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On Cyber Bullying, Celebrities, Politics, and the Law in Social Media

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Controversial subjects are tough to write about. I avoid writing about them because I generally prefer to take some time to think about an issue before I come up with a stance. Well, unless it's an issue that I am quite familiar with. But, even then, every story has more than one side to it. And, often, there are many aspects of that story that never gets told.

That's why when it comes to blogging and social media, I don't mind not being the first to write or to send out my opinion on topical matters. I want to watch and to learn first before I try to share what I think.

And, yesterday, I have spent some time thinking about cyber bullying. I already know what I feel about the topic. I already know what I think. I have no doubt: It's wrong. It's unethical. And yes, it's illegal.

But, stories and situations come in different forms.

The news of Australian celebrity, Charlotte Dawson, getting hospitalised after being repeatedly attacked by vicious "Twitter trolls" has created a lot of debate. Many people condemned such attacks, saying that no one deserves to be told to hang herself, to die, and to be called all sorts of names; whilst others think she has "overreacted", "fed the trolls", and "has had it coming because she is also vicious and a bully."

I do not know Charlotte Dawson outside of seeing her on local television sometimes. I have never read an article about her before this issue came up. I do not follow her on Twitter. What I have learned over the last 24 hours, however, is that she has received about a hundred hateful comments, some of which were accompanied by violent images, over a span of 7-8 hours. She ended up reporting an attacker to that person's employer, and that person got suspended from a job. After a number of back-and-forths on her Twitter account (including ReTweeting the hateful posts), she posted a couple more updates on Twitter. Later, she was rushed to the hospital.

Before learning about Charlotte Dawson's situation, I was just reading about Philippine Senator Tito Sotto's claims that he has been cyber bullied by the Filipino online community. And, due to this, he plans on campaigning for stricter regulations on blogging.

Based on the Senator's definition of cyber bullying, no blogger or social media personality should be allowed to show any form of dissent or disagreement with a politician (and in his case, also a celebrity). As far as I know, no one has repeatedly asked Sotto to die or to hang himself incessantly. People have just been saying that he has been found to have plagiarised a blogger, and yet he continued to claim he didn't do anything wrong, even if his own staff has said that yes, they did use the blog of that US blogger for his speech. Apparently, politicians have immunity from plagiarism laws and the like.

So, from what I have read, Sotto seems to want to support censorship when online sentiment doesn't suit a public personality. If we go by this regulation, then most of us online would likely end up with a criminal record.

If we should ever find ourselves in the shoes of Charlotte Dawson and other similar cases...

None of us would react in exactly the same way. It would be fairly hypocritical to say otherwise because:

1) None of us REALLY know the full story, regardless of how much we have read about it and how well anyone knew the people that had to live through it...

2) None of us are made of the same stuff. We all have different emotional, mental, psychological, etc strengths and weaknesses. What seems "like nothing" to someone may affect someone else a heck of a lot more.

However, in times like these, I think we could all use a way just to stop. Pause a bit before we respond to a hateful post or email. Pause a bit before we condemn someone for being "sad and pathetic" by feeling vulnerable when they are in a difficult situation. There are times when this "toughen up, princess!" attitude just doesn't always apply.

If we see a person bullying another person, and then that same bully get beaten up by even bigger bullies... Do we say, "Serves that person right for being such a bully! They got what they deserve." or do we stop and say, "Bullying is wrong. Full stop. That bully was terrible for hurting someone but they don't deserve to be bullied too."?

And, if we do believe that bullies deserve to be bullied, then what does that say about all victims of bullying and harassment? Did they get attacked because they were all asking for it? Where does it stop?

In fact, I am a bit bemused when, during my background reading of this issue, I encountered a post by an outspoken critic of Charlotte Dawson who reckons that the celebrity deserved what she got. I thought that was pretty rich coming from a person who has berated me online several times, threw vicious accusations my way, and emailed me with a threat with the intent to "ruin" me.

But then again, maybe I shouldn't be too surprised. Bullies never think that they are being bullies. It's always someone else's fault.

Yes, Social Media 101 and anti-cyber bullying advisers* agree , the best way to deal with cyber bullies:

  • Refuse to pass on messages of cyber bullies.
  • Block communications with cyber bullies.
  • Report cyber bullying to officials or an adult.

Unfortunately, Charlotte Dawson seemed to have been unable to use these basic tips on anti-cyber bullying for whatever reason that only she knows about.

However, regardless of our personal inclination towards Charlotte, fan or not, she still didn't deserve the attacks. No one does.

Even criminals and prisoners get basic rights, even when they don't seem to deserve those rights.

