On “Cyberbullying”

I have a problem with the term “cyberbullying”. I think it minimises behaviour that is very serious and allows us to take it less seriously.

Despite the increasing pervasiveness of computer mediated communication in our everyday lives, we have a persistent tendency to see online interactions as somehow less real than face-to-face communication. I’ve always found this strange, as the same attitude is not held towards phone conversations or hand-written letters, even though a lot of online interaction has more in common with face-to-face socialising than, say, writing and reading a postcard.

The interactions we have online are still processed by our physical body – our eyes and brains and the visceral whole-body responses that can come from particularly intense experiences. Reading things online can make you laugh, feel loved, feel joy. I believe it is very possible to feel real attachment and love for a person you only, or primarily, communicate with via digital means. Likewise reading things online can make you cry, feel sickened, feel frightened, anxious or depressed.

“Cyberbullying” and trolling have gotten increased publicity recently in the wake of TV personality Charlotte Dawson’s experience with abusers on Twitter (more detailed coverage available on Mamamia). Dawson was subjected to eight hours of attacks from Twitter users, the creation of a hashtag called “#diecharlotte”, and was eventually so traumatised by the abuse that she ended up in hospital. It seems remarkable to me that twee names like “cyberbullying” and “trolling” are used to describe the actions of attackers that seriously threatened a person’s health in this way. What happened to Charlotte Dawson was systematic, vicious abuse, and it was not an isolated or even particularly unusual incident but one that drew attention because it happened to a celebrity.

To bring the topic closer to home, social justice bloggers of all stripes are constantly being attacked in this way online. A friend of mine has been a target of repeated abuse online because she dares to speak out proudly about her life as an unapologetically fat woman. She has been subjected to insults and threats and had her image stolen and used to victimise her. Most recently, some vile person created a twitter account impersonating her (again stealing her image for the purpose) and labelled it “angry fat worthless piece of excrement”. This is not bullying. This is not a harmless troll. This is serious, harmful emotionally violence. This is abuse. On a facebook group for a feminist panel discussion about fat last year, I and other attendees were repeatedly subjected to graphic sexual threats from a pair of anonymous commenters until the offenders were eventually reported and banned. I was nervous to attend the (public) event the following week in case those men were there and I was subjected to more abuse. They were not, but the fear for my safety engendered by their comments was very real.

The advice given to victims of online abuse is to just ignore it, to not “feed the trolls”, to not take it personally. But how can you not take it personally when people are repeatedly telling you to kill yourself, that you are worthless, that they wish awful things would happen to you, threatening you with rape and other violence? How can you not take it personally when people are stealing your image and even impersonating you to heap abuse on both your person and the causes that you hold dear? Worst of all, victims of online abuse are told to stay off the internet if they can’t handle it, as if the responsibility for avoiding attack lies with the person being threatened and not with the abusers. As if the “free speech” of abusers trumps our right to feel safe (hint, even if Australians had a constitutional right to “free speech”, which we don’t, that right wouldn’t protect illegal behaviour).

Emotional abuse that happens online is not “cyberbullying”, it is abuse, no different from abuse that happens offline. The effect it can have on the people who are being abused is just as real. It is dangerous, serious, and illegal. We need to stop behaving as if online abuse is less significant than abuse that happens face-to-face, and we need to stop telling people who deserve our support, protection and outrage that their presence online is less valuable than that of anonymous abusers.

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