Online Abuse: Think you’re safe on a professional network?

Telephone box on Whitby street at night
Telephone box on Whitby street at night
Cyber-bullying can leave you in a dark and lonely place…


[dropcap]F[/dropcap]ollowing 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…

Whitby Shores, Whitby, Ontario

By Aisha Ashraf

An autistic Irish immigrant in a cross-cultural marriage, Aisha Ashraf is the archetypal outlander, writing to root herself through place and perspective. Published in The Rumpus, The Maine Review, River Teeth, HuffPost and elsewhere, her work explores the legacy of trauma, the nature of being an outsider and the narrow confines of belonging. She currently lives in Canada.


  1. I feel your frustration, anger and disbelief, but sadly I’m not surprised by anything you’ve said. We can catch and delete offensive or negative comments on our own blogs and that’s it. There doesn’t seem to be any professional or moral responsibility/ codes of conduct on the web, or where they do exist are rhetoric only.
    So sorry this has happened to you, and understand your stress and anxiety when you’ve been brave enough to put stuff ‘out there’. Unlike you I don’t use any forums for exactly the reasons you’ve cited – life can be stressful enough without adding cyber bullying to the mix!

  2. As a gay male, I cannot fully grasp the way some men treat women. That such behaviour can appear almost anywhere including on a website for professionals irks me. The web is certainly a mixed blessing as anything including anonymity can be abused. I should add that i live in Amanda Todd’s hometown where the mayor, the business community some religious groups and others are preparing a response.

  3. I am very sorry about your experience on that site. I think I would have just left the site (but perhaps that is what the poster wants? Who knows?)

    I found your post very interesting in another way. As someone who has been very concerned about bullying and thinking about it for several years, I found the attitude you describe of forum members who questioned your decision to publish on this issue rather strange. I found it very similar to a school I worked in where the administration (who was known for bullying teachers) wanted to cover up and deny that bullying was taking place every day on the playground!

    Also, attitudes toward bullying can be affected by culture and nationality. In my case, the people trying to cover up the bullying among the children, and who were adult bullies themselves, were British. Interestingly, other British friends of mine explained to me that in British culture, bullying is considered to be “good for you” because it “toughens you up!” And the main thing is you are not supposed to complain about it or anything else, in other words, learn to “grin and bear it!” It makes me wonder if the people who said that in your forum were British, or an offshoot of British culture…..

    Lynne Diligent
    Intercultural Meanderings

    1. Thanks for your comment Lynne, it introduces an interesting point. Yes, British “stiff upper lip” famous the world over! I don’t know if my detractors were British or not – I suspect a few were from the U.S.
      Bullying exists everywhere and every culture has it’s own way of minimising it and explaining it away so they don’t lose face by refusing to deal with uncomfortable issues; you provoked it, you dressed wrongly, you didn’t do as you were told. It seems to be a fundamental element of human existence that not everyone is strong enough to restrain in themselves or even admit to.

  4. This is awful! You poor thing. How can a site not only be so unprofessional, but so uncaring, perhaps they are only interested in their stats and not in their members.
    {{hugs from afar}}
    Are you allowed to name and shame this network? Did you keep a screenshot of comments?
    The more I think about this the more I’m bristling with indignation on your part!
    Don’t let the bastards grind you down!

    1. Thanks Piglet! it’s the business equivalent of Facebook, I used their own description of “the world’s largest professional network” in my piece and yes, I have screenshots of the comments. While I’m not naive enough to believe any network is immune to this kind of thing, I did expect a greater level of professionalism on their part when dealing with it. My impression from the incident is that they don’t take it seriously – they’ve made no attempts to regain my trust by letting me know what steps have been taken and the person who spoke to me in this way is still participating in group discussions. This problem is only going to get worse if nothing’s done to show it’s intolerable and the police will see an increase in their workload resulting as more victims of cyber-bullying turn to the law when faced with the reluctance of network moderators to do anything.

  5. I’m British and I certainly wouldn’t tolerate with any kind of bullying and nor does the school where my children go to.I hope you get to the bottom of why serious action wasn’t taken earlier and if anything will be done further.

  6. You raise a really interesting point here. I’ve been wondering for a while now how on earth freedom of speech and anti-discrimination and incitement laws can work side by side now that conversation online is so free-flowing.

    There have been a few high-profile cases now in which racist or threatening Tweets have resulted in arrests but it seems it takes an awful lot of publicity before the folks at Twitter will be drawn in to even considering action against a user. Likewise Facebook etc…

    Although I love social networking in so many ways there really needs to be more awareness of what is going on online because a lot of it is at best unsavoury and at worst extremely sinister.

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