PBS Short Video “Bad Behavior Online” Takes on the Phenomenon of Cyberbullying

Inter­net trolls are very touchy peo­ple. Some­times their rage is tar­get­ed at pub­lic fig­ures, insti­tu­tions, or groups who do and say hor­ri­ble things (the West­boro Bap­tist Church comes to mind). More often, the phe­nom­e­non of “trolling” is a free-for-all of absur­dist online pranks or ver­bal abuse direct­ed at any­one and every­one. And far too often, online abuse is specif­i­cal­ly direct­ed at vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple or vic­tims of tragedy. But, as you’ll see from the com­ments on the above video from PBS’s Off­book series (if you care to peruse them) almost noth­ing makes the inter­net angri­er than dis­cus­sions of trolling itself, since so many peo­ple see these con­ver­sa­tions as pre­ludes to cen­sor­ship or nan­ny­ish and uncon­sti­tu­tion­al reg­u­la­tion.

The researchers in the above video don’t, how­ev­er, make any rec­om­men­da­tions for curb­ing speech. Whit­ney Phillips, a lec­tur­er at New York Uni­ver­si­ty, allows for the poten­tial of trolling to open up dia­logues that would oth­er­wise be smoth­ered by taboos. Har­vard University’s Andy Sel­l­ars makes an impor­tant dis­tinc­tion between pub­lic speech reg­u­lat­ed by the gov­ern­ment and that restrict­ed by pri­vate enti­ties, like online ser­vice providers—an impor­tant legal dis­tinc­tion in first amend­ment cas­es (he cites the recent fra­cas over the inflam­ma­to­ry “Inno­cence of Mus­lims” video). Sel­l­ars points out that, at the moment, the author­i­ty for reg­u­lat­ing online speech rests with cor­po­ra­tions (who, unfor­tu­nate­ly, do bow to gov­ern­ment pres­sure, espe­cial­ly abroad). Attempts to reg­u­late the inter­net by the gov­ern­ment have been ham-hand­ed, unpop­u­lar, and most­ly dri­ven by the prof­it-motives of the record­ing and film indus­tries, and Sel­l­ars does­n’t address them.

Some attempts at leg­is­la­tion have specif­i­cal­ly tar­get­ed the cher­ished cul­ture of online anonymi­ty in order to deal with the ugly phe­nom­e­non of cyber­bul­ly­ing. Sel­l­ars defends the impor­tance of anonymi­ty, say­ing it pro­tects vic­tims of real world abuse and oppres­sion from being iden­ti­fied and tar­get­ed if they speak out on safe spaces on the inter­net. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, anonymi­ty can also enable what Fordham’s Alice Mar­wick calls the “online dis­in­hi­bi­tion effect,” a psy­cho­log­i­cal term for the free­dom trolls feel to say abu­sive things online that they would nev­er say in per­son.

Mar­wick dis­cuss­es this effect in the con­text of what she calls “aggres­sive speech acts” but allows that the preva­lence of bul­ly­ing on Face­book, which ties online iden­ti­ties to real names and faces, acts as a counter-exam­ple to the the­o­ry that anonymi­ty is sole­ly respon­si­ble for online abuse. She frames her research as tak­ing a look at our cul­tur­al val­ues and “see­ing how those play out in tech­ni­cal spaces” and points out that an exclu­sive focus on cyber­bul­ly­ing ignores the range of oth­er, offline behav­iors gen­er­al­ly present in—most dis­turbing­ly—cas­es of sui­cide fol­low­ing online bul­ly­ing. While the advo­ca­cy group Cyber­bul­ly­ing Research Cen­ter has adopt­ed the term “cyber­bul­li­cide,” defined as “sui­cide indi­rect­ly or direct­ly influ­enced by expe­ri­ences with online aggres­sion,” and offers pol­i­cy sug­ges­tions to deal with the prob­lem, Mar­wick is more cir­cum­spect. She calls these cas­es “com­pli­cat­ed” and says that they don’t war­rant restrict­ing con­tent but instead improv­ing respons­es to kids who need help.

Com­pli­cat­ed is pre­cise­ly the word for the tan­gle of issues relat­ing to inter­net speech. After watch­ing the bal­anced, if cur­so­ry, dis­cus­sion above, how­ev­er, I found the respons­es of the trolls baf­fling and lack­ing all pro­por­tion, since no one in the video calls for leg­is­la­tion to lim­it online speech. But that’s instruc­tive. Trolling is a per­va­sive hum sur­round­ing almost all pop­u­lar online con­tent. Some­times it’s polit­i­cal­ly point­ed, some­times it’s clever or sur­re­al­ly fun­ny, some­times it’s just low-lev­el noise, and some­times it’s a kind of rage-filled ado­les­cent vicious­ness that is gen­uine­ly unset­tling and hard to under­stand.

Josh Jones is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

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