Public humiliation on the social Web

Judging from emails to and posts in the ConnectSafely.org forum, not to mention news about social networking, online public humiliation – harassment, cyberbullying, imposter profiles, etc. is a growing problem for adults as well as tweens and teens (see this week's "Window on cyberbullying").

Social stigma has its place in society, but for its role to remain appropriate and useful, we – society wherever people use the social Web – need to keep the Web version from getting completely out of control. Newsweek gives some examples of these online forms of harassment. What can be done? Well, first, it's not useful to place all the blame on social sites. Newsweek illustrates right at the top how public humiliation of the "starwars kid" long predated social networking. Even the Internet can't be blamed – most Americans have heard of NBC's "To Catch a Predator" on the old medium of TV. Certainly, social-networking sites need to be responsible and responsive to abuse reports, but a pile-on of public blame (mostly in the news media) in a single place only delays problem-solving.

Public shaming is an element of human nature, not technology, and it's going to take a conscious effort on everybody's part – youth, parents, educators, counselors and responsible Internet companies – to help keep this darkside of human nature under control on the Net as well as in the rest of human life.

You may've noticed lawmakers weren't on that list in the last paragraph. Certainly as a part of society they can help too, but laws aren't very effective regulators of noncriminal human behavior, and – as Newsweek reports – "laws on free speech and defamation vary widely between countries [social sites in many cases cover multiple countries]. In the United States, proving libel requires the victim to show that his or her persecutor intended malice, while the British system puts the burden on the defense to show that a statement is not libelous (making it much easier to prosecute)." As well, in US courts so far, the 1996 Communications Decency Act has protected social sites and other Internet services from liability for the speech and behavior of their users.

Just for starters, we all need to be thinking about and discussing – in homes, classrooms, the media – the impact of exploiting the non-face-to-face disinhibition of Internet communication with cruel or destructive communication – how it affects the perpetrator as well as the victim and society, and how good citizenship is just as important online as off. Recent milestone research at the Crimes Against Children Research Center found that aggressive behavior can put the aggressor himself at greater risk (see this commentary). There never was an easy way to stop this base human tendency to seek empowerment through the humiliation of others, and online it's even harder to take harmful behavior back. Let's help our children think about how harmful it is to one's own integrity, as well as to others', to cause and perpetuate their humiliation online.


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