Fighting back against online harassment and cyberbullying

This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

by Larry Magid

We hear a lot about online harassment and cyberbullying and, indeed, it is a serious problem for both kids and adults.

It’s hard to know just how many people have been affected by various forms of online harassment and hate, but there are some statistics worth considering. The Cyberbullying Research Center says that about 25 percent of middle and high school students have reported being cyberbullied at some point in their lives, with about 9 percent saying they had been cyberbullied within the 30 days preceding the survey.

As for adults, the Pew Research Center reported in 2014 that 40 percent of adult Internet users said they had personally experienced online harassment while 73 percent witnessed it occurring to others. Common forms of harassment include being called offensive names and being deliberately embarrassed by someone as well as physical threats and sexual harassment.

Young adults, and especially young women, have it worse. A whopping 65 percent of Internet users between the ages of 18 and 29 were the target of abuse. Among young adult women, 26 percent of those who were harassed online were stalked while 25 percent were the target of online sexual harassment.


Click above for Larry’s one-minute CBS News segment on this subject

Some harassment victims are fighting back. Video game developer Zoë Quinn has been a victim of massive online harassment stemming from accusations from an ex-partner, which resulted in a barrage of attacks from other people. The harassment campaign eventually got its own hashtag: “Gamergate,” which caused many to confront the issues of sexism and harassment in the gaming community.

To raise awareness and to help other online abuse victims, Quinn co-founded Crash Override Network, which “works preventively and reactively, warning targets and working with them during episodes of harassment.” The support network Quinn and cofounder Alex Lifschitz assembled includes harassment survivors along with experts in information security, white hat hacking, law enforcement and counseling.

Anita Sarkeesian also knows a lot about online harassment. In 2014 Sarkeesian received death and rape threats after producing a series of YouTube videos that publicly challenged the way women are too often portrayed in video games.

It got so bad that she felt compelled to cancel an appearance at Utah State University after campus officials received an email threat that a mass shooting would occur at the event, saying it “would be the deadliest school shooting in American history.”

Sarkeesian continues to produce these videos and to speak out against harassment and misogyny. She is the founder of the nonprofit Feminist Frequency which, according to its 2015 annual report, is working to help social media and tech companies “design and implement systems to deter harassment and make their platforms more equitable for all users.”

On Safer Internet Day last Tuesday, Sarkeesian’s organization, along with my own nonprofit, ConnectSafely.org and more than 40 other groups were appointed to Twitter’s new Trust and Safety Council to advise the company on ways to combat harassment, promote empathy and “to ensure that people feel safe expressing themselves on Twitter.” Twitter has famously been struggling to find ways to curtail harassment while maintaining its commitment to free speech.

While there is no silver bullet to end or fully prevent online harassment, there are things that can be done by individuals, industry, government, nonprofits and schools to raise awareness, help prevent harassment and provide support for victims.

We can start by examining our own behavior. Obviously avoid being cruel online, but always “think before you post.” Even if you’re not trying to be mean, if you have something critical to say to someone, consider picking up the phone rather than posting it on social media. I would even urge caution about using private email to deal with anything that can evoke negative emotions because it’s very easy to take it out of context. A personal conversation is almost always better.

If you see someone being harassed or bullied online, definitely don’t pile on, but think about ways that you can be supportive to that person. Monica Lewinsky, who was extensively harassed after her much-publicized relationship with President Bill Clinton, just partnered with Vodaphone on a new #BeStrong Emoji keyboard app for iOS that lets users express empathy to others through supportive little graphics, called emojis, that express support for those being bullied or harassed.

Lewinsky’s effort is great, but you don’t need a special app to be supportive. A kind comment can go a long way toward making someone feel better.

And, if you see hate speech, whether it’s directed to a person or a group, one of the strongest antidotes is counter speech. It doesn’t completely solve the problem, but it does help reinforce positive social norms.

There is a lot that companies can do to help create a positive environment.

Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, Snapchat Ask.fm, Yahoo and other online companies have employees dedicated to helping create a safer and more comfortable environment for all their users and all have worked with my group and other organizations and experts to develop blocking and reporting mechanisms and to fine-tune their policies to encourage a more civil environment.

These companies also have a responsibility to allow for free expression of ideas and are sometimes faced with hard decisions when it comes to promoting free speech while trying to prevent hate speech. It requires a lot of thought and consultation and there are often nuances that are not obvious to the public.

Still, finding ways to balance free speech and civility is a conversation that must continue in corporate board rooms, in government forums, in schools and our homes and, especially, in our hearts.