Yes, bullying is sickening and should be stopped.

Having managed and participated in various online communities for over 13 years, experiencing different types of trolls and bullying behaviours, has become part of the job description. If you're in the public eye, it's almost to be expected. It shouldn't be, but it is. As long as there are people who think that it's okay to say terrible things about individuals in public, then this will continue to happen. As long as we continue reading and supporting those very people, then it will just encourage these behaviours.

And yes, I have an idea of the terrible effects that these behaviours can have on one's psyche. Not just for me, but others who has had similar experiences.

In the beginning, I used to be upset a lot. There was even a time when a couple of cyber bullying experiences (+added stress of other things going on at the time) made me want to give up being online completely. I remember feeling physically ill when I got up in the morning and had to do my work online. I was literally shaking every time I booted my computer. I came close to depression.

I hardly ever talked about it in public (and, as far as I know, I've never really blogged about it), because I was concerned that it might incite others. Or that people will give out labels that Charlotte Dawson has been getting: "sad", "pathetic", "overreacting", etc.

Does that make someone a bad person for not being "tough enough"? Are we just being overly dramatic or hyper sensitive? Maybe.

Or maybe, it's okay not to be that "tough" all the time. Otherwise, we may lose our humanity. People who are never vulnerable seem to have trouble showing enough compassion for others. Just because they think they can be tough, everyone else should be able to do it too. Why is that?

Having said that, I have developed a thicker skin since the early days. I had to. Survival mechanism. But, I still have my limits.

Sure, I can often just delete, block and ignore the average troll now. Although, I have been known to slip every now and then when things get to me. If I feel the need to say my piece, I do so, then move on. If they continue to harass me, I block them. Sometimes, with the reminder that if they continued to contact me, I will pass their information on to the authorities.

However, I have not encountered the type of heavy duty trolling / harrassment that Charlotte Dawson encountered. So, truth be told, I don't know what I would have done in her situation. I know what I would have liked to do or what I would have advised others in a similar position . That is:

  • Don't retweet, just block and ignore.
  • Talk to someone who can help to calm down and find a way to de-stress before taking on the next steps
  • Don't contact employers of attacker, just pass the attacker's information to authorities and file legal complaint instead and let officials investigate and deal with it.
  • Use the opportunity to educate people about cyber bullying and what can be done.

BUT, I am not Charlotte Dawson, and I was not in her situation. I don't know why she did what she did, or why she didn't do what she could've done.

But regardless, trolls and cyber bullies can't win. There is no excuse.

Organisations like the Community Brave Foundation, which Charlotte is said to be a supporter of, can hopefully keep making a difference through awareness, education, and advocacy. Cyber bullying laws should be reviewed, and adjusted, if necessary. People who do get attacked should know that they can come to authorities and find protection, when needed. We all could use the assurance that we can be safe online.

And, Senator Tito Sotto?

Sotto should probably get new advisers --- the kind who won't plagiarise bits and pieces of his speech from bloggers, get caught, and represent him this way. The kind who can explain to him the difference between real cyber bullying and harassment - and just encountering the reactions of his constituents to his politics. Those constituents just happen to have voices online. And no, he can't stifle those voices just because he feels like it. If he really thinks that bloggers are using their voices to bully others, then, he better address the bullying issues - not the blogging.

Yes, people hurt other people - not the tools or the platform.

Some people will most likely use these incidents to give those warnings about the use of Twitter, blogs and social media in general. How they can lead to these types of horrible things.

No, they do not. Not by themselves.

It's the people who use these tools that make the choices on whether to use them for good or for destructive purposes. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of people who have benefited from the use of social media for social good.

Yes, there are also many who have suffered because there had been inappropriate use of Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc. But, it's not the tools that made them happen. It's people.

That's why improving laws to protect individuals, educating the public, and supporting compassion are the things that we need to learn to keep doing better in our society.

*That site is directed towards teens, but should be applicable to adults too.

About the Author Shai Coggins (MTeach, MSoc Sci App Psych)

Shai has been managing and blogging here at ShaiCoggins.com for 17 years. Here, she writes about creativity, productivity, and how to recharge for a better, happier lifestyle. She is the author of Today: Life Journal, Colour Bliss: Kaleidoscopes, and a little known children's book. A serial entrepreneur, Shai also currently runs Vervely.com, a boutique digital media agency offering online content, community, and conversion marketing services. Her blogging experience and digital work have been featured in various media, including being listed in Fast Company's "Most Influential Women in Technology" list. Originally from Manila, Shai lived in Singapore and the USA before moving to Australia with her British husband. They have two children, a pet bunny, and a rambunctious rescue Labrador.

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