Cyberbullying

RA posted this story about a young woman’s experience with cyberbullying and the positive steps she took to get the message across of how hurtful cyberbullying is to both the bully and the victim.

She was certainly bullied, but there are some terminology issues I want to get out of the way before I address the main topic:

“Debate/Argument” – Someone disagreeing with you online over a topic is not a troll or a bully or trying to censor you. As the Takei has said, “Freedom of Speech is not freedom from consequence.” As you are allowed to express your opinion, so others are allowed to express their opinion of what you said. Calling them “trolls” or “cyberbullies” is a cheap ad hominem in an attempt shame them into shutting up. If someone is disagreeing with you and keeping it about the topic? Deal. If the exchange gets heated, then it’s an argument and the best thing is to walk away for a while and cool off.

Flame/Flamewar” – When a debate/argument crosses over the line into personal attacks. The comment I received this morning on YouTube is a perfect example of a flame: “yeah thats why every one of the 30,000 plus Islamic terror attacks in the last ten years they scream god is the greatest before blowing themselves up, or the group(and there are hundreds of them) who takes responsiblity for the attack quote verses from the quran in explaining why they carried it out, take your neo pagan ass out of here before a muslim beheads you…” If I responded in kind it would become a flamewar as the topic got lost while we slagged each other on a personal level. From here on out the exchange with this person will be completely unproductive. He/she obviously has no interest in an exchange of ideas. I deleted the comment from my inbox and walked away.

Troll” – An online troll is not a cyberbully, but someone who goes on blog comment threads or message boards to post provocative statements in order to get an emotional rise out of the people and start a fight. The term comes from the same analogy as “fishing,” they are trolling for an argument. An example would be to go on a message board filled with Jewish people and say, “Hitler was a swell guy.” That is going to upset people and their responses may not be entirely rational. That’s what the trolls want. It’s not personal, they just want to get the power rush of getting someone, anyone, upset. In short, they’re assholes. The “ignore” button works wonders and, bonus feature, drives them batty.

At the crossover point are the people who go on personal venues, like Facebook pages, to personally attack random people. I remember watching a story about a guy in Britain who would go on Facebook pages of the families of people who had died to fuck with the family. They are more than trolls, but not quite cyberbullies in that their targets are random and they were not willing to go as far as cyberbullies do.

Cyberbully” – Now we get to the nasty. Cyberbullies don’t care about a topic of discussion. It is all about you. They have just decided that they hate you and are going to make you miserable. It’s is completely personal, irrational and vicious. They are obsessed with hurting you, depriving you of any enjoyment or peace, and driving you off. And leaving does not make them go away. The victim leaving empowers them. They got what they wanted and they want more. When they force you from one place, they follow you to another. They viciously insult, they lie about things that supposedly happen away from the board or blog, or even in real life to defame the victim. (And whatever a cyberbully claims happened elsewhere, if the victim has been a positive, contributing board member than A. the bullies are probably full of shit and B. unless it is criminal or they willingly share it, what a person does elsewhere is none of the board’s business. Dragging arguments from one board to another is a Netiquette no-no.)

And really scary bit, where every other activity on this list is online, cyberbullies will sometimes/often engage in cyberstalking, attacks that affect your real life. For instance, after months of personal attacks and libel from a group, on separate message board in an otherwise topical discussion, I corrected one of them about a statistic. (That’s it. A statistic about rape convictions.) This person decided I “needed to be stopped.” She obtained my real name and where I lived and worked. She then published the information in two places on the original website, Twitter, Livejournal and a Wikipage with a threat to harass me and my co-workers (telling them about my “horrible activities online”) if I ever said anything she did not like again.

I called HR. Then I called a friend who was a lawyer who advised me to call the police. They called the police where she lived who showed up on her doorstep. That cooled her down a bit.

(As soon as something like that happens, never be ashamed to call the police even if the stalker is in another country. Stalking is nothing to mess around with.)

But she was just the most offensive of a group. Like RL bullies, cyberbullies rarely work alone. Not even content to insult and libel me while letting this person go the extra mile, the others took part by retweeting and spreading my personal info.

The joke with cyberbullies/cyberstalkers is that they often play the victim card, claiming that *they* were bullied and their attacks are completely justified self-defense. Despite fulfilling textbook definitions, the bully in my case, and her friends, did not consider what she had done to be cyberbullying or cyberstalking because I “deserved it.” In fact, she was quite proud of what she had done because she saw her actions as bravely confronting and taking down someone who was “evil.”

Cyberbullying, like bullying in RL, is incredibly destructive. People have committed suicide because of it. Some people on the internet are isolated in RL. They may simply be introverts, or they may have a personal issue, medical issue or lifestyle that is not accepted by society at large. Or many other reasons. They go to the internet to connect with people who share their concerns and interests. It is their social and support group. (And often the safety and positive feedback internet friends provide encourages them to reach out in RL.) Cyberbullies do everything in their power to destroy that. Some people are in a place in their life where they are withstand the storm. Some are not and the bullying is the tipping point that drives them into a despair from which they never recover. To say this is “melodramatic” or “OTT” is B.S.. People are dead.

Nor is cyberbullying easy to escape. Many people who have not experienced it say, “Well, why don’t you just walk away?” Because they don’t let you. Even if you place the bullies on ignore they will continue to insult and libel you in front of your peers. As I pointed out, even if you leave bullies follow their victims, driving them from place to place until they have nowhere to go and have to cut themselves off from groups they were accepted by and activities they once enjoyed. It is especially hard to escape if the victim has a smartphone with social media aps. (That’s if the bully has not obtained their phone number to send vicious texts.) And as pointed out, they sometimes follow them into RL.

Sadly, moderators on most websites and social media have proven inadequate. Too often the company refuses to hire enough moderators to handle the traffic for their site and they are simply overwhelmed. Or they maybe more concerned about board peace or even board traffic than they are about doing the right thing and protecting their members. Or they simply don’t care. When I e-mailed Twitter two years ago to get my personal information pulled, five days later I got an e-mail back saying they were not responsible for the content of people’s posts. I understand that policy has finally changed but sadly it is still too common across the internet.

(I will note that both the mods on that particular Livejournal board and Wikipedia were both very responsive.)

Which means communities have to police themselves. Too often other board members don’t want to become involved. Either they are uncomfortable with conflict or “it has nothing to do with me.” With an argument that would be so. With a flamewar that would be so, but not bullying and stalking. Anytime bullying takes place in a community, the entire community is poisoned. The atmosphere becomes less warm, less safe, basic civility begins to erode and of course, the community loses contributing members. Just like how we need to deal with seeing misogynist crap in the geekdom, when members of a board community see bullying; see repeated, unwarranted personal attacks on a member, we need to come together and say “KNOCK IT OFF! If you can’t behave like a rational human being, get lost!” We should not become a bullies ourselves (and I do understand the temptation), just make it clear that behavior is not tolerated in your community. With some message boards, a mass ignore with mass petition to a moderator to remove a disruptive board member will probably get more results than a single or a scattering of complaints.

Cyberbullying is abhorrent and internet communities simply should not tolerate it.

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