New Zealand-born Charlotte Dawson, a former model and TV presenter (of shows such as A_u_s_t_r_a_l_i_a_’s_ _N_e_x_t_ _T_o_p_ _M_o_d_e_l_), was an outspoken advocate for victims of cyberbullying. After publically naming a Twitter poster who allegedly told Dawson to “go hang yourself”, Dawson herself became the victim of relentless online attacks. Watch this Today Tonight report (or read the transcript here), aired on August 29, 2012, which outlines the beginning of the attacks Dawson endured, and learn about Dawson’s subsequent hospitalisation in the Channel Ten 5pm News report (read transcript here) and the National Nine News report (read transcript here) of August 31, 2012. News reports of Dawson’s apparent suicide 18 months later, on February 23, 2014, pointed to Dawson’s fight against cyberbullying, as well as her ongoing battle with depression (see report here).
The reporting of the August 2012 incident immediately prompted comments from both the then Communications Minister Stephen Conroy and the then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, who agreed with each other that more action was needed on cyberbullying, however, as Jonathan Holmes demonstrates in this Media Watch report (read transcript here) (ABC, September 17, 2012), the issue seems to come head to head with the issue of free speech in the online environment.
While traditional bullying could be said to be confined to the school yard, with the perpetrator using exclusion, or verbal and physical abuse to bully his/her victim, the rise of social media has allowed for the bullying to go beyond the school yard, with perpetrators using a range of more insidious methods to bully their victims. An anti-bullying initiative of the Australian Government defines cyberbullying as follows (notice how this definition essentially extends face-to-face bullying into the digital world): Cyberbullying is bullying that is carried out through information and communication technology, including the internet (e.g. on social media sites) and mobile devices. Technology can expand the opportunities for people to bully others.
Communication technologies allow for different ways to bully others, but do not change the fact that the bullying behaviour (and not the technology itself) is the main issue. Technology does create new challenges for dealing with bullying.1
A study into the effects of cyberbullying on high school students in North Dublin outlines a number of different techniques used by cyberbullies:2
- “Flaming”: posting offensive messages to a victim or to a group about the victim;
- “Online harassment”: repetitive flaming;
- “Cyberstalking”: online harassment designed to inject fear in the victim through threats of violence;
- “Denigration”: posting put-downs about the victim in a public, online space, or to a group of people who potentially know the victim;
- “Masquerade”: either hacking into the victim’s social media account, or impersonating the victim in some other way, to send abusive messages to the victim’s online friends;
“Outing”: publicising “sensitive, private or embarrassing information” about the victim, in the form of either texts or images; and
- _“Exclusion”: refusing to allow the victim to participate in an online group.
A definition which captures the many methods used by online bullies is that of “trolling”: the deliberate provocation of others online with the intention of verbally abusing or harassing them for one’s own amusement.3 While not the original use of the term “troll” in online media, this definition has now become synonymous with “cyberbullying”.4 Notice that, as evident in the list above, for many victims, it is not simply a case of ignoring or blocking perpetrators of abuse, as the abusers often post to others in their victims’ social circle.
Another significant factor in this issue is that the bullying is perpetrated by school children and adults alike, and the age of victims varies equally widely. Research demonstrates that an electronic medium can give cyberbullies a sense of their own anonymity (and hence impunity), which can encourage them to be more aggressive online, as well as obscuring the effect their behaviour has on their victims, making “empathy and remorse” more unlikely.Seven News report (read transcript here) (Oct 23, 2012), which reports what happens when Charlotte Dawson confronts some of her online bullies, demonstrates the effect of anonymity and obscurity in the online environment.
Of significance to this issue is the debate between freedom of speech and the use of hateful speech, which causes harm to the receiver. There are those who advocate for uncensored freedom of speech, while others argue that there must be limits placed on speech to the extent that it does not cause offence or harm to others. The concept of human dignity is at the core of this debate. Where does human dignity lie? Is it contained in our ability to express ourselves freely and autonomously, or is it contained in our perception of ourselves, such that it can be harmed by the words and deeds of others? Similarly, what do you make of the dignity of the cyberbully? Does a cyberbully lose his/her dignity because he/she has been vilified by the community? These questions and others are discussed in the perspectives and readings below. As you read the perspectives and articles below, consider which understandings of human dignity are operative in each argument, and what shortcomings such understandings may have in light of a multidimensional understanding of the human person.
