Bullying has many faces

I can’t remember the first time I started chatting to this particular person on Twitter. It was early days in my Twitter-lifetime, and I probably started following him because I thought his name was cool. Then I saw from his Twitter profile that he worked for the Greens. That was no issue for me: I have good friends in both the Liberal and Labor parties, despite having worked for the Liberals back in the early 90s.

So I saw no difference in having a Twitter association with David Paris. The trick with cross-party acquaintances is to never let your political disparities overwhelm the relationship. Argue by all means, but always agree to disagree and then move on. Otherwise the friendship will never survive.

I mistakenly assumed that this was how the other Greens staffers that I would soon follow on Twitter, and meet in real life, conducted their own cross-party relationships. I attended a couple of Tweetups, which in Canberra at the time were dominated by the Greens staffers’ social group, and readily divulged my identity and background to those present even though I used a pseudonym online.

In retrospect, I should have known better. Once the Greens staffers knew that I’d once worked for the coal industry (five years before), they took particular umbrage at my criticism of Greens’ policies on Twitter. While Liberal and Labor staffers can be tribal, and vigorously defend their parties’ policies and positions, I discovered that Greens staffers take political criticism very personally, and can quickly resort to emotional and ad hominem attacks in order to defend their belief system.

Nevertheless, I continued my Twitter criticism of the Greens’ policies (along with criticism of Labor and Liberal leaders and parties). Despite the outrage expressed on Twitter at The Australian’s outing of Greg Jericho, some of the Greens’ staffers, their broader social circle and a number of environmental activists began agitating online and IRL for me to be “exposed” due to my supposed conflict of interest.

Paris sent me DMs saying his friend Dan Cass (renewables advocate, long-time Greens member and later campaign manager for the Greens in the Melbourne by-election) was particularly keen for me to be outed and that he (Paris) was doing his best to dissuade him. I said bring it on. But there were no grounds upon which to take action, and so nothing happened.

Over time, as the result of several fruitless arguments on Twitter initiated by Greens staffers who challenged my criticism of their policies, most of them just blocked me and moved on. Paris kept in touch occasionally, but only using DM.

Then one day, I did a stupid thing: I know, most of us NEVER do stupid things on Twitter, but I did. I noticed quite a number of people using #pomodoro and was curious as to what it meant. Google told me it was a productivity technique that can be applied to writing.

I started shooting my mouth off, obnoxiously decrying the value of such an artificial device, and inadvertently denigrating those who used it. I didn’t realise until later that a member of the Greens staffers’ broader social group, writer and journalism lecturer Jason Wilson, had kicked-off a group activity on Twitter encouraging others to use the technique and report back progress using #pomodoro. A number of other members of the same social group were participating and responded to my tweets with considerable, and justified, indignation. David Paris’ close friends Scott Bridges and Dan Nolan led the charge. In my usual stubborn fashion, I refused to give ground or apologise.

Without even trying, I’d manage to broaden and deepen antipathy towards me within that group, and this negativity extended out into the group’s broader social network. People I’d never heard of, such as Dan Nolan’s friends @alanzeino and @wordsonaplatfrm, started sending ridicule my way. While these tweets occurred later in the timeline, they are illustrative:

Tweets bounced around attesting to my narcissism and other attention-seeking tendencies. References were made yet again to the undesirability of me using a pseudonym. Pretty much anything I tweeted from that point on was subjected to ridicule, and sometimes I was the subject of a joke for no particular reason at all (eg. Nolan tweeted during a #qanda discussion of asylum seekers: If Drag0nista was a boat would we mount her?).

At this point, I did what is usually recommended: I blocked them all to avoid seeing what was being written. This was interpreted by some members of the group as a sign of cowardice on my part and justification on theirs.

I also blocked other members of the extended social group to avoid seeing any retweets of derogatory comments. At least one person in the group, who had barely ever engaged with me, was not happy about being blocked for “no good reason” and so the negativity continued to grow.

In addition to blocking, I deleted many of the screen shots taken of the denigrating tweets to prevent myself from dwelling upon them.

Even still, some of the group’s tweets continued to make their way to me. Sometimes people misspell my Twitter handle using the letter “o” instead of a zero (I use a zero because somebody else had already taken my preferred handle). So I have a search column set up on Tweetdeck to collect tweets that mention dragonista in case they are intended for me. Unfortunately this search function can also pick up people talking about me, and when they do my temper flares and I just can’t help but respond. According to my detractors, this confirmed my vanity and victim-complex. No doubt this post will be portrayed by them in a similar light.

