Keyboard as pitchfork, Internet as torch

Week six


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

Bynum, T. (2015, October 26). Computer and information ethics. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from

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

Hermelin, C. D. (2013, September 18). I am an object of Internet ridicule, ask me anything. The Awl. Retrieved from

Leonhard, G. (2014, December 6). Digital ethics and the future of humans in a connected world. TEDx Talks. Retrieved from

Ronson, J. (2015, February 12). How one stupid Tweet blew up Justine Sacco’s life. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from

Watercutter, A. (2016, February 22). Here’s what happened to the woman who started #CancelColbert. Wired. Retrieved from

15 thoughts on “Keyboard as pitchfork, Internet as torch

  1. Totally engaging! Loved the artwork and your personalized opening. You say, “the vast realm of digital anonymity allows for greater ethical extremes.” So well stated. Just yesterday I dropped in the break room to chat with a couple of the office and technical folks. They were sharing that both of them had recently lost long term friendships over statements their former friends were making on the internet regarding their opposing views on the current political situation. These two indicated that they had tried to have reasonable conversation with these former friends but that the “friends” had continued bully-like tactics on Facebook insulting and berating my workers for their stands on questioning the legality and morality of some of the recent executive orders. So although not literally anonymous – this example points out how the virtual nature enabled non-civil behavior. And it seems you allude to this possibility in discussing your wavering on posting the Ronson piece. You used great examples to highlight the varieties of cyber bullying and I also appreciated your mention of Goodman’s work, of which I was unaware, demonstrating that education can help people reframe their attitudes and modify their behavior in this realm. As for the enormous potential for good or evil … agreed. All things which engage humans have this potential. Inherent in our kind is this duality and the internet enables both love and hate to scale up exponentially. Let’s band together against the dark side … May the force be with you ~Tricia

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Tricia, many thanks for your comments. Van Dusen (2008) noted that while traditional bullying peaks in middle school, cyberbullying increases in high school. Hegman (2014) reported on a Pew study, showing 40% of adults reported experiencing cyberbullying. It seems as though while we learn as children what acceptable forms of interaction are, we completely disregard the lesson in the digital sphere as we age. And though adults are technically more equipped to handle emotional distress, it makes it no less hurtful (Bendig, 2014). I appreciate the note on banding together, as we all have a role whether parent, school administrator, individual, or employee…and may the force be also with you.

      Bendig, P. (2014, October 27). The heartache of bullying doesn’t have an age limit. Huffington Post. Retrieved from
      Hegman, S. (2014, October 23). Study: 40% of adults experience cyberbullying. AdWeek. Retrieved from
      Van Dusen, A. (2008, September 15). How to stop cyber-bullying. Forbes. Retrieved from


      1. Thanks for the additional references and perspective. Unfortunately I think we will have some additional time to study and observe adults in the cyberbully space over the next few years. Thanks for your thoughtful commentary. ~Tricia


  2. Nice post, and nice comment by Tricia! As EA noted in his blog, this is a problem both in classrooms and in businesses…and the current political situation – as Tricia said – seems to be amplifying it. Both sides seem to be talking past each other. I am hopeful that moderation is possible…but worried given how different demographics view the problem. We are so polarized. I shared a Pew study on Twitter earlier today –


    1. Very captivating post…and subsequent comments! I share Dr. Watwood’s hope for moderation amid a worry based on the current polarization. The seeming necessity to label our views and those with which we align as “right” and “real” while casting those views which differ as “wrong” or “fake”…(and also noting the proliferation of actual false stories intended to oppose another viewpoint) is very concerning. Bynum’ s article references the principles of Freedom, Equality, and Benevolence, which all seem to leave ample room for respectful disagreement. Embracing these though requires actual and meaningful connections across our various divides, and not simply talking past others, as Dr. Watwood noted is unfortunately, all-too-common. May we find a way to connect with others in embracing the similarities we share as co-participants in a free, equal, and benevolent society rather than ideological opponents.


      1. EA, thank you for your additions. I love your reference to Bynum’s principles by way of encouraging respectful disagreement. Active listening also is a great way to model respectfulness and hopefully receive it in return. If we really work to hear what someone is saying, the reasons behind it are made clearer and sometimes surprising in a good way.

        I read recently about a really interesting service provided via text…dedicated active listening in the digital space (Wolbe, 2016).

        Wolbe, S. (2016, April 29). Active listening to improve…everything. Huffington Post. Retrieved from


    2. Dr. Watwood, thank you for the comments and resource. In addition to the polarization over the issues, we now have as a model a cyberbully using the digital space to attack individuals and incite threats (Shear, 2016). I fear it will only get worse.

