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.

 


The Ethics of Reposting Photo of Alleged Attacker

In Is this Blog Justice?, Philip Young questions whether the reposting of a photograph of Jackie Danicki’s alleged attacker on the London Underground by others is ethical:

“If someone we know were to be attacked we’d all want to do what we could to help. We might think that a reasonably well read weblog offered a useful platform for doing so. But would it be ethical?….

… as the CIPR [see the Chartered Institute of Public Relation’s Social Media Guidelines — Consultation here] thinks about a social media code of conduct which includes issues of competence, I wonder if this incident highlights an important distinction between citizen journalism and its more established equivalent?”

(A quick point: Please read Jackie’s disturbing story, as well as the additional information she leaves in the comments on her post. Also note that I’m using the word “alleged” here not to question Jackie veracity, but as a legal term reflecting the status of her claim.)

Perhaps I’m mincing words, but I’m not sure the question is one of ethics as much as asking whether the republishing of the photograph of the individual in question is the right thing to do vs. whether it is legally sound to do.

If this man is the person who actually committed the assault (which is the issue here), then one could argue that finding him and bringing him to justice is a social responsibility, part of which is asking the public to help identify him. One could further argue that republishing his photograph on a private blog is not that different from publishing it through an official law enforcement site, at least conceptually, assuming the original source of the information is reliable. Furthermore, since the attack occurred in a public setting, an argument of invasion of privacy by the assailant could not be as easily made.

However, whether this is a legally sound action is another matter. Should any initially unknown facts or issues arise, anyone who has republished the photograph puts themselves at greater risk than simply having linked to the original post or Jacki’s Flickr picture (which, by the way, as of right now has been viewed 2,604 times). And should the assailant make any counterclaims of harm caused him by the publishing or republishing of the photograph (stranger things have happened), then anyone who has participated in this may be on the line as well.

For what it’s worth, I commend Jackie for having handled the attack as she did — by filing an official report, by publicly sharing her story, and by having the wherewithal to take a photograph of the alleged assailant and posting it on her blog. Hopefully the perpetrator will be caught soon.

 


Technology Helps Manage Logistics & Maintain Parent-Child Bonds Despite Divorce

Divorce is always a sad thing, but especially when dependent children are involved. However, regardless of any past animosity between former spouses, communicating effectively with each other on a regular and ongoing basis — and approaching the raising of kids as a team effort — is usually beneficial to everyone in the long run.

Fortunately, there are tools available to help adults manage the logistics of two or more households and schedules.

The KidsNCommon site (fee-based, free for 30 days), for example, helps parents establish a “community” within which an invited person — the other parent, a relative, a friend, or even the child — gets access to customized information. This information can include the Parenting Plan (a good resource on parenting plans is ParentingPlan.net), the Documents page, the Bills page (with tabs for Shared Expenses, Child Support, Spousal Support, Bank Accounts and Service Vendors), and the all-important Calendar page. The Calendar allows invited community members to see upcoming events organized according to categories such as Payment Reminder, Work, School Event, Extra Curricular, Recreation, Travel, Vacation, Holiday, Co-Parenting Meeting and Legal — with optional email reminders sent out as well.

KidsNCommon offers other services and benefits as well. For example, community members get their own email address, such as suzysmith@kidsncommon.com, that helps everyone stay in touch and receive schedule reminders. The site also offers information on topics such as child health, dealing with the psychology of divorce, and balancing families, careers and other relationships.

ShareKids.com (fee-based) is another site that offers an easy online location to share information and manage schedules, keep track of shared expenses, create photo galleries, and even create private chat rooms.

Sharekid.com also links to other valuable resources such as the Family Mediation Inc.’s downloadable (and, at under $20, affordable) Child Custody Parenting Plans book with forms, and the international non-profit Bonus Families that coined the beautiful term “bonus” to describe “a stepfamily or a single parent living with their children and another adult partner” (I highly recommend this site).

In addition to the importance of streamlining communication and schedules for the sake of the children, maintaining and fostering strong parent-child bonds is crucial to helping kids adjust to their new family status, particularly in cases where physical or legal custody is awarded to only one parent.

Virtual visitation can be an important part of helping the non-custodial parent maintain close ties with his or her children, whether the parent lives nearby and can’t see the child every day, or lives further away, precluding frequent in-person time together.

InternetVisitation.org describes virtual visitation as “using tools such as personal video conferencing, a webcam, email, instant messaging (IM) and other wired or wireless technologies over the Internet or other communication media to supplement in-person visits and telephone contacts between two people.”

The site offers practical how-to information on what’s needed to set up a call and a related forum discussing such things as VoIP, Skype, Vonage, video calls and video call accessories. Internet Visitation also lists the latest legislative developments; to date Utah, Wisconsin and Missouri have passed virtual visitation laws, with fifteen other states showing activity.