The extended social group and I share some acquaintances and friends on Twitter. A few of those friends tried to dismiss some of the individuals’ behaviour as immature and unknowing of the emotional penalty being extracted. Parallels were drawn with “harmless piling on” that apparently used to occur in some schoolyards. I don’t recall that happening at my school, but I do remember being beaten by a group of girls nearly every afternoon for a month after moving to a new school. I also remember growing up with domestic violence and at other times having to deal with psychological abuse in relationships.

I can’t imagine why anyone would think that “piling on” is harmless or fun. While clearly there is a continuum of physical and psychological abuse, and degrees of wounding caused by it, it is all still abuse and should not be defended.

The treatment recently metered out to Charlotte Dawson is at one end of the continuum. Dawson was bombarded with hundreds of abusive and offensive tweets from a particularly dark corner of trolldom. Compared to the psychological wounds inflicted upon her, mine are mere paper cuts.

But Dawson’s experience, and the ensuing media brouhaha, should not lead anyone to conclude that if you’re not a troll then you’re not a bully. Sustained denigration by an individual or a group, even at a much more subtle level, can be psychologically damaging.

Anyone who suffers from a depressive condition knows that sometimes one’s mental state is fragile. Sustained ridicule might not be bullying according to the textbooks, but it can still be enough to bring on a depressive episode. I’m just thankful that my daughter drove through the night from Sydney to stop me from spiraling into despair during the aftermath of the #pomodoro wars.

While no physical threat was ever made against me, there continued to be pressure via tweets (particularly from the environmental activists) for me to be outed. In order to neutralise this threat, I decided it was time to discard what was left of my pseudonymous veil.

By that time, I’d already divulged my identity to about ten members of the Canberra press gallery (those that I had known for a very long time), and various other people around Canberra. In talking to Greg Jericho about pseudonymity for his book, and having written a post about how I use Twitter, I realised the ad hominem attacks I’d hoped to avoid by being Drag0nista were being leveled at me anyway. And by disclosing my identity, I could close down any further threats of being exposed.

So I wrote a piece which was published on ABC’s The Drum online opinion site, talking about the “nastification” of Twitter and how this was one of the factors that had contributed to my decision to declare my identity. I deliberately did not name anyone, electing instead to use the term Cool Kids to describe the extended social group that had regularly ridiculed and denigrated me.

A quick scroll through some of the comments appended to the article gives testimony to the antagonism I’d generated in some quarters by that time. [Click on the screen shot to get a readable version].

And these, which may or may not be from James Lorenz, the communications director at Greenpeace:

[Please note in the comments below that James Lorenz denies being ZombieJames].

Meanwhile on Twitter, some members of the group expressed outrage that I’d been given such a prominent (taxpayer-funded) platform upon which to express my #butthurt over a Twitter-spat. I was unfamiliar with the term and logically inferred that it meant anal rape, which as you can imagine only served to increase the ridicule sent in my direction.

Picking up on the Twitter criticism of my piece appearing on The Drum, high profile Greens-supporter Jeremy Sear wrote this in the now-defunct Pure Poison blog. Subsequent to his post, Sear expressed surprise that I would take personal offence because it was not about me but the ABC. If that was so, and given Sear thought the two Twitter-spats he’d highlighted were so inconsequential, why did he bother to give them further oxygen by complaining about their coverage on The Drum?

Here’s some other responses to my piece on The Drum:

One of the commenters on my Drum piece was Sunili, who at least used her real name in questioning whether I had any conflicts of interest while writing under my pseudonym. I knew this was a question being raised regularly by the group, and that Sunili is/was a close friend of Paris’, so I acknowledged her question as coming from the Greens in my response.

In a completely separate exchange with Sunili several months later, after challenging a tweet she made that was supportive of Bob Brown, I received greater insight into her motivations:

In response to the questions raised by Sunili and Zombie James, I detailed which roles I held when I wrote various posts to demonstrate that at no time did I have a conflict of interest. (And no, there was no conflict of interest writing about climate change when working for the Home Insulation Safety Program, because HISP focused purely on the identification and rectification of faulty insulation).