      Shear, M. (2016, December 8). Trump as Cyberbully in Chief? Twitter attack on union boss draws fire. The New York Times. Retrieved from


  3. I loved your title, and the content kept my attention, and concern, throughout. I don’t spend a lot of time on Facebook, and treat is mostly as you do (e.g., I just posted a picture of my 24th wedding anniversary at the Biltmore with my wife). But I find it amazing how many folks feel compelled to fight for their political agendas on that medium. I just, this morning, noted a post about someone criticizing those that unfriend him for his political posts. He claimed that the unfriending somehow proved him right. Whatever logic he was referencing was foreign to me. I was tempted to post something like, “you keep believing that”, then unfriend him, but truly would rather not get pulled into the nonsense.
    But I do think that folks get courage behind the opacity of the digital cloud. A friend of mine once referred to a customer who was truly mean when on the phone, but nice in person. He called him a “phone Napoleon”. I suspect that this is happening a lot on social media, and have told my kids that they should not say anything on social media that they would not say in person. The problem is, and as your title suggests, gang mentality can quickly kick in, and what would normally be unacceptable, suddenly seems okay (because others are doing it). This is a natural phenomenon and I had my own natural experiment on this years ago. I was teaching a Novell networking class and there were only three men in the class. One of the men naturally spoke with swear words all the time. The problem was that the others starting using the language and, by the end of the class, I found myself having to close the door for fear that my boss would hear me swearing. Once it is allowed, it can quickly escalate.
    Thanks for a very interesting and engaging post.


    1. I had something similar happen – the link I added above I also posted on Facebook, with the simple comment – “the racial divide is striking.” A co-worker from 20 years ago jumped on that with a rant that this proved it was Obama’s fault, given how he and his Attorney General treated police. Wow! Where did that come from?!?! And by the way, this person is a senior vice president of a bank.


    2. Peopleologist, thank you…I absolutely agree we affect each other and even at very young ages (Markman, 2009). I experienced something similar to what you described. My first year in college, I had a number of male friends in the Navy. While I would curse prior to spending time with that group, I was always able to adjust my language when with different audiences. I realized I had reached a point where I no longer seemed capable of consciously controlling my words (and had to acknowledge how much the group had affected me) when visiting my parents for Christmas that year.

      I started my own little experiment here at home a few years back. Rather than tell my son to say thank you, I wondered if I could get him to pick it up. Whenever my husband makes dinner, I thank him as we sit down. The first time my son beat me to it was infinitely rewarding.

      Markman, A. (2009, October 30). Your actions affect what others do. Even when those others are infants. Psychology Today.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Good afternoon. This conversation sounds to be as timely for you all as it has for me. I recently posted that I had grown tired with the angry, nasty, and negative Facebook postings and how I missed enjoying humorous posts and pictures of kids and puppies on Facebook. The comment was somewhat in jest, but of course, it was made in hopes of curving the current postings of others. I was personally attacked with comments which lead to me “unfriend” as many people as I could and to take the Facebook app off of my phone. The comment of “digital courage” could not be more accurate! So well said! I am not proud to admit that I once was a bully. I bullied the bullies. I was always big for my age, and I always felt that I needed to stand up for the “little guy.” I know it wasn’t right but punching the bully in the nose did typically give the bully pause before they picked on someone else. As I was reading the blog, I was wondering if I would have tried to cyber bully the bully if I was an adolescent today. On more than one occasion, I have commented that the digital age has made it incredibly difficult for adolescents. The fact is, “digital courage” has made it difficult for many of us.



    1. Jason, thank you! You are definitely not alone. A 2014 Pew study found that 25% of Facebook users were blocking people because of political commentary (Markowicz, 2016). I am interested in what that number is now.

      Markowicz, K. (2016, October 9). You’re ruining Facebook (and friendships) with political rants. New York Post. Retrieved from


  5. Hi Unicorn Magis,

    This past summer my soon be step-daughter had a situation where one of her friends began to bully her online. The situation was quickly resolved when a group of my step-daughters friends came to her defense and basically bullied back. (I am not condoning this behavior rather saying it stopped the bully.) While most of this was going on my step-daughter went off online because we were on vacation out of the country. When we looked at her social media after returning home, I was stunned by the number of people involved. It was a real eye-opener for me, and I made some changes to the rules in my online classes because of that situation. As a communication grad student, I had read a lot of research suggesting people were more likely to be cruel when hiding behind a computer screen, but somehow I was still shocked by the whole situation.


    Ps. I like the title of your post!


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