Finally, there’s also a must-read blog, Virtual Families and Friends.com, written by “virtual dad” Jim Buie and co-authored by his son, Matthew Buie-Nervik. An absolute gold mine of information.

 


The Online Disinhibition Effect

For those of us who have blogs and are heavily involved in social media, their benefits are easily recognizable. Their strength lies in their ability to invite and encourage communication or, as Susan Getgood writes,

“The reason blogs have traction is that they deliver on the promise of the World Wide Web. Everybody *can* be a publisher. That completely changes the equation — the ‘printing press’ is no longer scarce, limited to those with deep pockets.”

Of course, along with that discourse comes risk. As Jeremy Pepper has often said, “if you have a thin skin, you shouldn’t blog.” And he’s right. Sharing ideas, taking positions and defending them against criticism isn’t for the faint of heart. Occasionally what’s written on a blog is even challenged via lawsuit, which Kami Huyse writes about here.

But generally one presumes that challengers, critics or detractors are rational and fair responders, albeit passionate ones. However, the blogging world and other forms of social media also has its unbalanced participants.

Perhaps these individuals are a result of what psychologist John Suler (who also has a blog, The Psychology of Cyberspace) terms the Online Disinhibition Effect:

“It’s well known that people say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn’t ordinarily say or do in the face-to-face world. They loosen up, feel more uninhibited, express themselves more openly. Researchers call this the ‘disinhibition effect.’ It’s a double-edged sword. Sometimes people share very personal things about themselves. They reveal secret emotions, fears, wishes. Or they show unusual acts of kindness and generosity. We may call this benign disinhibition.

On the other hand, the disinhibition effect may not be so benign. Out spills rude language and harsh criticisms, anger, hatred, even threats…. We might call this toxic disinhibition.

On the benign side, the disinhibition indicates an attempt to understand and explore oneself, to work through problems and find new ways of being. And sometimes, in toxic disinhibition, it is simply a blind catharsis, an acting out of unsavory needs and wishes without any personal growth at all.

What causes this online disinhibition? What is it about cyberspace that loosens the psychological barriers that block the release of these inner feelings and needs? Several factors are at play. For some people, one or two of them produces the lion’s share of the disinhibition effect. In most cases, though, these factors interact with each other, supplement each other, resulting in a more complex, amplified effect.”

Suler then outlines several factors in detail:

  • You Don’t Know Me (dissociative anonymity)
  • You Can’t See Me (invisibility)
  • See You Later (asynchronicity)
  • It’s All in My Head (solipsistic introjection)
  • It’s Just a Game (dissociative imagination)
  • We’re Equals (Minimizing Authority)

Suler’s article certainly sheds light on the inappropriate behavior occasionally seen online and is therefore well worth the read.

 


The National Foundation to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse Accuses McDonald’s of Hiring Convicted Sex Offenders

The National Foundation to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse (NFPCSA) is calling for a boycott of McDonald’s restaurants after Nashville station NewsChannel 5 WTVF uncovered that nationwide, McDonald’s restaurants have hired “dozens” of convicted sex offenders.

According to the WTVF report, “McDonald’s says it has a policy against hiring sex offenders at its 8,000 or so company owned stores. But at the 18,000 franchise stores that operate under the golden arches, they’re free to hire anyone they want.”

WTVF’s investigation revealed nine sex offenders in Delaware, thirteen in Indiana and sixteen in Louisiana working in McDonald’s restaurants. But, unfortunately:

“We can’t tell you how many other child molesters or other sex offenders are working at McDonald’s restaurants here in Tennessee or anywhere else. That’s because in most states, including Tennessee, sex offender registries don’t have information about employers. So the public can’t find out — until something bad happens.”

No response yet on McDonald’s Corporate site.

 


Police Departments Pull Out All Stops To Recruit Officers

Years ago I took part in a simulated hostage crisis exercise conducted by the Alexandria, Virginia Police Department. The exercise was created to help officers test their negotiation and their rescue skills and, as such, I and my fellow hostages were asked to play our roles as realistically as possible upon finding our bus taken over by a crazed gunman.

Keeping in mind that this was pre 9/11 and citizens still believed that their compliance might result in a safe release, we tried not to antagonize the gunman. We hoped for the best as he negotiated with the police and just prayed that he wouldn’t loose his cool — no one wants to be shot or killed, even in a simulation. When the officers finally stormed the bus and handcuffed us before dragging us outside onto the pavement, it felt all too real. (Quick note: the officers, not certain who among us was the gunman and who might have developed some loyalty to him, took the precautionary step of handcuffing us all.)

