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.

 


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.

 


Personal Safety for Bloggers

In his post about Blog Stalkers — Personal Safety for Bloggers (via Performancing), Darren Rouse shares his personal experience of being stalked by a blog reader who, after a series of escalating behaviors, ended up at his home.

Having put this situation behind him, Darren goes into detail about how bloggers can protect themselves:

  • Decide ahead of time how much personal information to share on your blog
  • Be aware of what impression you’re leaving
  • Remember to follow offline security measures
  • Develop a plan of action ahead of time
  • Don’t try to deal with a problem situation alone

He also writes an important post about What to Do when Your Blog is Attacked, which I’m going to clip for future reference.


Danish Embassy in Damascus is Latest Target in Rage over Caricatures of Prophet Muhammed

CNN.com reports that hundreds of Syrian demonstrators stormed the Royal Danish Embassy in Damascus, Syria today and set the building ablaze. This is the latest reaction to the publishing of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

Many Muslims are offended because they find the cartoons disrespectful and blasphemous; others object because various hadiths prohibit any depiction of the Prophet, regardless of what the images contain (although Wikipedia notes that representations of the Prophet have existed in Islamic art for quite some time).

The Vatican had this to say about the cartoons:

“The freedom of thought and expression, confirmed in the Declaration of Human Rights, can not include the right to offend religious feelings of the faithful. That principle obviously applies to any religion…

Any form of excessive criticism or derision of others denotes a lack of human sensitivity and can in some cases constitute an unacceptable provocation.”

Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, part of the Vatican’s diplomatic service, was also critical:

“Freedom of satire that offends the sentiments of others becomes an abuse — and in this case it has affected the sentiments of entire populations in their highest symbols…

One can understand satire about a priest but not about God. With reference to Islam, we could understand satire on the uses and customs and behavior, but not about the Quran, Allah and the Prophet.”

See Wikipedia’s Jyllands-Posten Muhammed cartoons controversy for a chronology of events and international reaction. Make sure to also read the posts by Allan Jenkins and Neville Hobson, both of which offer an analysis from a communications perspective.

I predict that this explosive situation is only the beginning of other similar international incidents we’ll see in the coming months and years. I’d venture to guess that others (see, for example, Media Orchard’s post Newest Beer Pitchman: Jesus Christ) would agree.


Resources for Blogging in Politically Repressive Environments

Here are two important blogging resources for anyone opposed to censorship and supportive of free speech … and, most importantly, for any blogger working within a politically repressive environment.

On a related note, there is currently much talk about credibility, accountability and accuracy within the blogosphere. I’ve often thought that limiting the anonymity of bloggers or those who comment on blog posts is one way of increasing accountability. Spirit of America has challenged my view on this (see entire argument on Anonymous Blogging Apologia):

“Most of the bloggers who have been arrested in the past two years were easy to find because they followed the advice of some purist critics of anonymous blogging: They used their real names and details of their lives. Considering the likelihood that the harrassment of bloggers will continue, we believe anonymous blogging should remain a valid option and comprehensive instructions on how to do so should be available.”