August 31, 2012

Trolls, bullies and us


There are three types of people who intentionally cause other people hurt on the internet.

First there are the trolls; those the IT purists will tell you emerged long before Twitter and online opinion sites. From what I’ve read (and I’m sure I’ll be corrected if I get it wrong), the troll’s main goal is to provoke anger or other extreme reaction from their subject and then feed off the energy that is generated by that emotion.

Then there are the bullies, who are quite different to trolls. Anyone who has been subjected to bullying can attest that it manifests in many ways – ranging from outright threatened violence to subtle but sustained denigration. In contrast to the troll, the bully’s main goal is to feel superior: either in strength, intelligence, wit or popularity.

And then there is the third type of person who intentionally causes other people hurt on the internet: the rest of us. Yes, you and me.

There are times for pretty much all us online (I’d venture), when we just can’t help but say some something hurtful to someone else. We might do it because we’re outraged by their behaviour or something they’ve said. Sometimes we do it because we don’t agree with their point of view or find it simply ridiculous. And sometimes we do it because other people are doing it too and we want to fit in.

I’m not without guilt: I admit that I get a bit Old Testament at times, lashing out at people who sledge others or have caused me hurt in the past. Yes, I have also (quite often) ridiculed the cohort of people known as The Greens and Their Supporters.

But in a similar fashion to that described by GrogsGamut in his book, these days I mostly try to exercise self-censorship in the hope of preventing something that could degenerate into ugliness, and I rigorously moderate the comments on my blog for the same reason.

Unfortunately, relying solely on self-restraint will not do much to reduce the hurtful ways in which we sometimes voice our opinions, emphasise our disagreement, or attempt to appear witty and entertaining to our friends.

As Jonathan Green pointed out this morning, online human behaviour is no different to that which occurs offline. So maybe we need to start pulling the two worlds into better alignment.

In real life, if one of your friends rolled down their car window and yelled some of the sledges that are made on Twitter to a passerby, what would you do? Would you laugh and pat them on the back? Maybe reinforce the insult with your own witty contribution? Maybe you’d pretend it didn’t happen? Or would you say, hey, that’s out of line?

What about the same behaviour in the pub, at the footy or at a party? I’m pretty sure most of us would intervene somehow and try to defuse the situation, rather than turn a blind eye or succumb to the pack mentality and join in.

I understand the reasons posited by experts as to why people think they can get away with extreme behaviour on Twitter and similar places. They feel less empathy because they can’t see the body language of their “victims”; they breach societal boundaries because they are largely anonymous and not accountable for their actions.

Nevertheless, in most cases bullies on Twitter and elsewhere (and people like you and me who can also be hurtful), have friends and followers who have ways of communicating with them.  If there were more occasions when sledgers and bullies were told by their peers that they were out of line, degeneration into pile-ons and flamewars could more often be avoided.

So next time someone you know says something hurtful on Twitter, what will you do? Will you laugh and retweet them, reinforce the insult with your own witty contribution, or perhaps pretend it didn’t happen?

Or will you send them a DM or text and say, hey, that’s out of line?

Postscript: A very considered, and relevant, contribution to the discussion.

Join the conversation! 10 Comments

  1. Well put D. Finished Greg’s book today and in light of twittervents of the last couple of days have also thought about putting a response. We can do better, and it is our responsibility to do so.

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  2. Eek! The ’s word’ (sledging). Hopefully that won\’t induce a torrent of people comparing it to the ‘all part of the game’ mentality regarding sledging in sport. I think a big issue is that the lines are so grey and subjective between what is ’banter’, when it becomes ’sledging’, and then when it becomes ’bullying’ and so on. For my part I always felt the line between banter and sledging lies in aggression.

    But to continue the sporting parallel, there are many who will say that aggression is vital to sporting success (to which I might reply ’perhaps so, but is it not possible to channel your aggression inward, into your performance, rather than outward, at your opponent’). After all, people in solo sports manage to do it.

    But nevertheless, the subjectivity of when a line is crossed remains a problem. Everybody thinks it is best to play by their particular set of rules. Communication is thus always a tricky little creature.

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    • Thanks Kev, you’re right, some of the words we use are so laden with traditional meaning that it’s hard to use them to illustrate a broader point. Your sporting parallel does add a an interesting dimension to the discussion.

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  3. The one thing that you don’t consider here is the role of the internet’s easy anonymity on the issue. Its the reason why so many idiots think that the can act like arseholes on the web, quite simply they think that they have total impunity from consequences. and boy do they squirm when they realise that they are far less anonymous than they thought they were!

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    • I do mention it in passing, and no doubt it’s a contributing factor. But even anonymous online participants would have friends who know their identity, and could do more to moderate their behaviour through peer pressure.

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  4. I think there’s a big difference between saying something about someone like a shock-jock and saying something hurtful to a person whose hide is not as thick as a rhino’s. This is especially true if they have a twitter account, and even more so if their twitter ID is included in the tweet. To do the latter with an insult is to aim directly to wound.

    There was a recent case where a current affairs broadcaster had a vast stream of invective hurled at him through twitter. It was pretty relentless and often brutal, and though I happened to agree with the critics in their general opinion of his style and approach, I did start to get worried about the effect the continuous stream of abuse might have on him, as I picked him for someone who might be sensitive to it. Finally I’d had enough and said something about the savagery of the attacks and expressed concern about possible consequences. I wonder how the attackers might have felt if he’d had a nervous collapse, or worse, which we know all to well can happen. Some people in pressure jobs are always on a knife-edge.