This little exercise reinforced my belief that law enforcement work isn’t easy. Between risking lives for modest pay to dealing with a distrust of police officers among certain segments of the population due to an abuse of the uniform by some, law enforcement work is frequently under-appreciated or even unappreciated.

Now the Washington Post reports that “more than 80 percent of the nation’s 17,000 law enforcement agencies, big and small, have vacancies that many can’t fill, police officials estimate.” With reasons ranging from service-minded people choosing to join the military, to an increase in baby-boomer retirement and a more educated population pursuing other career paths, the police shortage is being felt across the country.

According to the Washington Post, some counties, in an effort to attract viable candidates, are offering a variety of incentives such as signing bonuses (Prince William County, Virginia, for example, offers a $3,000 signing bonus), bounties for referrals and pay increases. Prince George’s County, Maryland even began a $1 million dollar advertising campaign last summer.

Police departments have taken other steps as well:

“Departments have dropped their zero-tolerance policy on drug use and past gang association, eased restrictions on applicants with bad credit ratings, and tweaked physical requirements to make room for more female candidates or smaller male candidates, police officials said. Departments also offer crash courses in reading and remedial English for the written parts of the entrance exam, and provide strength and agility coaches for the physical part — all of which have raised concerns about how qualified some of the new personnel will be.”

Unfortunately such actions aren’t without risk:

” ‘That [hiring less-qualified people] is clearly a concern, and police chiefs are very uneasy about that possibility,’ said Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation, a law enforcement advocacy group. ‘The question is, do we keep our radio cars empty or hire people who a few years ago we wouldn’t have hired? It is very problematic.’ “

This sentiment is echoed by others:

“There are concerns, said Elaine Deck, a researcher at the International Association of Chiefs of Police, that staffing changes and shortages could affect public safety and the well-being of law enforcement officers. The LAPD, for example, is too short-staffed to investigate complaints against its officers, so that many complaints from 2005 may not result in punishment until this year.”

 



The Politics of Birth Rates: Declining Birth Rates Among Liberals Foreshadows A More Conservative Future

In a recent NPR interview, Phillip Longman, author of The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity And What to Do About It, explains how birth rates and political leanings are intertwined:

It turns out that people who hold a broad range of social attitudes that most of us would recognize as liberal or progressive on average have dramatically fewer children than people who hold attitudes that most of us recognize as socially conservative….

All around the world, fertility is falling, but it’s falling least among Mormons, Islamic Fundamentalists, Christian Fundamentalists, people who adhere to a more traditional and socially conservative way of life. The three big Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all relentlessly pro-natal. They counsel to go forth and multiply. So it’s not entirely surprising that people who take their scripture literally act on it.

He points out that the birth rates in Utah and Vermont, for example, vary by 40%. Dissecting the 2004 Unites States presidential race, Longman writes:

In states where Bush won a popular majority in 2000, the average woman bears 2.11 children in her lifetime — which is enough to replace the population. In states where Gore won a majority of votes in 2000, the average woman bears 1.89 children, which is not enough to avoid population decline. Indeed, if the Gore states seceded from the Bush states and formed a new nation, it would have the same fertility rate, and the same rapidly aging population, as France — that bastion of “old Europe.”

If Gore’s America (and presumably John Kerry’s) is reproducing at a slower pace than Bush’s America, what does this imply for the future? Well, as the comedian Dick Cavett remarked, “If your parents never had children, chances are you won’t either.” When secular-minded Americans decide to have few if any children, they unwittingly give a strong evolutionary advantage to the other side of the culture divide. Sure, some children who grow up in fundamentalist families will become secularists, and vice versa. But most people, particularly if they have children, wind up with pretty much the same religious and political orientations as their parents. If “Metros” don’t start having more children, America’s future is “Retro.”

And in a just-published article he says:

In Europe today, for example, how many children different people have, and under what circumstances, correlates strongly with their beliefs on a wide range of political and cultural attitudes. For instance, do you distrust the army? Then, according to polling data assembled by demographers Ronny Lesthaeghe and Johan Surkyn, you are less likely to be married and have kids—or ever to get married and have kids—than those who say they have no objection to the military. Or again, do you find soft drugs, homosexuality, and euthanasia acceptable? Do you seldom, if ever, attend church? For whatever reason, people answering affirmatively to such questions are far more likely to live alone, or in childless, cohabitating unions, than those who answer negatively.

Does your family size fit the liberal & progressive versus conservative categories described here?

