LE MONDE

Ask.fm: Social Network Spreads Among Teens, Blamed For Bullying And Suicides

Founded in Latvia, Ask.fm is exploding around the world. Its users communicate with questions and answers. Here's one: How cruel can young people be with each other?

These kids are safe. Are yours?
These kids are safe. Are yours?
Laure Belot

PARIS - “You’re small.” Samy is 14 years old, 157 centimeters tall, and admits that he didn’t enjoy reading this anonymous message on his computer. But it was nothing compared to the next message, visible to all on the Internet: “Go f*ck your mother.”

Still, it will take more to convince this junior high school student from the suburbs of Paris to unsubscribe from Ask.fm, the website where these (and other) insults took place.

Though Facebook and Twitter still dominate, this younger social network – the most *in* underground address of the moment – is hugely popular in certain countries: 1.3 million French Internet users, half of them under the age of 17. In France, it is the third website in terms of time spent (45 minutes), behind Twitter (one hour) and Facebook (five hours). Samy spends “half an hour per day” on the site, “But we don’t really talk about it at school,” he adds.

The site was launched in Riga, Latvia, in 2010 and its concept couldn’t be simpler: “People mostly communicate with each other by asking and answering questions,” says cofounder Mark Terebin. Even if the minimum age to register is 13, many primary and middle schools students – little brothers and sisters of the Facebook generation – lie about their age to join the network.

Like many of his classmates, Samy learned about the site on Facebook. “I liked the concept. You can see what people think of you.” And so Samy signed up in Dec. 2012 and quickly shared the news with his 300 Facebook friends, hoping they would join him.

This method of “viral recruitment” is the key to the success of Ask.fm, which is the 91st most popular website in the world according to comScore. The network – not to be confused with the Ask.com search engine – has seen its members multiply from five million in April 2012 to more than 53 million today.

Ask.fm is now the 10th social network in the world after four Americans (Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Tumblr), three Chinese (QQ, Weibo, Pengyou) and two Russians (VK, Odnoklassniki). In Brazil and Argentina, almost one in five Internet users is an Ask.fm regular. The fact that social networks are now accepted in most families has helped them spread faster. The youth are deserting Facebook, looking for other places to get online thrills, and Twitter seems too complicated for them.

Its international success has revealed a dark side: On Sept. 9, 2012, the Bulgarian Safer Internet Helpline received 900 calls about an 11 year offering to show herself naked and a 5 year old boy saying he would comply to any request. “The website didn’t give us the IP address of the childrens’ computers,” says Gueorgui Apostolov from the helpline, “but on Sept. 10, the Bulgarian Police Cybercrim Unit arrested the 29 year old predator.”

“Be trashy to get noticed”

Even if most messages are about music and flirting and friendship, “each member’s number of answers is added and a ranking is published,” says Pascale Garreau from the French Internet sans craintes (“Internet without worries”) program. “You have to be trashy to get noticed and generate responses. It’s very tempting.”

In September and Oct. 2012, two 13 and 15 year old Irish girls committed suicide. “They were members of the network and had been insulted but they were also victims of bullying at school,” said Laura Higgins, from British Safer Internet Helpline.

Two months later, one of the girls’ older sisters committed suicide as well. “What happened is a true tragedy and we give our deepest condolences to the victim's family and relatives,” wrote Mark Terebin on his website. “Ask.fm is just a tool which helps people to communicate with each other. Don't blame a tool, but try to make changes… start with yourself... be more polite, more kind, more tolerant of others… cultivate these values in families, in schools.”

Terebin’s statement was not well received in Britain, where “five to six cases of teen suicides were reported since September due to cyberbullying on this website, even if there is no clear incriminating evidence,” observed Higgins.

The problem with Ask.fm is that its users are not protected. By default, each new member agrees to receive anonymous messages, “a setting that not many youths know how to change,” explains Garreau. It is those anonymous messages that are the most insulting, and what’s worse, they are visible to everyone on the Internet, because each post is publicly accessible, visible to all.

There are only 50 external moderators to control the content while 30 million questions and just as many answers are posted every day. What’s more, terms of use are only available in English, whereas the website is available in 32 languages.

In the UK, Laura Higgins notes that Ask.fm has a better reaction time and “took only 15 minutes, to remove the insults a young girl received after the recent death of her father.” Still, she admits that her pleas to make the site “turn off the default option for allowing anonymous messages,” yielded nothing.

For most teenagers, “Ask is a place where they can rant and rave,” says psychiatrist Patrice Huerre. But, “for the most fragile of them, the 10 to 15% of teenagers who are not able to distance themselves from the insults, this online bullying can be devastating.”

Recently, the website has promised to enforce stricter moderation in the future.