With no apparent sense of irony, the group embraced their Cool Kids label.

Do they bully me today? No. The circus has moved on. Or maybe they still do it, but out of sight and I just don’t notice.

Every now and then, though, there is a dig sent in my direction:

The Charlotte Dawson case has brought me to realise that I have mixed views about the merits of retweeting abusive or derogatory tweets.

I tend to do it to raise awareness of that person’s behaviour, especially when they are an otherwise popular person on Twitter. More often than not, though, I’m the one to lose followers for retweeting this material. And if I’m brutally honest with myself, I also retweet in the hope that someone will come to my defense. Sometimes people do, but mostly they send DMs with messages of support and urge me to block the perpetrator and move on. While I am comforted by the private messages of support, the lack of public opprobrium for the offender means they’re rewarded for their behaviour with everyone else’s silence.

Let’s not shy from this ugly fact. One of the aims of online bullying (as opposed to trolling, which is about generating and feeding off extreme emotions) is the same as in real life: to make an individual feel worthless, isolated and discredited.

While it might seem entertaining to the people who grew up with 4chan to tell their mates they’re stupid, crazy and worthless, it’s not acceptable to do so as an act of intimidation: these are exactly the same tactics used by a psychological abuser.

So why have I written this post? Surely I’m a hypocrite because I’ve said hurtful things to people on Twitter and ridiculed public figures in blog posts and articles. Yes I have, but I am mending my ways because I better understand the ramifications of doing so. I still occasionally lash out at those who hurt others or who’ve hurt me. I’ve recently used extreme language against a tweep who thought it would be fun to criticise an opposition policy by questioning whether someone had forgotten to give depression-sufferer Andrew Robb his “crazy pills”. I also sent a tweet mentioning karma to Dan Cass after the Greens by-election loss in Melbourne.

I’ve addressed the point of my hypocrisy and personal responsibility elsewhere, and suggested that it might not be enough for us all to metaphorically join hands and agree to be nicer on Twitter. What is also needed is for everyone to exert peer-pressure when they see friends being bullies online.

I’ve written this piece because of the very black and white depiction of bullying being reinforced by most of the people commenting on the treatment of Charlotte Dawson.

Bullying is not black and white. It varies in degree from threatened violence to ridicule and other denigration. If you still don’t believe the latter qualifies, ask any person who’s been subjected to subtle psychological abuse over a sustained period. That person will tell you that bullying has many faces.

It’s not just famous people who are bullied online: in fact they are the minority. In some cases, those who are bullied are targeted by an individual or group because they refuse to conform to that person or group’s world-view. Bullying does not have a political preference, but it is often deployed by political interests as a silencing-tactic. One only has to scan #auspol to realise that. From a political perspective, the purpose of bullying is to intimidate, dominate and marginalise.

When you are being bullied, ridiculed or some other way intimidated by a person or group, the most overpowering emotion you experience is feeling alone. Nothing says “you are not one of us” more than group bullying, because the intended outcome is for you to be disempowered and thereby silenced.

The treatment of online bullies is not black and white either.

If the bully is a troll, according to the conventional definition, they will continue to deploy their horrendous stealth-bomber tactics through numerous online identities for as long as their subject feeds them with outrage. In the case of trolls, the best defense IS to block and deprive them of the extreme emotional response they crave.

But blocking is less effective for those online bullies who seek to exert dominance over their subject, be it through intelligence or wit, for the acclamation of others. Whether the victim responds or not, blocks or not, this type of bully will continue as long as their peer group finds it funny or impressive. Only a push back from their peer group, or some other respected peer, will cause these bullies to back off.

So what’s my take-out message? Am I saying that no-one should ever ridicule anyone online?

Of course I’m not: I value my freedom of speech as much as the next person.

What I AM saying is that online bullying has many faces and that we should open our eyes to them all instead of just wringing our hands over trolls. When anyone ridicules someone in a sustained manner, particularly when there’s a likelihood the subject of the ridicule will be aware of what’s being said – THAT is bullying.

Bullying is used to disempower or to discredit those who don’t conform to a particular world view. It’s an intimidatory tactic used to curtail freedom of speech. It’s a behaviour that none of us should ever accept or ignore.

We must speak out more when we encounter bullying. And at the very least, we should all take Dan Nolan’s ironic advice to heart….