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.

Gerry Harvey: How did it all go so wrong?

How did it all go so wrong? Perhaps that’s what Gerry Harvey is thinking right now. And so he should. In the space of a day, the canny retailer has succeeded in turning his own reputation from a positive to a negative.

Earlier this week Harvey was the home-grown success story, the eccentric billionaire with a canny ability to predict and tap into the psyche of everyday Australians.

Today he is the public face of a badly crafted campaign to force and shame Australians into curbing their online shopping behaviour. Harvey is now perceived as an arrogant capitalist, interested only in lining his own pockets with the limited cash earned by hard-working Australians.

How did it all go so wrong? To an interested observer it is quite clear. The campaign by the Australian retail industry is flawed no matter which way you look at it.

Politically, there are no votes in it. It pays to remember that it took three politicians to attempt bringing in a GST (Keating, Hewson, Howard) before it was successfully introduced by Howard in 1998. Even then it was a high-risk strategy and it would take a brave politician to extend the GST’s scope even now.

At a policy level, the imposition of GST on online purchases increases rather than lightens the regulatory load, with no discernable public benefit delivered as a result. No modern government would interfere in a market by increasing regulation without being able to point to a considerable public benefit.

From a behavioural perspective it would take more than a 10% tax to dissuade online shoppers, particularly when the price differential is often more than that and online shoppers still don’t have to contend with carparks, checkout queues or limited choices on the shelves.

And perhaps most importantly, the campaign is flawed from a communications perspective. Its key messages have no resonance with the people whose behaviour it is trying to influence, namely the politicians and the shoppers.

It appears the retailers’ campaign was neither strategically planned nor deployed.

No organisation should try to influence or change public policy without covering all these bases. The retailers should have been armed with market research and economic modeling to demonstrate that their case was legitimate and that it could deliver both political and public benefits as well as the behavioural change they sought.

They should have engaged on this issue at the departmental level first, with complementary briefings provided to MPs, key ministerial advisers and relevant journalists. This “pincer movement” strategy has the best chance of securing the attention of decision makers and creating the necessary momentum to get a favourable policy decision.

If these avenues have been tried and failed, it may have then been appropriate to take out ads in the newspapers.

But there is an old saying in the world of lobbying and advocacy: if you have to run to the media, then you are admitting that your other lobbying strategies have failed.

Going to the media is the final resort, a very public last-gasp attempt to shanghai a minister into a favourable decision. More often than not, this tactic will fail too because it is seen by both politicians and public servants as unnecessarily aggressive, overtly disruptive and ultimately self-centred. None of these perceptions serve well when one is trying to influence government.

And finally, perhaps the greatest weakness in the retailers’ campaign is its demonstrated misunderstanding of shopper motivations and behaviour.

Instead of spending mega-dollars on newspaper ads, the retailers should have taken steps to understand why customers shop online and how they might be enticed back.

The GST campaign suggests they have not done this even this basis homework, because it is clear that people shop online for more reasons than price alone.