    I’ve never had hundreds or more turn on me like that, but it would break my heart, especially if I thought I was trying to do a fair job. Neither, I’m sure, have had many of the attackers so free with their insults. They might be surprised at how distressing the effect could be on them.

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  5. Thank you for stepping in on that occasion, Denis. It can be startling to see how quickly things on Twitter can degenerate into something more suited to Lord of the Flies, but a voice of reason can quickly help to restore sanity.

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  6. Most people who are abused/victimised just want it to stop. They do not want retribution or compensation; they just want their life back. After 2 years of waking up every to face the humiliation of false accusations of crimes I did not commit published all over the internet and at the top of a search for my name, coping with harassment (my phone number was published), leaving a tenured position in an area I loved (jumped before I was pushed), and literally BEGGING (on many occasions) the website and Google to remove it (and hence make it stop) I sued for defamation. How did this happen? Well, in 2007 I used my correct details to register with a website. The background is on this article:
    http://www.civilination.org/blog/defamation-victim-janice-duffy-phd-says-online-complaint-sites-can-ruin-peoples-lives/

    After the first media story (in ‘The Australian’ last November) I was attacked on a website in response to the article about my case. I was called a ‘c#*&’, ‘retard’, ‘crazy bitch’ and mocked by so called internet experts who said they provided services for businesses to increase their web presence. In other words their business revolved around Google. If it my statement that I was abused by ‘professionals’ seems incongruous consider that one of the trolls that abused a woman in the UK for liking a reality show contestant is a cop!!
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2194950/Nicola-Brookes-Facebook-Officer-arrested-case-mother-subjected-months-online-abuse.html

    The comments disappeared once I explained Australia’s defamation laws to the webmaster and offered to instruct my lawyer to explain these if they did not believe me (since they said I was devoid of any intelligence). The comments were mostly positive after the second media story probably because the troll cowards decided not to take on someone who may take legal action.

    If this seems like I have found an easy solution (litigation) this is SO not the truth. The material remains on Google (Bing/Yahoo removed it) as the case chugs through the long and arduous legal processes. Google has employed two law firms and are trying to break me rather than spend 5 minutes removing the material. This is a common tactic employed by media organisation to make ordinary people ‘go away’ if they sue for defamation. The whole process is indescribably gruelling.

    Apart from the financial issues I have become isolated to the point that last winter I went interstate for 48 hours rather than attend a party(I had run out of excuses to not attend social gatherings). I ended up walking around on a Saturday night in the pouring rain because the hostel in which I stayed was cold and loud. Google have lied and manipulated and, although my lawyers are winning, there have been many nights I have curled up and wished I didn’t have to wake up in the morning. There have been many (early) mornings which have found me calling Lifeline just to ensure that I DO wake up in the morning.

    My situation is not uncommon. Since I started my blog I have been contacted by people all over the world who have also pleaded with websites and the search engines to remove offensive and defamatory material without success and requesting and then pleading (just as I did) over and over again. Some of these people are mothers asking how they can get offensive webpages and blogs removed from the search engines. These mums scour the internet trying to find a way to contact the website and/or search engines to remove vile material written about their teenage MINOR children by some nasty little delinquent kid who, in all honesty, will probably grow out of it rather than grown into being a stalker. The problem is that the websites are hosted outside Australia and Google simply sends a canned response referring the request back to the webmaster that refuses or ignores the request. One mother in the UK said that she had been trying for over a year to get a webpage on a Google blog removed and she was terrified because her child was turning 18 soon.

    It takes webmasters and the search engines literally a few seconds to remove material that may save a life. Google boast that they have removed almost 6 million links to date (in 2012) in response to DMCA takedown requests. Yet they bleat about ‘freedom of expression’ in response to removal requests which, if actioned, may save a life.
    http://www.google.com/transparencyreport/removals/copyright/

    Abbott has backtracked from his ‘freedom of speech’ stance of a couple of weeks ago and stated the obvious:
    http://www.news.com.au/breaking-news/national/cyber-attacks-should-be-taken-down-abbott/story-e6frfku9-1226462189339

    In addition to pleading with the search engines I (and others) have been lobbying politicians for 2 years over this issue. Hopefully Ms Dawson’s situation has gone some way to put the issue on the public agenda. The reality is that reports of the effects of cyberbullying on non celebrities just don’t have the impact. Maybe down the track Ms Dawson can look back and see that some good came out of the events of the last few days. I hope so because if something is not done, as Helen Razer has so eloquently stated written, many non celebrities will be ‘in a corner throwing your own poo at passersby while singing the hits of Nicki Minaj’.
    http://www.mamamia.com.au/news/trolls-fame-and-blame-helen-razer-on-charlotte-dawson/

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  7. Sometimes all you need to do to get bullied is stick your head above the parapet and publish a comment that is unfasionable. I still remember posting a comment during the Bosnian War at the time of the protests against French nuclear testing suggesting that protests against the nuclear testing were happening because it was fashionable to join in and the almost complete lack of protest against the concurrent slaughter in Bosnia and Herzegovina was shameful in comparison. I got subjected to withering insult for this. Nothing like what the poor people above suffered, but it stuck.

    The lessons were – never publish under your own name, and don’t bother sticking your head above the parapet to say something unfashionable unless you are really ready for the abuse, or if there is a lot to gain – which there rarely is.

    Of course, maybe the poster before me who was trying to garner support for protests against French nuclear testing was similarly hurt by my comment. You’re right, Drag0nista, we all do it if we don’t watch ourselves carefully, so we need to keep a sharp eye within as well as without. I think this article was very thoughtful and if repeated enough will be useful.

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