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Spencer Tunick Nude Installation in Israel

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Salam!*

Welcome to Monday, where the UK pays homage to slain MP David Amess, Myanmar frees thousands of prisoners, and Facebook gets ready to build its "metaverse." Please fasten your seatbelts: Worldcrunch also takes stock of the long-lasting effects — good and bad — the pandemic has had on the air travel industry.

[*Azeri - Azerbaijan]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

Myanmar to free political prisoners: Myanmar's junta chief Min Aung Hlaing has announced the release of 5,636 prisoners who had been jailed for protesting the coup that ousted the civilian government in February 2021.

• Powerful Haiti gang behind the kidnapping of U.S. missionaries: The notorious 400 Mawozo gang is believed to be behind the kidnapping in Haiti of a group of Christian missionaries, including 16 U.S. citizens and one Canadian. The brazen kidnapping on Saturday comes as crime is spiking since the killing of President Jovenel Moise in July.

• UK to pay tribute to David Amess: British lawmakers will pay homage in parliament to colleague David Amess, who was stabbed to death Friday in what was described by the police as a "terrorist incident." Officers arrested a 25-year-old suspect whose father, Harbi Ali Kullane, worked as a media adviser to a former prime minister of Somalia.

• COVID update: Russia has registered more than 34,000 cases of new infections in the past 24 hours, a new record since the start of the pandemic. Meanwhile, police in the northeast Italian city of Trieste used water cannons to clear striking dockworkers protesting Italy's new requirements that all employees be vaccinated.

• At least 26 killed in floods in India: Torrential rain has triggered floods and landslides in India's southern coastal state of Kerala, killing at least 26 people.

• Facebook to hire 10,000 in EU to develop "metaverse": The U.S. social media giant plans to hire 10,000 workers in the European Union over the next five years to build a "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet that the company touts as the future.

Punishing parents for children's bad behavior: After limiting gaming hours for minors, China is now considering legislation to reprimand parents if their children exhibit "very bad behavior" or commit crimes.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Colombian daily El Espectador dedicates its front page to Alex Saab, "owner of the secrets" of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The Colombian businessman, wanted by U.S. authorities for allegedly laundering money on behalf of Venezuela's government, has been extradited from Cape Verde to the U.S. where he is scheduled to appear in court today.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

4.9%

China's economy registered its slowest pace in a year as the country faces a looming energy crisis with power shortages and increasing pressure on its property sector. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the period between July-September rose 4.9%, the weakest numbers since the third quarter of 2020 and significantly lower than forecasts. The world's second-largest economy faces a debt crisis linked to the China Evergrande Group debt crisis, while energy shortfalls have dropped factory output to its weakest since early 2020, when heavy COVID-19 curbs were in place.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

7 ways the pandemic may change the airline industry for good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

⛽ Cleaner aviation fuel: With air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel. In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials

.🛃 Smoother check-in: The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

✈️ The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less? At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel, in particular, is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"The crimes committed that night are unforgivable for the Republic."

— Emmanuel Macron became the first French president to commemorate the killing of as many as 200 Algerian independence protesters by Parisian police in 1961. For 40 years, French officials ignored the massacre, which took place a year before Algeria gained its independence from France after an eight-year war. In 2012, French President François Hollande acknowledged the killings for the first time on a visit to Algeria, and Macron took it further by attending Sunday's commemoration at the site where the events happened in the French capital. Still, many had hoped the French President would go further and take responsibility for a "state massacre," for a crime many historians consider the most violent repression of a peaceful demonstration in post-War Europe.

📈💥  IN OTHER NEWS

​Low trust, high risk: The global rise of violence targeting politicians

The deadly stabbing of British Parliament Member David Amess confirms an ongoing study on trust and governance in democracies around the world: It's bad. In The Conversation, James Weinberg — the study's author and a lecturer in Political Behavior at the University of Sheffield — writes:

⏪ The assassination of Amess, who was stabbed to death in his constituency on Friday, is a tragic moment for democracy. What makes it even more devastating is that such a catastrophic failure is not without precedent or predictability. Labour MP Jo Cox was shot at her constituency surgery in 2016. Before her, another Labour MP, Stephen Timms, survived a stabbing in 2010. And Andrew Pennington, a Gloucestershire county councilor, died in a frenzied attack in 2001 while trying to protect local Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones.

☝️ Beyond these critical junctures in the public debate about politicians' safety, elected representatives must live with an increasingly insidious level of popular cynicism that threatens violence on an almost daily basis.

🇬🇧🇳🇿🇿🇦 Not only are these experiences of abuse or threats of physical violence felt across both sides of the political aisle in the UK — they also appear to be growing more common in other democratic contexts where the climate of politics has been presumed to be both calmer and more volatile, from New Zealand to South Africa.


Read the full piece from The Conversation, now on Worldcrunch.com

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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