More than “Just the facts, ma’am”

As someone who, like so many others, bore the brunt of some bullying during those “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad” childhood years (junior high, in my case), I’ve been drawn to the web articles about the cyberbullying that has come to pervade the open space of the Internet, where real ideas are supposed to be exchanged among intelligent people of good will. This is where we come to learn, instead, that bullying really doesn’t stop with adulthood, and in fact, in some cases, when performed online, it can end careers and destroy lives.

Most of us don’t simply lecture to our students only about the fact that bullying takes place online; it’s important to provide in-depth discussions of individual current events cases in our media classes, to help students understand the full implications of cyberbullying. It’s much like the media and violence chapter I do in my mid-level class on media and society; I require group presentations about significant tragedies in our society (Columbine, the West Memphis Three, Matthew Shepard, the West Nickel Mines shooting, and others) and how the media represented or framed the suspects and victims, which in turn affected the public’s perceptions of the events. I remind them that these acts are not just between perpetrator and victim, but that, like a pebble in a pond, the acts ripple outward and affect many people; media provides us all of their stories.

It’s been interesting to see students’ responses to acts of online bullying on children and teens. Some are sympathetic and call for the bullies to be banished from the website; others say that bullying is the nature of the Internet, so toughen up or log off – no one is making the victims stay online. I usually counter that by asking why the victim rather than the bully should be forced off the social media site that all his or her peers use to communicate; that often throws a wrench into their thinking.

Examples of responses to online bullying are easy to find; in February, for example, a high school principal in Massachusetts, who also happens to be an Iraq War veteran, sounded off about an abusive anonymous Twitter user who was bullying other students; this principal “fired off an angry school e-mail calling the offenders ‘pathetic cowards’ and saying ‘I have more respect for the insurgents I fought in Iraq than I do for the people behind this Twitter account” (article and video at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/high-school-principal-calls-twitter-bullies-pathetic-cowards/); responses to his email varied, but the offending Twitter account disappeared. In March, sports writers reported that major league baseball pitcher Curt Schilling took matters into his own hands when his daughter “was sexually threatened on social media by horrendous Twitter trolls following her father’s congratulatory tweet about her admission to Salve Regina University” (Cam Smith, March 3, 2015; http://usatodayhss.com/2015/curt-schilling-this-wasnt-a-mistake-this-is-a-crime). Schilling identified the men quickly enough: “A New York Yankees part-time ticket sales employee that Schilling identified through [an] internet search as Sean MacDonald and a DJ at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey identified by Schilling as Adam Nagel.” After compiling the offensive tweets, Smith reported, Schilling forwarded them “to relatives and coaches of the Twitter users involved,” and “Since Schilling first outed the duo on his personal blog, 38Pitches, Nagel has been suspended from Brookdale Community College and MacDonald has been fired by the Yankees, according to NJ.com.” Trolls can do damage, then, but they can be uncovered by the Internet and face their karma as well.

I think that, in addition, students might need to think about the bullies themselves in these situations. On March 2, 2015, Patrick Smith of BuzzFeed (admittedly not the most professional news source, but an interesting article nonetheless) interviewed two young adults from Newcastle in Great Britain who were convicted in January 2014 of sending death threats via Twitter to British feminist writer Caroline Criado-Perez and Labour MP Stella Creasy (http://www.buzzfeed.com/patricksmith/isabella-sorley-john-nimmo-interview?bffb&utm_term=4ldqpgp#4ldqpgp). Smith’s interviews with offenders Isabella Sorley and John Nimmo offer an intriguing look at poor choices and, in Sorley’s case, the intersection of alcoholism and social media. “Both Nimmo and Sorley say they offended for the same reason: because they enjoyed the attention and endorphin-generating effects of becoming briefly famous, or notorious, on Twitter,” Smith wrote. “Without any planning or forethought, they joined a bandwagon that was already rolling. It was a game and they enjoyed it.” (The article also shows the effects of bullying on the victims: “In the aftermath of the tweets,” Smith wrote, “both Criado-Perez and Creasy spoke of the lasting effect of abusive messages like these, and Creasey later admitted to having installed a panic button in her home. Criado-Perez said she struggled to eat, sleep, and work at the height of the abuse.”)

Finally, to take these situations one step further out, I recommend using information from the research article “Unresponsive or un-noticed?: Cyberbystander intervention in an experimental cyberbullying context” [Computers in Human Behavior 45 (2015): 144–150]. Authors Kelly P. Dillon and Brad J. Bushman of The Ohio State University researched people who witnessed cyberbullying to see what their responses were to the threats and abusive behavior. They used the Bystander Intervention Model [Latané, B., and Darley, J. (1970). The unresponsive bystander: Why doesn’t he help? NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts] to help explain “the conditions under which individuals choose, or choose not to, help others in emergency situations. The model includes five key steps that must occur in order for a bystander to intervene: (1) notice that something is happening, (2) interpret the event as an emergency, (3) take personal responsibility for providing assistance, (4) determine actions necessary, and (5) provide help” (p. 145). They also stated that, “Bystanders to emergencies and violence, be it on or offline, have four choices in actions: (1) direct intervention, (2) indirect intervention, (3) joining in, or (4) inaction” (p. 145). Data from Dillon and Bushman’s experimental set-up, in which a bully was planted as a moderator of a chat-room, showed that “the majority of [221] participants reported noticing the [bullying] event in the chat-room (67.9%, n = 150),” but that only “A total of 23 participants (10.4%) directly intervened” (p. 148). This article would be a good discussion piece for media classes, and they can access a news release about it at http://news.osu.edu/news/2015/02/24/cyberbystanders-most-don’t-try-to-stop-online-bullies/; more advanced or research classes might want to read the actual journal article before discussing.

Media instructors can also put lessons from U.S. sources into a broader context by comparing the problem of trolling with that in other countries. The United Kingdom, for example, has an interesting site that looks into these matters: Big Brother Watch (http://www.bigbrotherwatch.org.uk). This group issued a report in February 2015 entitled “Careless Whispers: How speech is policed by outdated communications legislation” (http://www.bigbrotherwatch.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Careless-Whisper.pdf), which offers data about Internet trolling in Great Britain.

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