There were points in time when I felt bullied as a child and young adult. In fifth grade, a boy confronted me on the playground, saying I told people he “liked me.” I am summarizing, but he made clear in front of the other kids that he absolutely did not. I was embarrassed and a little fearful this thread might continue. Fortunately, it ended there on that day. At age 12, a close friend suddenly and inexplicably reversed her good opinion of me. For reasons unknown, she linked up with another girl I knew, and the two would make negative comments to the room, whenever I would walk by. It is difficult to recall how long this went on, but it felt like most of a year. My mom tried to help to only make it temporarily worse, but whether an eventual result of her actions or the two girls getting bored, the torment ended shortly thereafter. I am personally grateful these incidents occurred well before the Internet. And for the one example I can come up with in the nascent digital age during college, those bullies confined themselves to simple slander and rumormongering.
I mention the above not to engender sympathy or because the events were so insurmountable. They sound small recounting them, but I remember still the feelings of the time, and these are only shadows of the feelings that were. Despite some tears, I survived and thrived. However, if I attempt to reimagine those personal incidents as occurring in today’s cybersphere, with the digital tools at the cyberbully’s disposal, I paid only a fraction of the price for my mistakes, whether stupid, well intentioned or not even mistakes at all. Leonhard (2014) said technology does not have ethics, which is true. And for humans, technology’s inherent lack of ethics provides an ethical vacuum to jump into. Whether a child who does not fully understand consequences, or an adult who feels immune to them, the vast realm of digital anonymity allows for greater ethical extremes. The Web becomes a treacherous minefield of which we have many recent examples to examine.
Ronson’s (2015) article offers multiple real occasions of mistakes turning into career ending events. These really struck me. If I could not see myself making every error made in the piece, I could certainly see one or two as in the realm of possibility. I do not often post on Facebook. And for the most part when I do, it is only to share photos of trips after I have already returned home. I intentionally stay clear of in-the-moment updates, controversial topics and/or tirades. However, after reading the Ronson (2015) piece, I shared it on my Facebook page, along with a comment “mob mentality, alive and well.” I quoted a sentence from the article that compared ye old village square to the Internet: “I did find plenty of people from centuries past bemoaning the outsize cruelty of [public shaming], warning that well-meaning people, in a crowd, often take punishment too far.” I thought long and hard about posting the piece or saying anything at all. Digital makes possible larger, even more faceless mobs. And by no means did I receive an outsized response or was I remotely bullied with the one comment I did get. However, receiving a counter-comment was enough to make me back away from anything further. In an ideal world, the thoughtful conversation my commenter (and friend) was seeking to have would have proceeded to take place. However, having just finished reading the article in question, there was no way I was going to engage. That feels unfortunate.
Examples of cyberbullying range from the basic to extreme, from mere name-calling to life threatening. I have seen my friends and family get into outrageous disagreements online they would rarely, if ever, escalate to in person. I watched a report on an amazing argument concerning the actual number of days in a week (Bois, 2016). There was the spontaneous, short story writer, who got turned into a hateful meme for taking his typewriter to a park (Hermelin, 2013). A new show on Syfy is dedicated to various cautionary tales of how “the Internet ruined my life,” including the tale of a woman who questioned the use of ethnic slurs even when making a satirical point. Death threats and doxxing sent her into hiding (Watercutter, 2016). And there is the most tragic of all scenarios, illustrated in the documentary Audrie & Daisy (2016), where cyberbullying led to a teenage girl taking her own life.
I referenced this elsewhere in a blog comment online, but Goodman’s (2015) description of what an early days bullying example looks like in modern light was poignant. Taking what Monica Lewinsky endured in 1998 and essentially rebroadcasting it for consumption and reaction in 2015 demonstrated how very amplified bullying becomes in the digital sphere. However, the article also offered a note of hope. In attempting to apply ethical parameters to the Monica-hate-pile in progress, showing as the author puts it “what is and is not acceptable,” the tone began to change. Applying this kind of moderation to the worldwide Web seems infeasible. Yet, it is somewhat affirming to see an example of positivity spreading in much the same manner the trolling spread. Cybernetics founder Wiener said in the 1940s that the world would one day encounter a digital age fraught with “enormous potential for good and for evil” (Bynum, 2015). We are long there.
Bois, J. (2016, February 18). Pretty Good, episode 6: The Dumbest Boy Alive. SBNation. Retrieved from http://www.sbnation.com/2016/2/18/11051974/pretty-good-bodybuilding-days-in-a-week
Bynum, T. (2015, October 26). Computer and information ethics. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-computer/
Dosa, S., & Berge, R. (Producers) & Cohen, B., & Shenk, J. (Directors). (2016) Audrie & Daisy [Documentary]. United States: Netflix
Goodman, N. (2015, March 27). This is what happened when we posted Monica Lewinsky’s TED Talk. TED. Retrieved from http://ideas.ted.com/want-to-help-prevent-online-bullying-comment-on-facebook/
Hermelin, C. D. (2013, September 18). I am an object of Internet ridicule, ask me anything. The Awl. Retrieved from https://theawl.com/i-am-an-object-of-internet-ridicule-ask-me-anything-1bbb3181da27#.cgs8hcfcb
Leonhard, G. (2014, December 6). Digital ethics and the future of humans in a connected world. TEDx Talks. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bZn0IfOb61U
Ronson, J. (2015, February 12). How one stupid Tweet blew up Justine Sacco’s life. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/magazine/how-one-stupid-tweet-ruined-justine-saccos-life.html?_r=0
Watercutter, A. (2016, February 22). Here’s what happened to the woman who started #CancelColbert. Wired. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2016/02/cancelcolbert-what-happened/