Lately I’ve been wondering a lot if certain online behaviors aren’t comparable to alcoholism or a gambling addiction. Specifically, bullying and targeted harassment campaigns, because for the most part, I have a very hard time believing that someone can calmly or rationally express himself in the manner so many seem to do. To me, harassment online resembles a blackout drunk picking a fight much more than a scholarly debate.
In general, we tend to talk about the subjects of bullying online, but what about the damage the perpetrators are doing to themselves as well? There’s some indication that participating in aggressive online behavior makes someone more likely to suffer from substance abuse, be unable to form meaningful relationships or behave in a socially acceptable manner in real life. Quite literally, hurting others often is hurting you just as much.
What’s more disturbing is just how accessible the potential to engage in online bullying is. When I was growing up, you had to be sitting in front of a PC using dial-up Internet to connect to others. Now we all carry a computer with us 24/7 and it’s loaded with any number of social media platforms that can make you instantly famous with the right (or wrong) tweet. Imagine if someone had a gambling problem, and there was literally an automated lottery ticket dispenser attached to him or her at all times. The temptation to indulge would be overwhelming.
I’m generally a positive person, so I like to believe that most of what we see in harmful online behavior results from a lack of self-reflection. Few of us consciously question every action, but maybe it’s time to step back and evaluate exactly what the heck we’re doing. We have to ask, “Are we the baddies?” In hope of facilitating that, I’ve compiled ten warning signs of online bullying behavior. It might be good to ask…
10. Do I create fake or temporary accounts to talk to people who have blocked me?
Just as we have the right to free speech, so does every person have the right not to speak to whomever they don’t want to speak with. That’s why social media always has a feature to put up walls between us. Trying to scale those walls, particularly so something negative or mean can be said, is a serious sign that someone is a bully. No one is entitled to be listened to.
9. Do I hide my online interactions from my family and friends?
There are some good reasons to have multiple identities online, like having a family account to keep in touch with relatives but a more honest account to discuss topics they may not agree with. However, if the reason for the separate account is that friends and family routinely call out online behavior as hurtful or mean to the point it has to be hidden from them, it’s a good indication that behavior is wrong.
8. Do I aggressively engage people I don’t personally know if they haven’t engaged me first?
Whether Facebook and Twitter count as “in public” is a topic for debate, but public or not, there’s little reason to approach a stranger to yell at him or her. It’s rude to interrupt a guy talking about politics while he’s sitting in a Starbucks with a verbal jab against his beliefs, and it’s just as rude to wade into someone’s profile to do the same. Just because someone is overheard does not invite a debate or an insult from a stranger.
7. Do I seek out personal information on people I disagree with?
Doxxing, the practice of looking up phone numbers and addresses of people you disagree with online, is a low tactic that makes victims feel unsafe and terrified. The only justifiable reason to seek out someone’s home address is if there’s good reason to believe he or she is in immediate danger, and even then you should alert authorities instead of posting it anywhere. Sending someone his or her own personal details to scare that person is bullying at best and a serious threat at worst.
6. Do I pretend the Internet isn’t “real?”
The Internet is full of forum threads that will tell you online bullying isn’t real, or if it is real, it’s not so bad. Nonetheless, online bullying kills people all the time and unlike with real-world bullying, there is often no escaping it outside of shutting yourself completely out of the online world. Pretending that online abuse doesn’t count is pretending that an increasing number of parents buried imaginary children.
5. Do I join others in mass engagement of a target?
It’s one thing to be a random angry voice in someone’s life. It’s quite another to be a part of a chorus of voices forming an angry hurricane of noise in someone’s life. In the social media news cycle, we often find ourselves all looking at the same person at the same time, and usually not in a positive way. It’s tempting to join the throng, to do what everyone else is doing, but if the goal is to let someone online know that he or she has earned some rancor, and other people are already screaming, then there’s no need to amplify it and make it spread.
4. Do I act as if sending mean messages is part of something larger?
Chan (anonymous message) boards are famous for starting “operations” designed to large-scale annoy people on Twitter and other platforms. They have codenames and use military lingo to coordinate a maximum amount of engagement. Often this is framed as a fight back against something in a noble cause, but few truly positive, meaningful changes in the world have been accomplished by large-scale harassment of individuals. Usually it’s the opposite of that.
3. Is the person I’m addressing a member of a marginalized group?
Women, LGBT people and minorities already face both macro and microagressions out in the world far in excess of what the average straight white cismale will ever encounter. Such people make good targets for bullies because their marginalized status makes it harder for them to fight back. Bullies pick on people the world is already giving a hard time, and they have the added bonus of being in a majority and therefore able to dismiss their marginalized victims’ lived experiences as not real or as abnormal.
2. Do I compete for shock value?
The term “edgelord” refers to people online who are in a race to see who can say the most offensive thing. They quite literally turn slurs and threats into a game to be won.
1. Are the people sending messages similar to mine, well, assholes?
Every group of any size will have some real crappy people involved. That’s just the law of averages. However, it’s important to take stock of just how many crappy people we end up agreeing with. Are there a lot of people with some severe issues with trans people? Are some of them “skeptical” about the Holocaust having happened? Do they tell rape jokes or spout overtly racist rhetoric?
Again, I can find those people in any group of significant size, but the question is, “Are they overly prevalent in the group I am currently a part of?” Because if they are, then what does that say about me that I associate with them, even if what we associate over is unrelated to their more deplorable aspects?
Answering “yes” to even one of these questions is a troubling sign. Most of us have probably done at least one. Was my tweeting mean jokes with the #FreeKimDavis hashtag ultimately helpful, or did I just join an angry mob? Yes, I can say that I was amplifying the response against her blatant and illegal bigotry, but that doesn’t make me not a bully to her, does it? Wouldn’t sending her a letter in jail asking her to see reason have been at least as effective for the cause I believed in as me sending out “#FreeKimDavis with purchase of selectively edited Bible?”
But then I wouldn’t have gotten to perform before the Internet, would I? That’s a major part of the problem with online bullying. We treat other people’s lives as our performance art.