The dark side of free speech, part 2
Our culture and probably most others have historically felt that bullies are bad news, but that being bullied is also a rite of passage. We often think that bullying tends to end in elementary school. Could not be farther from the truth.
As a culture, we tolerate and often reward adult bullies, especially managers who bully in the workplace. We celebrate bullies in entertainment as warriors and winners (even when we also celebrate a bully getting his due), and while hazing in schools, the military, and fraternities is being shunned by the culture, otherwise we do little to eradicate bullying. Our politicians are often notorious for their intimidating nature. Unless there are dead bodies, we seem to expect people to just tolerate it (or defend themselves).
As harmful and egregious as bullying can be, cyberbullying takes things one step further. Cyberbullying uses the Internet and other electronic forms of technology to post bad or embarrassing photos, messages, emails or to make threats. However, the attacker is usually anonymous, unknown, and there is no one to fight. As a result, the potential cyberbully is often emboldened to create as much havoc in the life of his victim as possible. The potentially viral nature of such posts – that is, the ability for these posts to be reproduced widely, quickly, and endlessly – does not occur in a face-to-face encounter.
A typical bullying (non-cyber) event occurs at a certain point in time and then ends (although another similar event may occur). Bullying occurs in one place in space, perhaps on a street corner or in the office. Harassment is often witnessed, and everyone present knows the perpetrator. A cyberbullying incident, on the other hand, can spread to hundreds of people in seconds and millions of people in a fairly short time, can persist for an extended period, can be distributed worldwide, and has no one to answer for. your action.
As a result, the damage caused by such an incident can be repeated and echoed over and over again. Sadists may enjoy repeating and republishing, and even creating websites to encourage their persistence. These sites cause a hoarding effect, with unsavory fellow travelers hurling their own often terribly unpleasant insults, republishing private images, and multiplying the damage. Some may not realize or care about the damage they cause; others delight in it.
An unfortunate creation of cyberbullying is “revenge porn”. There are sites on the Internet that are set up solely to embarrass and hurt people (mostly women) by electronically posting and forwarding sexual images of a former lover or interest. Some of these posts are designed to embarrass the associates of the person whose pornographic image is posted. The target may be the ex-boyfriend or husband and the victim is “collateral damage.” Even well-known people can engage in ugly behavior, like the recent case of a hip-hop star and his site featuring a pornographic video of a hip-hop girlfriend in her flesh with a rap.
Many victims of seemingly endless cyberbullying, including clients who have come to us for help, have had their self-esteem devastated. Others have been driven to substance abuse, dropping out of school or society, and that bullying behavior has even been implicated in suicides. Although it is not generally considered a crime, it is far from victimless.
Cyberbullying is a more specific form of cyberbullying and, like cyberbullying, is highly enabled by possible anonymity over the Internet. It is the use of the Internet and other technologies to harass someone, although some cyberbullying can be secret for a time. Whereas a “traditional” stalker may follow a victim’s movements, spying on them from hidden areas, or with binoculars or telescopes, the cyber stalker monitors his targets electronically.
Much of our social life is semi-public these days, on social media like Twitter and Facebook. The Internet makes it easy for a person to hide their identity, create a false identity, or impersonate someone else, perhaps as a fake friend, making it easy to spy on a person’s activities through social media. Like cyberbullying, the ease of anonymity on the Internet can embolden the cyberbully, thinking (often correctly) that they will not find out.
We regularly find cases where the stalker has managed to investigate and guess the credentials of his victim’s email or other online accounts, making it easy to discover the victim’s whereabouts, conversations, and correspondence. In some of these cases, the perpetrator will even impersonate the victim, send fake emails and messages, post as the victims themselves, or post embarrassing images as if the victim themselves were the source of the statements, photos, or videos.
This has come to be understood and adjudicated to mean that the government cannot prevent you from saying its piece, no matter how much the government or anyone else may disagree. This applies to all US governments: federal, state, local entities, and public officials of those public entities. You are free to speak in “the Public Square”. Please note that the Public Plaza concept applies only to government entities, property, and officials. It does not apply to private or commercial property. Property or business owners may prohibit you from saying certain things, or saying anything on or within their own property, business, or broadcasts, unless otherwise permitted.
Bullies can find a way to infiltrate the fabric of the victim’s financial, social and family life, leaving personal life in tatters. Although such events and behaviors are easy to read (it’s all over the news), victims often find that they don’t take them seriously, calling her neurotic or paranoid by her friends and loved ones. Because the cyber stalker often tries to damage the victim’s reputation, the reactions of those close to the victim often further the stalker’s goals.
And although cyberbullying is illegal in many parts of the country and the world, these actions rarely reach the level that law enforcement must see to take it seriously or investigate. Read between the lines in the news and you will find that almost all arrests that include cyberbullying also include a serious threat, a violation of an existing restraining order, identity theft, theft of physical property, or child abuse.
Internet trolling is behavior in which the troll intends to inflame, anger, or damage civil discourse. In the context of this series of articles, you tend to disrupt the public or online communication of others by using vile invective, name calling, and other verbal havoc. It is often misogynistic. The ability to be anonymous on the Internet removes much of the inhibition that a person might otherwise feel to behave so rudely.
A common thread in all the behaviors described is the ability to be anonymous on the Internet. One might imagine that removing the option to be anonymous would remove the motivation for the behavior, but in this case, the solution would be worse than the problem. In the first part of this series, we discussed freedom of expression, one of our most important rights, and the importance of anonymity. Both have played a very important role in the very creation of our nation and continue to protect those who would speak out about abuse, even when such anonymity allows for other types of abuse. What are we going to do?
In Part 3 we discuss what we can do and what is being done, both legally and socially, to limit harmful cyber behavior.