 


Colmen McCarthy’s Peace Studies Class Comes Under Scrutiny

Last month, two 17 year-old students at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Maryland called for a ban of the Peace Studies course that has been offered as an elective to Seniors at the school since 1988 and is taught by Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post reporter and founder of the Center for Teaching Peace. According to the Washington Post:

“[The students] acknowledge that with the exception of one lecture they sat in on this month, most of what they know about the course has come from friends and acquaintances who have taken the class. But, they said, those discussions, coupled with research they have done on [Coleman] McCarthy’s background, have convinced them that their school should not continue to offer Peace Studies unless significant changes are made. This is not an ideological debate, they said. Rather, what bothers them the most is that McCarthy offers students only one perspective.”

Despite the furor, the school’s administration intends to keep teaching the course. As Principal Sean Bulson stated:

“Peace Studies is one of the things that makes B-CC unique…It’s been an institution here, and kids from all across the spectrum have taken it. It’s not about indoctrination. It’s about debate and dialogue.”

McCarthy doesn’t hide the fact that he is a strong opponent of violence of any kind. However, he was puzzled by the students’ opposition:

“He said that although the two sat in on a recent class, they have not talked to him in depth about their concerns.

‘I’ve never said my views are right and theirs are wrong,’ he said about the students who take his course. ‘In fact, I cherish conservative dissenters. I wish we could get more of them in.’

But McCarthy’s unwavering belief in the importance of his work is summed up by his statement that “unless we teach them peace, someone else will teach them violence.”

The Peace Studies course is currently taught at seven other Montgomery County, Maryland high schools. Back in the 1990s, when I had the pleasure of teaching this semester-long course at Wilson High School in Washington DC as part of my graduate school training, it was called “Alternatives to Violence.”

While teaching this popular elective emphasizing nonviolent conflict resolution in interpersonal, community, national and international situations, my goal was to expose the students to ideas and topics they had never been confronted with before. And just as the Washington Post article stated, I remember many lively debates between myself and the students and amongst the students themselves.

We talked about such subjects as the civil rights movement, the death penalty, environmental activism, and political peace movements, among other things. Never was there any attempt to sugar-coat the facts. In talking about the death penalty, for example, of which about half of the students were in favor of and half opposed, we discussed the number of people who were executed and later found innocent of the particular crime for which they were imprisoned.

Rarely did any of the students not have a strong opinion one way or another. They were open-minded but not easily swayed if their own personal experiences didn’t comport with something in the curriculum. I remember one boy who was frustrated by my obviously idealistic insistence that talking through a problem was a way to resolve most disagreements.

He looked at me and said something along the lines of “Ms. Weckerle, you’ve obviously never been to my neighborhood. There we hit first and talk later.”

I learned a lot from those kids.


Harvard University Ranks Highest In … Back-Stabbing?

Universities and colleges that enjoy a high ranking in such closely-followed publications as U.S. News and World Report and The Princeton Review milk it for all its worth, despite the questionable value of such rankings.

As the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Educational and Social Science Library points out:

Overall, there is a bit of a “can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em” aspect to college rankings. Colleges routinely disparage rankings but are quick to trumpet their high standing and paste the U.S. News best college graphic on their web site. Schools are even known to tinker with their admissions policies, alumni files, and other “ranking factors” in order to maintain or boost their U.S. News rating… Like them or leave them, colleges will certainly devote no less attention to rankings in the future.

Thomson Peterson’s, which itself offers a variety of college preparatory services, takes an even more critical tone:

College rankings make for good press—but that’s all.

Despite many people’s attempts to quantify colleges according to certain characteristics, many educators agree that those characteristics do not add up to any meaningful measures of quality. Further, publishing such misleading information and making a national event of it encourages colleges to shade the truth and to focus on the wrong factors in accepting students.

Rankings, in addition to being statistically problematic, distort the entire admissions process….

College rankings are irresistible and inescapable. Each year, a glut of publications seduces the entire nation with false assumptions that mislead parents and students and manipulate the entire college admissions landscape. Students have nowhere to turn except to publications offering eye-catching gimmicks and easy sound bites like “The Best Party Schools” and “Most Wired Colleges.” U.S. News & World Report, with its “America’s Best Colleges” issue, reigns as master of the rankings game. No school is immune to its influences. Reputations – not to mention application rates – can literally rise and fall according to its numbers.

Nevertheless, Harvard University’s #1 ranking no doubt goes a long way in recruiting students. Not that Harvard, considered by many the blue-blood institution of higher learning in the United States, needs any help.

Now Harvard can add a new feather to its cap — tops in academic back-stabbing.

The Economist describes Harvard University president Larry Summers’ tempestuous relationship with the university’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Harvard Corporation, the university’s board, which ultimately led to his decision to resign on February 21.

Harvard likes to think of itself as the best university in the world. People who didn’t go there may beg to differ, but… Harvard proved that it is undoubtedly a world-beater in one discipline: academic back-stabbing….