“I never did mind about the little things.”
Maggie in “Point of No Return” (1993)
Looking at some discussions, you could conclude that the Internet is full of violent sociopaths and making any contribution is like bathing in shark infested water — while bleeding. Forget “the marketplace of ideas”, participating is just soul-crushing or outright suicide.
However, I do not think this is the case — for a couple of reasons.
- Criticism is normal. Any idea is criticized, even ridiculed. That’s just part of the game that anyone faces. No matter the expertise, status, background, whatever. (And no, just because it was criticized or laughed at does not mean that the idea has merit.)
- Most “over the top” criticism is done by trolls. People who want a reaction, any reaction. You might say what you mean, they say what you’ll perceive as mean. They are not invested in the topic, just in the emotional reaction. Idiots, yup. Obnoxious, oh yes. But essentially harmless.
- Credible threats can be dealt with. Even more easily in the digital world. A threat in the hallway out of earshot of others is a s/he-said-s/he-said situation. And eMail or a tweet … that’s a piece of evidence right there.
And it’s the last thing I’ll focus on. There are a couple of counter-arguments to the argument that digital threats/”cyber” mobbing etc. is easier to deal with as it leaves tracks, but there are also rebuttals.
- It can be a fake. And yup, sure, you can fake eMails or tweets — it’s fairly easy. Although I’m guessing that with good investigation and the cooperation of service providers, these fakes will be revealed as fakes.
- It does not lead to anything as the Internet is anonymous. Well, actually, it’s rather, pseudo-anonymity. Using the Internet leaves tracks — there’s a reason why organizations like Reporters without borders provide instructions for bloggers and cyber-dissidents. Actually covering your tracks online is hard. With some determination and legal help, you can go after credible threats and outright mobbing.
- You shouldn’t have to document it. Actually, that’s an argument I absolutely do not understand. Some people refuse to do screenshots (Mac: cmd + shift + 3 for the whole screen, cmd + shift + 4 for an area you select; PC: hit print on keyboard and copy into a graphic application, or even Word). Sure, if a person really hurt you it might be tempting to delete it. But why not take a book from a journalist who did a TED talk with a similar title to this posting: “How I named, shamed and jailed.” Why not make these threats public? Perhaps give the person a chance to retract it, and if not, put it out there? It names, shames, and perhaps might lead to some jailing (or at least, some needed ostracism).
Making threats public has another positive effect. Making them public in the sense of actually showing the messages — not just saying you received threats. It allows others to have a look at them and give a reasonable perspective on it — first, to assess the situation, then to determine the best course of action. Let’s look at both steps more closely.
Assessing the situation
To summarize, it’s the promise of violence that makes a threat a threat — whether it’s direct, indirect, or implied. A mere hope — like “I hope you get hit by a car.” — no matter how mean spirited, is not a threat, just a threatoid. Although this might be hard to understand for the kind of people who forward chain letters — less their inaction might incur them lots of bad luck. And yup, sometimes I think in a lot of “high profile” cases, the offending tweets or eMails weren’t threats but mere threatoids. At least those cases in which the tweets were only “reported” and never shown. And there’s a real danger of digital lynch mobs. Digital life is just too fast-paced. Emotions get out of control too quickly. It’s just too easy to fall trap to preconceptions, prejudices, and the like. We had times when people got lynched, no need to recreate the experience digitally.
Determining the best course of action
There are a couple of nice PSAs on how to deal with cyber mobbing — mostly involving shutting the notebook and doing something else. And yup, if a mean-spirited comment really gets to you, perhaps it’s time for a break. Most people take breaks from time to time. In this sense, the Internet is a place for grown-ups who know how to handle themselves and their emotions.
Threatoids can be ignored — people who use that level of disagreement are irrelevant. Perhaps a filter might be necessary, but that’s it. Recognize it for what it is — a mean spirited comment, intended to hurt, but without actual consequences.
As for genuine threats — that’s a different matter. I think those are extremely rare. But yup, deranged individual do exist and it might just be your bad luck to come across the path of one of those one-in-a-hundred-thousand-or-less people. And in this case professional assistance might be needed. And perhaps even professional protection. There’s a good book titled The Gift of Fear” by Gavin de Becker that’s worth having a look at. But even here — you want others to know about the threat, if not the public, then at least confidants.
Despite some discussions and fears — promoted by some ideological groups who profit from a culture of fear and perceived oppression — digital harassment is manageable. There are always idiots. There are some very, very few deranged individuals. But in most cases it’s just human beings being human — with all their strengths and weaknesses. People having a bad day, saying things they later regret. But human being humans is just what makes the Internet such an interesting place to be.