Beyond the Valley of the Trolls Revisited

I rarely talk about “issues” here. Mental health sometimes, but that’s it. I’m putting my head above the parapet again though. Last year, in the wake of Not the Booker, I wrote at great length for the fabulous people at For Books’ Sake on the subject of how we treat people on the internet.

Tonight’s Panorama tackled the subject of cyber bullying and, inevitably, it wasn’t long before “cyber bullying” was trending on twitter. Some very interesting comments could be found, but one persistent meme still seems to pervade this discussion: that the answer to cyber bullying is to log off. And not just in the sense of that being practical advice (I’m not sure it is), but in the sense that the possibility of logging off means there’s no such thing as cyber bullying. It’s something I’ve heard said o a regular basis for years, along with equally inane comments about expecting rough and tumble on the internet.

This isn’t a long article. I just what to raise what seem to me to be obvious points. I welcome considered deate and further discussion.  

1. Victims of bullying need places where they can feel safe. That is the single top priority in combatting bullying – increasing the number of safe spaces for the bullied – spaces where they can talk, where they can just hang out and know that they are safe. The “just log off” answer decreases the safe spaces people have.

2. Furthermore, in decreasing the number of safe spaces, “logging off” damages/punishes the victims of cyber bullying whilst the perpetrators effectively get to plant their flag in their ill-gotten territory. What kind of approach is that?

3. Consider some physical world analogies. Aren’t these all unacceptable forms of behaviour any civilized society should be trying to eliminate? Your neighbours chant racist abuse at you day in day out. Wait, that’s OK, it’s not a problem – you can always move house. You are taunted about your sexuality at work every day. Not a problem, you can get another job, or just get benefits – stop copmplaining. Authorities, the state itself even, make it impossible for you to go to work or live in a neighbourhood. Don’t go running to the UN, just find some other country to take you. You see how ridiculous it would be to say any of those. But isn’t that exactly what you’re saying when you say there’s no such thing as cyber bullying, or that people should “just log off”?

4. Logging off is essentially the same as putting your fingers in your ears and going la-la-la – you know, that way of dealing with things you were told was not the way to go when you were a kid. There was a reason you were told that. Logging off doesn’t make your bullies go away. They’re still there, and what they say is still reaching its tentacles into what people hear about you. More to the point, they’re still there to do the same to other people. We don’t let terrorists or kidnappers simply havce the ground because they act despicably. For the very good reason that we’re taught not to give in to bullies – how does the fact this takes place in cyberspace affect that principle?

Yes, there *is* the very serious question of practical, individual advice – and it may well be best for a person to unhook from the internet for a while – though in many cases the internet as well as being the source of the bullying will be the source of many of the strongest supports that individual has, so it’s always a complex thing. In addition to rigorous, and enforced, anti-bullying controls, I think we each have a responsibility, when we are feeling strong, to step in, in individual cases, in upholding the general principle that bullying is never OK, and in helping to create more and more safe places where people can go to talk and find the support networks they need.

Check out:

Family Lives

and its constituent parts for excellent practical help.

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4 Responses to Beyond the Valley of the Trolls Revisited

  1. David MacArnold says:

    To take this to a political level, internet bullying is a means of preventing freedom of speech. I stopped using the Guardian on line because on a regular basis when ever issues on immigration, education or civil rights was up for debate the site was swamped by EDL trolls whose bullying tactics soured what should have been free and informed debate. I am also appalled at the abusive homophobic comments frequently posted on some news threads by those claiming to represent certain religious groups and again, the EDL. Is there not some way these people can be identified and prosecuted?

  2. eight cuts says:

    That’s a very good point and it explains why a lot of forums seem so unbalanced, because users with more moderate or just contrary opinions are intimidated away. I’ve heard the argument so many ties that they should “just toughen up” but – as a writer colleague said very eloquently on Facebook last night – it’s just plain wrong that the emphasis should always be on what the victims of bullying and intimidation should do. The answer is moderatoers are the ones who should toughen up. The freedom of speech arguemnt *they* use is a complete red hering for exactly the reason you give – whilst it’s easy to see the infringement of removing someone’s post, what you don’t see are the many people whose thoughts never get posted in the first place – it’s always teh uncountable victims who get ignored.

  3. You are very right in what you say that logging off doesn’t make the bullies go away. I have a daughter, who I worry is very vulnerable to cyber bullying. If I discovered she was the victim of cyber bullying, I don’t think I could tell her to just log off, it simply isn’t an option in dealing with it.
    It isn’t dealing with it at all.

  4. eight cuts says:

    No, exactly, and that would also send a very dubious message to take into later life. I do worry that we are seeing a rather worrying Hobbesian world of unfettered wills emerging in place of a rigorous debate over what freedom actually means. And I think the “freedom entails responsibility” meme politicians spout also misses the point – all of it pushes the problem back at individuals all the time, and I’m not sure that’s the answer. I wonder if it isn’t time to start questioning the big society and small government cocktail. Yesterday we also, of course, saw the media at the Levesen enquiry argue, yet again and repeatedly taht “they weren’t in the office when it happens.” I think I’d like to see less handwashing and more buck stopping – and without the snide-and-presented-as-obvious-comments from politicians that that way totalitarianism lies.

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