The Rise of Online Hostility

Online hostility has been around since the “early days” of online forums and message boards, but with the rise of social networking sites and the increasing ease of online participation, it’s become even more widespread.

Two years ago awareness about the issue was drawn to the forefront after the much-publicized death threats received by Kathy Sierra. Last month social media scholar dahah boyd was the target of harassment at Web 2.0 Expo. And this week the escalating battle between a mommy blog site and her anonymous critics – who have gone to great lengths to point out the meanspiritedness of some information on the mommy site by being meanspirited themselves – continues. Unfortunately there is no shortage of incidences.

(These three examples don’t even start to address the issue of cyberbullying experienced by minors, which carries additional ethical and legal complexities.)

I’m no stranger to online hostility. Like many people, I’ve been on the receiving end of my share of attacks, and in speaking out about the need for cybercivility, I’ve even, ironically, received a thinly veiled physical threat.

I wonder… when did it become an apparently accepted online norm to try to silence people by insulting, intimidating and attacking them through aggressive online behavior? When did such actions against individuals too frequently become the reaction of choice instead of engaging in spirited debate and passionate dissent? And when exactly did the rest of us agree to stand by, often turning a blind eye, and allow this to happen, instead of speaking out in vehement protest and demanding a cultural change?

Fortunately there are serious efforts underway by advocates, attorneys and concerned individuals to halt the progression of online hostility via public education about the problem, anti-cyberbullying/harassment programs and legal restraints. I proudly count myself among them.

In the coming weeks and months I’ll be speaking out more about this, as I’ve already done on my Twitter account. Stay tuned.


17 thoughts on “The Rise of Online Hostility

  1. I think that a lot of people would rather keep their mouth shut and “stay below the radar” than to speak of being bullied online. After all, the bully often couches the attack as a joke, as in, “Can’t you take a joke?”

    Not sure how we can really make a dent in this problem but am really looking forward to the concrete steps that I know you will take to make a go of it.

    Fight on!

  2. I don’t really think there is an increase, just that when the hostility is done in cyber-space and not meat-space there is a record of it. On dana boyd’s blog I mentioned that the suicide rate for children has not gone up as social media has become a larger part of their social lives, it has gone down. I think the instances of cyber-bullying are better documented because the interactions are recorded and when something bad happens the records can be checked. That is not the case in meat-space. Events are only investigated when something really bad happens, and then the perpetrators may be the only witnesses. Of course they are going to lie about their actions.

    Cyber attacks are unacceptable, but no less unacceptable than the meat-space attacks that occur all the time; there was the recent case of the woman who was gang-raped in Iraq but was prevented from suing the employer that allowed this to happen because she had previously agreed to binding arbitration as a dispute settling mechanism. I suspect that the only reason she is alive is because she was able to get a message out, a message that was recorded in cyber-space.

    It may appear that there is an increase in online bullying, but I suspect that is an artifact of who was the first to go online, and who is going online now. The first people to go online were the nerds, the geeks, a class of people not known for their misogynistic and bullying prowess. They had plenty of RPGs to pwn n00bs in, they didn’t need to bring the hostility to non-RPG cyber-space. The bullies can’t hack it in RPGs, so if they are going to be successful at bullying someone, they have to take it where it is not expected, where there are no equalizing safe-guards, where there is no way to fight back, where they are anonymous.

    I think that most bullies would not bully as much if their actions were recorded and their bullying become known to others in their social environment, meat and cyber-space. I think that is one approach that should be taken. There are public figures who bully in public, for example the anti-gay marriage activists. There are public figures that demonize individuals and so make them “fair game” and targets for violence as abortion providers were demonized. There are politicians who whip ignorant crowds into adopting a mob mentality using lies such as “death panels”, “keep government out of Medicare” and the like are also guilty of inciting hatred. The bullies and enablers of bullies need to be called on it in public by main stream media. Corporations that support politicians with such hate-inciting messages need to be boycotted until they stop, or destroyed if they do not. The boycott against corporations that advertise on Glen Beck’s show was pretty effective.

  3. There is, in addition, the effect of trolling for pay, especially where controversial topics that have large lobbies attached are concerned.

    When a small number of people spend a great deal of time on focused attacks, the number of people involved in bullying can be overestimated.


  4. Thanks for everyone’s comments and thoughts. I’ve been active online for several years now – and I’ve pretty much seen it all, meaning the good and the bad – and strongly support the move towards an online culture where everyone can freely participate in a democratic, open, rational and truth-based exchange of ideas and information, without fear or threat of being the target of unwarranted abuse or harassment.

  5. I agree with daedalus2u. I would just add that I think it really comes down to anonymity. When people feel safely anonymous in any space it’s easier to treat others rudely, even in “meat space”. Driving is a good example. Behind the wheel of a car you’re effectively alone and nearly anonymous, a great deal of nasty behavior can be seen there too. The anonymity gets rid of the moderating effect of being socially stigmatized or ostrasized for failing to act within the rules of civility. It’s one of the reasons RPGs even today (not played exclusively by geeks anymore) are often fairly polite places to be. You may be anonymous, but there are actual repercussions within that space for bad behavior.

    I’m curious to see what you think should be done, but since I don’t think we should be forcing anyone to reveal themselves online I don’t think things will change. We already have laws to deal with harassment and threats. I think it ultimately comes down to creating and participating in online communities within which there are social norms that encourage civility.

  6. Online anonymity is a complicating factor, for sure. I’m not in favor of disallowing anonymity per se (in politically repressive regimes, it is often a necessity), but don’t feel it’s necessary in the vast majority of situations – and don’t support someone trying to hide their identity for illicit or unscrupulous purposes.

    Yes, “creating and participating in online communities within which there are social norms that encourage civility” is an important step, as is not supporting (even indirectly or inadvertently) uncivil behavior.

  7. At times Andrea I have seen it as being accepted on many web blogs when it is conforming to the group think of the blog. The only time I’ve seen civility is when it is rigidly enforced on a blog for all it’s members and that is a rarity.

  8. I’ve noticed a huge increase in the use of “**hug**” as a response to trolling and this is, weirdly, the second blog tackling this issue I’ve read today.

    Perhaps it was a short lived reaction to the anonymity and, as we adapt to it and networking links us to our comments, we are becoming more circumspect?

  9. Discussion of possible legal approaches will require more time and space than available in a single comment. However, a good starting point for discussion is becoming familiar with George Washington University Law School professor Daniel Solove’s book “The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor and Privacy on the Internet.”

  10. Surfing from Jim Henley’s link…

    Launching verbal attacks from a computer keyboard is akin to yelling abuse at other drivers while you’re in traffic. The setting makes you feel as if you’re in private, but in actuality you’re in public. The shift from considering your actions as private to acknowledging them as public is a wrench for many people, at least some of the time.

  11. You didn’t address gender specifically, but if you look at lot of the cyberbullying is directed at women. Some of the most horrific comments I’ve ever read have been found on feminist blogs. Threats of rape, physical harm, et cetera. It makes you wonder just what kind of culture we live in, that some men feel free to say these things on the Internet.

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