Cyberbullying – we don’t appreciate the pain we cause

Parry Aftab: Mocking politicians is one thing, threats are another thing entirely

‘We too often become the digital equivalent of Dr Jekyll and Ms Hyde. There is no difference between online and offline, it’s all life. And what we do in life has consequences.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘We too often become the digital equivalent of Dr Jekyll and Ms Hyde. There is no difference between online and offline, it’s all life. And what we do in life has consequences.’ Photograph: Getty Images

 

We are all taught at an early age the difference between indoor and outside voices. We dress differently for church than we do for a picnic. We learn to say “please,” “thank you” and “you’re welcome.” Caring for each other, being responsible for our neighbours and maintaining self-respect are what helps us maintain a civil society. Then someone hands us a digital device, something upsets us and all bets are off.

What a difference a screen makes in how we behave. Impulsive technologies often lead to impulsive actions. We say things out loud we would normally only think about. We say, share and do things online we would never say, share or do offline. And we don’t appreciate the pain we deliver to those on the receiving side of our rants, jokes and cruel comments.

While digital technology and social media are powerful forces for good, not looking someone in the eye makes it easier to do hurtful things. Being on the other side of a screen gives us physical protection from our target. Thinking no one is watching helps us cross that line. Believing you are anonymous and untrackable gives us courage. We are getting our 15 megabytes of fame, favs, followers, friends, fans and watching our digital reality show play out before our digital audience. We’ll do anything to improve our ratings.

A US 13-year-old told me that his sending online death threats to others wasn’t bad. He wasn’t really going to kill anyone. He did it because he could. He wasn’t a murderer, just playing one online. We too often become the digital equivalent of Dr Jekyll and Ms Hyde. There is no difference between online and offline, it’s all life. And what we do in life has consequences.

This week the charity WiredSafety is hosting the Global StopCyberbullying Youth Summit – Ireland 2015. Over a two-day period, hundreds of young teens will join world experts to create a community action plan to address cyberbullying and sexting-related sexual exploitation of youth. We will decide together when a mean communication or online action crosses the line into cyberbullying.

Our short definition of “cyberbullying” is “minors using digital technology as a weapon to hurt another minor or minors.” “Cyberharassment” is the same definition, but applies to adults. While our Global Summit is focusing on cyberbullying of youth, there are things for adults to learn as well.

There are other important cyberabuse-related initiatives taking place in Ireland now.

New bills have been presented to address cyberbullying, cyberharassment, revenge porn and sextortion. Threats of serious bodily harm and vicious communications targeting high-profile female politicians are compelling conversations about when “speech” goes too far. Leading Irish experts in the field were asked to review digital legal reform approaches as well. Ask.fm was taken over by new owners. Twitter rewrote its terms of service and declared war against trolling and digital abuse. YouTube built in improved safeguards and Facebook has teams devoted to finding improved ways of preventing and addressing cyberbullying. It’s less about fear and more about empowerment and improving digital literacy skills. When the Lions Club gets involved, we know that we are finally reaching the tipping point.

This bodes well for Ireland and its digital citizens. It bodes well for other countries watching Ireland’s progress. The more thought and time given to the various approaches to address digital abuse, the better.

A major challenge we face, though, is defining the line between protected and criminal speech. We must then help young and old understand where those lines are, how to understand when they are crossed; and determining and communicating relevant consequences.

Luckily, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Long before the digital world was created, legal and behavioural experts debated where the line between protected and criminal speech is drawn. Credible threats are clearly on the criminal side. Insults and rude comments typically fall on the side of legally-protected speech.

Now, let’s apply this to the growing trend of directing vicious social media communications to our elected officials. Mocking politicians and saying nasty things about them, I have been quoted as saying, is “everyone’s favourite blood-sport”. And it is. Politicians unable to face nastiness and insults are in the wrong business. But, nastiness and insults are one thing. Threats are another thing, entirely.

A sexual assault threat made by an adult against another adult isn’t “cyberbullying”. It’s a threat of sexual assault and is a crime. A threat to kill someone is not “cyberbullying”. It’s a murder threat. Soliciting others to threaten someone online is a crime. And trying to pretend that just because the target is a politician these actions qualify as protected political speech is ludicrous.

Complain about politicians. Criticise them. Try to get them out of office. Support their opposition. Make jokes about them. Politicians are used to that. It’s part of the job. But threaten to assault them, kill them or hurt them and face prosecution.

Dr Parry Aftab is a digital privacy and security lawyer by trade, and an expert on cybercrime and cyberwellness. She founded and runs the charity, WiredSafety, which is hosting the Global StopCyberbullying Youth Summit – Ireland, on May 7th in Limerick and May 9th in Dublin. See cyberbullyingsummit.com.

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