Perspective 1: Cyberbullying is an unfortunate by-product of an internet-connected society that values free speech. Any attempts to limit free speech in the online environment may affect the users’ ability to exercise their capacities for robust and autonomous discussion, thereby impinging on the dignity of all.
Perspective 2: As cyberbullying is most harmful to those who already have a low self-image, the answer lies in raising the resilience of those most vulnerable. In this way, they can better respond to experiences of cyberbullying and build their sense of self-worth in the process.
Perspective 3: The dignity which cyberbullies have in the eyes of society depends to a large extent on their portrayal in mass media reports. By effectively categorising trolling and denouncing it in the mass media, we remove any ‘dignity’ that may be associated with the actions of “internet trolls”
James Hanks discusses a number of cases where US high school students have engaged in cyberbullying of their teachers and school administration. In the cases discussed, the schools have suspended the student for making offensive webpages target a member of the school staff. However, the student was quite often able to litigate successfully against their suspension, arguing in court that the school infringed upon their First Amendment, constitutional right to free speech. Hanks explores this legal minefield where, in the US context, the effectiveness of schools’ ability to deal with cyberbullying is weakened by the high social value placed upon autonomy and freedom of expression.
Hanks, James C. “Recent Developments in Education Law: Regulating Student Speech in Cyberspace.” The Urban Lawyer 43, no.3 (2011): 723-43.
Rebecca Dredge et al analyses the impact severity of cyberbullying in social networking sites upon adolescents. They found that the attitude and self-esteem possessed by the victims was a significant factor in how they experienced cyberbullying, in terms of whether or not they were able to laugh it off as a joke. The authors also found that although the anonymity of the cyberbully and the publicity of the posted material contributed to the severity of the experience, knowing the cyberbully personally could also increase the emotional pain felt. Finally, the response of bystanders to the posted cyberbullying material could also play a role in the impact on the victim’s self-esteem.
Dredge, Rebecca, John F. M. Gleeson and Xochitl de la Piedad Garcia. “Risk Factors Associated with Impact Severity of Cyberbullying Victimization: A Qualitative Study of Adolescent Online Social Networking.” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 17, no.5 (2014): 287-91.
Jonathon Bishop presents a study of the way in which “trolls” are presented in the mass media (newspapers, websites, television), and how this presentation affects audience perceptions of those labelled as “trolls”. First, Bishop notes the problems we come across when we refer to a complex range of online behaviour with the use of the single word, “trolling.” Here, he argues that not all forms of “trolling” are motivated by a desire to bully or abuse others. Second, he argues that the specific language and imagery used to portray people who troll others online is driven by each media company’s need to please a specific type of audience and maintain their loyalty. In other words, the worldviews and values that the media company perceives in their particular audience are fed back to their audience and reinforced. Depending on what these worldviews and values are, the “troll” is accorded either more or less dignity in the eyes of media consumers.
Jonathan Bishop, “Representations of ‘Trolls’ in Mass Media Communication: A Review of Media-Texts and Moral Panics Relating to ‘Internet Trolling’,” International Journal of Web Based Communities 10, no.1 (2014): 7-24.
Bryce, Jo, and James Fraser. “‘It’s Common Sense That It’s Wrong’: Young People’s Perceptions and Experiences of Cyberbullying.” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 16, no.11 (2013): 783-87.
King, Alison Virginia. “Constitutionality of Cyberbullying Laws: Keeping the Online Playground Safe for Both Teens and Free Speech.” Vanderbilt Law Review 63, no.3 (2010): 845-84.
Li, Qing. “Bullying in the New Playground: Research into Cyberbullying and Cyber Victimisation.” Australasian Journal of Educational Technology 23, no.4 (2007): 435-54.
Lublin, Nancy. “Texting that Saves Lives.” Filmed February 2012. TED 2012 Conference video, 5:24. http://www.ted.com/talks/nancy_lublin_texting_that_saves_lives.
Sabella, Russell A., Justin W. Patchin, and Sameer Hinduja. “Cyberbullying Myths and Realities.” Computers in Human Behavior 29 (2013): 2703-11.