "friends" chosen by the user. A system that prevents information from being seen by a large, unspecified number of people creates the image of safety, but that doesn't mean users can rest easy.
"No matter how well you know people, if they see information that could trigger online flaming, there'll always be someone who will save the image and spread it. Looking at past cases of flaming, many actually started from posts that were restricted to 'friends,'" Ogiso points out.
To avoid failure online, he says, it's important for people to do away with the notion that the internet is a space separated from reality. "People think of the internet and daily life separately, so things get complicated. What's all right to do in daily life is also all right on the net; and conversely, things you don't do in daily life, you don't do online either."
If a person is exposed to flaming in spite of this, what should they do? The first thing they may want to do is to delete the post that caused the stir, but Ogiso says this is a no-no.
"You can't make out that there was never a post to begin with; in fact that will only worsen the situation. The copies that many people have kept will gain value, and they'll spread even quicker. It only fuels sentiment of wanting to prevent the person from escaping."
The first thing to do, he says, is apologize for one's behavior. The user should add any necessary information in response to the internet reaction, and provide an explanation if there is any misunderstanding.
"I'd like the user in question to explain how they apologized to the other person or people affected and explain as clearly as possible what penalty they were given. They shouldn't offer any excuses or rebuttal, but rather thank the people who criticized them, saying, 'Thanks to you, I became aware of my mistake.'"
If there's a need to correct any information, then the person can use a text strikethrough function, and if it's a photo, then the image can be processed. The thing is to make an effort to leave behind traces of one's mistake. With a healthy dose of fear, people can put the internet to good use.
-- Past incidents leading to 'flaming' online (not including famous people):
* A high school student working part-time at a hotel in Noboribetsu, Hokkaido, tweeted a photo of themselves bathing naked in hot water in the sink for washing dishes.
* A father in his 20s recorded his 2-year-old son being made to smoke a cigarette and then choking and showing discomfort, and posted it on Facebook. The man and his girlfriend were arrested on suspicion of abusing the toddler.
* A male university student from the Kansai region found an expensive umbrella left behind at a station and declared on twitter that he would steal it. Photos of the student, his home and the name of the university he attended were spread over the internet.
* A female temp worker at Resona Bank gave a family member information on a male celebrity's visit to the bank and his address, which the family member tweeted. The worker also made a copy of a male actor's driver's license and took it home.
* A man posted a photo of a newly acquired luxury car online. The man's name and address were later exposed on signs in the area.
* A university student working part-time at a pizza outlet in Tokyo's Suginami Ward took a photo showing him with pizza dough on his face, and posted in on Twitter. His name, date of birth, history, and his girlfriend's Facebook page were exposed online.