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Telephone box on Whitby street at night

Cyber-bullying can leave you in a dark and lonely place…


Following the tragic death of Amanda Todd the media brimmed with op-eds and articles about cyber-bullying and the predatory menace of cappers – people who persuade young girls to expose themselves via webcam and record it. A simple screen capture ensures a momentary act of ill-judged naivety becomes a self-inflicted web-wide humiliation, preserved for eternity.

A society in flux

The flat-out gallop of technological advancement has forced society to adjust its perceptions of privacy, safety, copyright, and acceptable behavior. We’re all in the grip of something, originally intended to open up the world, that seems to be having the opposite effect; confining us, making us averse to sharing or giving away something of ourselves in the event it could be twisted and used against us. Too much “spin” “phishing” and “trolling” have made us cynical and untrusting.

I experienced the impotent frustration of being “trolled” a few weeks ago. A troll “lurks” on the web with the sole purpose of posting aggressive and abusive comments. They’re uninterested in discussion beyond the opportunity it affords them to spew insults and hatred.

It’s a problem bloggers and web admins encounter frequently. On my blog, I control what gets published. I discard comments that don’t move the discussion forward or that link to sites with offensive or incendiary content. But if you experience abuse on someone else’s site, you rely on the tools they have in place to flag and report it.

When flagging is futile

I started a discussion in a writer’s group on a well-known professional network and was incredulous when it was bombarded with comments bristling with racial slurs, personal insults and talk of gang-rape.

Flagging them as “Inappropriate” was futile; every time I revisited the page they appeared “Unflagged” again. Other group members reported that they’d flagged them too, but nothing happened. The comments made me feel sick – they were so full of hate and so personally directed; their negative influence spread through me, saturating my confidence with doubts and seeping into my personal life.

Frustrated, (the discussion was effectively railroaded by hate-speech and pleas for it’s cessation) I emailed the group moderator. Days passed and the diatribes and expletives continued. I emailed again, then checked her profile and discovered she’d been inactive on the site for some time.

We had a runaway coach and horses with no one aboard to apply the brake.

Following the gang-rape comment, I contacted site support. I was told group content was member-generated and the group management team was responsible for decisions about inappropriate discussions or comments. Two options were suggested to help keep discussions “at a higher level of quality”: Flagging inappropriate content and contacting group management…

Oscillating between frustration and fatigue, I felt helpless. This wasn’t about “quality” it was about threatening behavior.

All attempts to continue the discussion were hijacked and I apologized to the other group members for the effect the actions of one individual were having on the conversation. When genuine discussion occurred I nurtured and encouraged it. Following the “gang-rape” comment, I urged people to voice their condemnation in the hope that more notice would be taken by the network if we spoke as a group.

Ignoring the issue

Incredibly, some people – apparently unperturbed by racism and abuse on a professional network – questioned my decision to publish my piece on the forum in the first place. An educative article dealing with the demonization of a large section of society through the misuse of religion, it was written as a response to current events. As a writer working in this field, I didn’t see how I was any less entitled to post in the forum than a poet or novelist.

I was no more amenable to being muzzled by those labelling certain subjects “no-go areas”, than I was to being trolled by a hate-filled imbecile. It became a “freedom of speech” issue that was being swept under the rug by the very people who claimed to advocate democratic values, and none of them could see the irony.

I replied to site support, reiterating my disgust at an organization trying to evade responsibility by claiming it was the moderator’s call. I drew their attention to the death-threat issued by the individual to another group member, and the group’s collective disbelief that an organization identifying itself as “the world’s largest professional network” tolerated this behavior. By this time a number of people had left the group.

The inappropriate comments were eventually deleted but the organization seemed woefully unprepared for this kind of hate-speech and verbal assault. Not only were they reluctant to take action, but when they removed the comments they failed to post a notice stating the reason, thus passing up an opportunity to send a clear message that this behavior isn’t tolerated. The abusive individual remains an active member on the site.

Moral responsibility

If this organization is the professional network they claim to be, I’d like to see them taking the issues of cyber-bullying and hate-speech seriously. Facilitators of chat-rooms and public forums have a responsibility to supervise them. Too many people behave in a manner unacceptable in the real world and those who bear the brunt of it have little or no recourse. As soon as you avoid responsibility by claiming your organization isn’t visited by racists, pedophiles, sexual predators and bullies, you’re handing them the keys to a new safe house from which to operate.

I emailed the support team expressing my concerns and requesting further action. Being trolled online leaves you feeling anxious, isolated and vulnerable. A swift and strong response from the facility’s support can provide immense reassurance. I didn’t get a reply.

I emailed again when I discovered the status of the case was listed as closed since the day they contacted me promising to investigate. I told the sardonically named Trust & Safety Department that my trust in the network was seriously eroded following the incident and asked them what steps they’d taken to prevent a recurrence. I was curtly informed they’d taken “appropriate action”. Appropriate in whose view I wonder…